Syria's opposition put to the test
Uncertainties within the Syrian opposition are frustrating efforts to unite to bring down the Al-Assad regime, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
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Anti-Syrian regime mourners carry the coffins of two protesters who were killed by the Syrian security forces during a demonstration at Mazzeh district in Damascus, on Saturday
Although nearly a year has passed since the start of the popular uprising against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, with protesters sacrificing themselves in the thousands in attempts to bring down the regime, the country's opposition has thus far been unable to come up with a roadmap for Syria after Al-Assad or to present itself as a viable alternative to the incumbent regime.
Continued divisions within the opposition have given the Syrian regime room to manoeuvre, obstructed Arab and international efforts to put pressure on the regime, and even extended the duration of the Syrian crisis. They may have become a threat to the success of the Syrian uprising, even facilitating efforts to undermine it, possibly through military action.
Over recent weeks, Arab and Western states have said that they are unwilling to support one faction within the Syrian opposition over another and will not recognise any individual bloc as being an alternative to the al-Assad regime.
They have called on the Syrian opposition to unite in order to guarantee the success of the uprising, emphasising that a united opposition will be the beginning of the end for the Syrian regime and sending a powerful message to the opposition's two main blocs.
Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called on the Syrian opposition to unite in order to help the international community take steps to put pressure on the Al-Assad regime. Lack of unity in the opposition's ranks was "an obstacle to resolving the crisis", Sarkozy said, adding that Syria's future could not be decided abroad, "but must be steered from inside the country, as in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya".
The uprising "could fail if there is no credible alternative [to the regime]," Sarkozy said.
According to Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafiq Abdel-Salam, steps are being taken to support dialogue among the Syrian opposition factions in order for them to agree on the path ahead.
"If this is achieved and a level of national consensus is reached, there will be no objection to recognising the Syrian National Council" as the legitimate alternative to the Al-Assad regime, Abdel-Salam said.
Two main blocs were formed within the Syrian opposition some six months ago.
The first, the Coordination Committee of Forces for Democratic Change in Syria (CCFDCS), which brings together 14 Arab and Kurdish political groups, was formed inside Syria in September 2011.
The second, the Syrian National Council (SNC), was established outside Syria in October 2011, and includes the Muslim Brotherhood, independent Islamist movements, and the Damascus Declaration bloc that includes five Arab and Kurdish groups.
Each of the two main blocs includes prominent independent opposition figures and has its own roadmap. Each side claims to be the larger and more effective opposition bloc and the more representative of the Syrian people.
The CCFDCS's founding statement announced a policy of "three nos" -- no to violence, no to sectarianism, and no to foreign military intervention -- and demanded the overthrow of the "authoritarian security regime" by peaceful means.
The SNC's founding declaration emphasised the need for international protection of civilians in Syria and announced that it was the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition.
It called for the ousting of the Al-Assad regime by all means necessary and described the CCFDCS position as not strong enough and implying that the regime could remain in power.
In response, the CCFDCS said that the SNC's demand for the international protection of civilians could open the door to foreign military intervention in Syria.
However, despite these differences the two opposition blocs share more or less the same goals, both demanding the overthrow of the Syrian regime, the country's transition to democracy, and the establishment of the rule of law in Syria.
The difference lies in the kind of foreign assistance necessary to achieve these goals, with the CCFDCS rejecting foreign military intervention, but not viewing Arab intervention as foreign, and the SNC accepting any foreign intervention if this helps to overthrow the regime.
Under pressure from protesters and the Arab states, the opposition blocs have been holding talks aimed at uniting their ranks, and an agreement on New Year's Eve last year united their outlooks. The two sides are due to agree to a conference soon on the future of Syria to be held under the aegis of the Arab League.
However, there have been indications of splits within the opposition blocs themselves, with some leading figures in the SNC saying that the current chair of the bloc does not have the authority to take such steps, since they have not been approved by the bloc as a whole.
The controversy has created unease about the ability of SNC leaders to keep to their side of the bargain with the CCFDCS.
The New Year's agreement stated that Syrian opposition groups should come together to decide on joint policies regarding the country's transitional phase following the overthrow of the Al-Assad regime.
It rejected foreign military intervention but did not view Arab intervention as foreign, called for civilians in Syria to be protected under international law, and stipulated that the transition in Syria should begin as soon as the present regime is removed from power.
This transitional phase would end by the ratification of a new constitution for the country that would guarantee a pluralist parliamentary system with rotation of power within one year of the regime being ousted, the agreement said.
Over the past six months, the SNC has emerged as the Syrian's opposition's stronger voice because its members, being outside Syria, can speak to the international media.
However, the SNC has yet to make its presence felt through activism on the ground. Over recent months, it has tried to gain Arab and international recognition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition, but has largely failed to do so, with only the Libyan Transitional Council thus far recognising it in these terms.
Observers believe that the SNC is also plagued with internal divisions, seen last week when chairman Borhan Ghalioun's tenure was extended for another three months even though SNC rules say that the position can only be held for a single three-month term.
There were objections to Ghalioun's tenure being renewed from SNC members, some criticising the decision to renew his position as a procedural violation that was potentially undemocratic and threatening to resign from the SNC if a new chairman was not elected in a transparent manner.
For its part, the CCFDCS represents the opposition inside the country, and it has had limited media coverage because of fears of sanctions by the regime. The CCFDCS has also had to defend its position of not supporting foreign intervention in Syria to bring down the regime, and it has suffered from limited financial and logistical resources.
Nevertheless, the CCFDCS has not abandoned plans for unity with the SNC, describing this as "a strategic goal" that would "strengthen [the opposition] and bolster the peaceful popular uprising".
Some observers believe that Islamist forces in the SNC, which constitute nearly 50 per cent of its members, are unhappy about possible unification with democratic forces in the CCFDCS since these could jeopardise the influence of the Islamists in any future joint opposition bloc.
The Arab League and Arab and western states have promised material and moral support to the Syrian opposition that could include weapons for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is made up of defectors from the regular Syrian armed forces and is fighting the regime.
However, the inability of the Syrian opposition thus far to close ranks and unite in opposition to the Al-Assad regime has frustrated efforts by countries sympathetic to its aims to stand behind efforts to remove the Syrian regime, fearing that the opposition may fracture and be unable to lead Syria forward.
After some 11 months of protests against the Syrian regime, the country's opposition has been unable to provide a focal point for the demonstrations, critics say, and it has also been unable to set out workable proposals for the country's transition to democracy.
The worry now, such critics add, is that Arab and western countries may support the country's armed opposition, the FSA and the military council, instead of backing the political opposition, paving the way towards the militarisation of the uprising.