Efforts by the U.S. and the Arab League to work with a unified Syrian opposition have been stymied, mostly because of 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 last 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, a 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, which 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. It 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, a 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 United Nations. Most anti-Assad demonstrators 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.
“The SNC wants the devil to come and protect them against this regime,” said Khaldoon Alaswad, a member of the NCB’s executive committee.
He said the agreement that was reported last week is final and not tentative as claimed by the Syrian National Council.
The Syrian National Council and the NCB each claim to have the support of the majority of Syrians.
Unlike the Syrian National Council’s leadership, most NCB leaders are based in Syria. SNC officials cite this fact to accuse the NCB of being infiltrated by Assad loyalists who are soft on his regime.
“A lot of the [NCB] leaders live inside Syria, so they are influenced very much by the discourse of the regime, and to the regime the most important thing is a rejection of foreign intervention,” said Najib Ghadbian, a member of the Syrian National Council. “The regime is comfortable with the kind of language they are pushing.”
The rift has left the opposition in disarray.
“As we see the regime imploding, so also is the opposition imploding,” said Hamdi Rifai, chairman of the Council of United Syrian Americans.
A State Department official said it is important for the groups to work together.
“We continue to support the unity of the Syrian people and encourage the opposition to continue to work towards articulating clear and compelling messages that illustrate they have consensus on viable alternatives to the regime’s brutal rule,” said Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman.
“It is important to note that these groups have held discussions and this in itself is an important step,” he added.
But Syrian National Council and NCB officials accuse each other of being insincere in the effort to find common ground.
“During the talks, it became obvious that they weren’t interested in a deal. It was torturous to hear them talk about Arab nationalism and reject any kind of foreign intervention,” said Mr. Ghadbian. “We believe they wanted to gain legitimacy through their dialogue with the SNC.”
SNC officials say they agreed to engage the NCB only because the Arab League sought a unified opposition.
Dr. Alaswad said the SNC was not serious about the negotiations. While the NCB elected three members to attend the talks, the Syrian National Council sent a different delegation every week, he said.
SNC officials say the controversy has served as a wake-up call to have a more democratic and transparent decision-making process within their organization.
Syrian opposition groups are expected to meet this month in either Egypt or Tunisia, but it is unclear whether the Syrian National Council and the NCB will find common ground by then.
“The threshold that we are being asked to meet is unfair. Nobody asks oppositions in other countries to be one party,” Dr. Netto said.
Officials in both groups are skeptical about reaching an agreement anytime soon.
“The attempt to engage the NCB has not been abandoned, but this latest episode leaves something of a bitter taste in the mouth,” Mr. Jouejati said.
The NCB’s Dr. Alaswad, in a thinly veiled swipe at the Syrian National Council, said: “It would be nice if we could present a unified front to the world, but I think the final thing which will determine the outcome of this revolution is the people inside Syria, not those outside.”