Shane Farrell

Why does the Syrian opposition remain fractured?

Click here for a list of Syrian opposition parties.

Presumably in a bid to counter accusations that the group is out of touch with developments on the ground, the leading Syrian opposition body, the Syrian National Council (SNC) announced on Tuesday it would be sending some of its prominent members back to Syria in a bid to better reconnect with rebels on the ground.

This followed the announcement Monday evening by the SNC and the National Coordination Committee (NCC), the second-most widely recognized opposition body, that they were postponing talks aimed at finding common ground between different groups revolting against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. It is the latest in a series of setbacks for the opposition and does little to counter criticism that it remains disjointed.

The planned talks, organized by Arab League members and set to take place in Cairo on Wednesday and Thursday, were criticized by several SNC members who felt their group was not being taken seriously enough and that it was being forced to negotiate with the Assad regime. Prominent SNC member Radwan Ziadeh told Al Jazeera that Council members were surprised that “the invitations were sent to some of our members as individuals, not to the council as an organization.” Only eight members of the SNC received invitations to attend the conference, he said.

This is not the first time attempts to unite the fractured opposition have failed. Prior to this week, the most recent came ahead of the April 1 Friends of Syria conference, with several groups, including the NCC, boycotting the meeting, which was organized by the SNC. Speaking to Bloomberg at the time, a member of one of the boycotting bodies said that at least five factions postponed participation until the SNC alters its Executive Committee.

These charges were also leveled by SNC members themselves. “[M]any members complained about the lack of transparency in the Executive Committee’s work following a gradual restructuring that gave significantly more power to [SNC leader Burhan] Ghalioun and a small group of his allies within the council,” according to a recent report by the Institute for the Study of War on the Syrian opposition.

Since April, moves have been made to restructure the SNC and address these criticisms. The body is currently undergoing reform talks, although following Tuesday’s reelection of Burhan Ghalioun as president, its top position remains unchanged.

In addition, the SNC has been criticized for lacking grass-roots support, not adequately representing the ethnic and religious makeup of the country, and for being Muslim Brotherhood-dominated.
But despite continual criticism leveled at the body, many analysts agree the SNC remains by far the most significant political opposition group. As Michael Weiss, Communications Director at the Henry Jackson Society, told NOW Lebanon, “There are plenty of people disaffected by the SNC, but it doesn’t mean that they will pose a viable threat to the SNC’s virtual monopoly on the opposition.”

Internationally, the SNC has not yet achieved its goal of being recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and the US and other countries that support the anti-Assad movement have criticized the Syrian opposition as a whole for not presenting a unified front, claiming that this is hampering international support. SNC members, including Radwan Ziadeh, who spoke to NOW Lebanon by phone, say that this is merely a convenient stalling tactic by nations that are hesitant to get more involved in the deepening crisis.
But if and when the SNC and the NCC sit down to talk, there has been no indication that the two groups will bridge the issue that divides them the most: dialogue with the Syrian regime, which the NCC favors and the SNC rejects entirely.

Moreover, many have questioned the advantage of such a move for the SNC. For instance, questions have been raised as to the nature of the relationship between the NCC and the Syrian government, which is widely tolerant of the NCC’s operations inside the country. Furthermore, political analysts who spoke to NOW Lebanon, including Weiss and the Washington Institute’s Andrew Tabler, say that the NCC has been widely discredited and has little or no legitimacy on the ground.

Tabler and Weiss believe that the SNC should try to gain the support of grass-roots political groups that have formed in many cities throughout Syria, organize protests and coordinate with the armed opposition. With the backing of these groups, known as Revolutionary Councils, the SNC would be able to turn around the charges that it is out of touch with developments within Syria and does not have enough support inside the country for it to be called the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Moreover, with greater cohesion between the SNC and grass-root bodies, claims by UN Security Council members that the Syrian opposition is not united would gain less traction, thereby placing more pressure on those nations to heed to the demands of the opposition.

Luna Safwan contributed reporting to this article

  • chris

    hep you forget the christians in the snc did you do it on purpose or do you believe like hassan nasrallah that the christians were brought in as invaders to be a thorn on the side of muslims

    May 21, 2012

  • Hep

    Burhan Ghalioun is a lackey of the West, financed by the Gulf countries. He will not be allowed to leave the leadership of SNC. Most of the SNC members are Muslim Brotherhood with some Kurds. They will not unite.

    May 18, 2012