Efforts by the U.S. and the Arab League to work with a unified Syrian opposition have been stymied, mostly due to two opposition groups’ disagreement on foreign military action to oust President Bashar Assad.
A weeks-long effort to build a coalition between Syria’s two main opposition groups — the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB) — collapsed this week after it was reported that the groups had agreed to reject foreign intervention.
News of the deal caused an uproar in the Syrian National Council’s ranks, and the leadership quickly accused the NCB of passing off as a final agreement what they had considered talking points for an Arab League-sponsored opposition conference later this month.
A fractured opposition complicates international engagement and casts doubt about a post-Assad government.
The Syrian National Council supports international intervention, and in a meeting on Tuesday, its executive committee officially rejected the purported agreement with the NCB.
“We didn’t want to be on record saying we are against foreign intervention. We are for foreign intervention, but we don’t want to exchange a bad regime for an occupier,” said George Jabboure Netto, an Syrian National Council member.
It would be up to the U.N. Security Council to decide what intervention, including airstrikes, is required, he said. “We are not going to dictate how they should go about this.”
However, Russia and China, who hold veto power in the Security Council, oppose military action and sanctions against Syria.
The Syrian National Council, an umbrella of several opposition groups, wants international action to safeguard civilians, and has called for “safe zones” or “no-fly zones” but no boots on the ground.
“There must be international intervention, not necessarily a NATO operation, but the creation of safe zones and safe routes that would protect civilians,” said Murhaf Jouejati, an Syrian National Council member. “The regime is continuing to use lethal force against civilians, despite international condemnation, so this action is necessary.”
Syrian forces have killed more than 5,000 people since the start of the uprising in March, according to the U.N. Most anti-Assad protesters have been unarmed.
The Syrian National Council wants to oust the Assad regime and its security forces, but keep government institutions intact.
The NCB opposes foreign intervention, claiming it would result in an “occupation” of Syria similar to the prolonged U.S. military presence in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The last U.S. troops left Iraq last month.
NCB officials accuse the Syrian National Council (SNC) of betraying Syrians by supporting military action that would result in widespread bloodshed. Imposing a no-fly zone would require neutralizing the regime’s vast air defenses, which would lead to heavy civilian casualties, NCB officials say.