The Syrian National Council, an umbrella group seeking to be the opposition’s sole representative, worked hard this week to unite disparate factions calling for regime change in Damascus and achieved mixed results. Perhaps the SNC’s biggest loss was the refusal of a Kurdish coalition to sign on to its united vision for a post-Assad Syria, a development that could embarrass it during Sunday’s Friends of Syria conference in Istanbul.
So far Libya is the only country to have given the SNC the exclusive status of sole representative, though many other countries (including the US and the EU, though not every state in the block on an individual level) recognize it as a legitimate interlocutor with which to deal. The SNC has for months been strongly urging world powers to arm rebels and even intervene to help them, which not every opposition group supports.
Beginning March 25, the SNC began meeting with opposition groups not allied with it in Istanbul. These meetings aimed at uniting the opposition before the second Friends of Syria conference starts Sunday.
Talks on Tuesday were troubled at first. Representatives of the Kurdish National Council, a grouping of 11 Syrian Kurdish parties, walked out. So did Haithem Maleh and his allies – who quit the SNC’s executive committee in late February – as well as Ammar Qurabi, a prominent human rights activist and head of the National Conference for Change, which recently announced it formed a coalition of five opposition parties outside the auspices of the SNC.
The SNC was able to coax Maleh and members of the National Patriotic Front into signing its draft of what a “democratic” Syria that respects “non-discrimination between any of the components of the Syrian society, religious, sectarian and national, among Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen and others” will look like. This change of heart reportedly came after the SNC agreed to hold talks on restructuring itself on Wednesday.
However, cooperation may be short lived.
Kamal Labwani, an SNC defector and member of the National Patriotic Front, told Reuters, “I have had to make deals here today with people I am morally opposed to dealing with.”
It is unclear if Qurabi signed (he could not be reached, and an SNC spokesperson did not respond to an interview request), but AFP reported that only the Kurdish National Council refused.
Qurabi and Maleh have previously criticized the SNC as being too dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
While some level of unity was achieved in Turkey, at least two Syria-based opposition groups boycotted the meetings because the SNC did not invite them directly. Spokespeople from both the Democratic Forum and the National Coordination Body told NOW Lebanon.
Both said that non-Syrians, not the SNC, sent them invites.
Rasha al-Qyss – from the Democratic Forum, which includes prominent dissident Michel Kilo – critiqued the SNC and its efforts to garner international action against Assad.
“I don’t really care about the issue of the international community at all,” she said. “The opposition should unite on actions [inside Syria] specifically, and how they can help and support these actions from the inside more. This is much more important than having high hopes about any conference at the moment, or any international conference that takes place and is related to Syria.”
Khalaf Dahoud – member of the National Coordination Body’s executive committee and co-founder of the International Support Kurds in Syria Association – was far harsher in trashing the SNC, which he derided as merely power hungry. He accused the group of failing to reach out to minorities in Syria such as Alawites, Christians, Kurds and Turkmen, among others.
The National Coordination Body is vehemently opposed to the violent turn the uprising – which began with months of peaceful demonstrations over a year ago – has taken and argues for a negotiated solution to remove Assad from power.
“Whoever comes to power by arms will only be removed by arms,” he said.
When asked why he didn’t attend this week’s meetings to try adding the National Coordination Body’s voice to the discussion, Dahoud scoffed.
“If we go, they’d welcome us as a gift with no voice,” he said. “We should have an opposition conference under the Arab League umbrella.”
Asked about the significance of the National Coordinating Body’s boycott, Basel Hafar, head of the Istanbul office of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, dismissed the group as insignificant because of their stance in favor of negotiations to oust the regime.
“The streets today no longer accept the concept of dialogue with the Syrian regime,” he said.
With the largest Kurdish coalition and groups in Syria refusing to join hands with the SNC, it may find convincing the international community it is the opposition’s sole representative challenging.
Speaking in Estonia on March 27, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “[W]ith respect to the opposition, they must come forward with a unified position, a vision if you will, of the kind of Syria that they are working to build. They must be able to clearly demonstrate a commitment to including all Syrians and protecting the rights of all Syrians. And we are going to be pushing them very hard to present such a vision at Istanbul. So we have a lot of work to do between now and Sunday.”
Luna Safwan contributed reporting to this article