Syrian opposition struggles to unite

BEIRUT - October 28, 2011 Seven months on, the opposition is struggling to overcome infighting and inexperience, preventing the movement from gaining the traction it needs to present a credible alternative to President Bashar Assad.

Time is not on their side - the U.N. estimates that the military assault on protesters has killed some 3,000 since the uprising began in March and Assad's regime shows no sign of giving in to demands that he step down.

The divisions are tied to issues at the heart of the revolution: Whether to request foreign military assistance and accept dialogue with the regime and what ideology should guide a post-Assad Syria.

"There is fairly little experience in a movement whose members have been denied politics as a process for half a century," Murhaf Jouejati, a Syria expert at George Washington University in the United States told The Associated Press.

Unlike Libya's National Transitional Council, which brought together most factions fighting Gadhafi's regime and was quickly recognized by much of the international community, Syria's opposition has no leadership on the ground.

Regime opponents in Syria are a diverse group, representing the country's ideological, sectarian and generational divide. They include dissidents who spent years in prison, tech-savvy activists in their 20s, former Marxists, Islamists and Paris-based intellectuals.

Communication between those abroad and those in the country is extremely difficult. Political activists in Syria are routinely rounded up and imprisoned. Many have gone into hiding, communicating only through Skype using fake names, and the country is largely sealed off to exiled dissidents and foreign journalists.

After months of negotiations, the majority of opposition groups from inside and outside the country came together in a broad-based, 230-seat Syrian National Council announced in Istanbul in September to forge a united front against Assad and a rallying point for Syrians and the international community.

The council's leadership - currently headed by Burhan Ghalioun, a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris - will rotate every three months, reflecting the absence of a single popular leader who stands out among the country's disparate groups.

The council's formation is a remarkable achievement given Syria's complex sectarian and ethnic makeup.

But the group has yet to gain the recognition of any countries other than Libya and faces criticism from opposition groups that declined to join, accusing it of trying to monopolize the movement.

Haitham al-Maleh, an 80-year-old lawyer who was imprisoned for years for his political activism, also accused the SNC of sidelining major figures and said the group never consulted him.

"We have a 50-year history of struggle against this regime, while nobody had heard of these people before," he said of the SNC leaders.

Bassma Kodmani, another Paris-based academic and a spokeswoman for the council, rejected the accusations and said the SNC was open for all Syrians. "We did not exclude anybody," she said, insisting the council represented the majority of Syrian society.

An attempt in July to hold a dual meeting in Damascus and Istanbul was canceled when security forces besieged the conference location in Damascus a day before it was scheduled to begin and shot dead 14 protesters in the area.

Foreign leaders have welcomed the formation of the SNC, but say the opposition needs more work to become an effective political force.

"The opposition must still improve its organizational and outreach efforts," said U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who returned to Washington this week over security concerns.

He said developing consensus around a specific political and economic plan would help persuade Sunni business elite

"There is a huge need for the council to explain what exactly they will bring to Syria," Ford said during an address this month to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

A key sticking point is whether to ask for foreign intervention like the NATO airstrikes that helped oust former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

The SNC's founding statement rejects foreign intervention, but its members are calling for "international protection for civilians," an ambiguous statement that leaves the door open for interpretation. The NATO action in Libya was carried out under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians but ultimately proved key to the rebel victory that led to Gadhafi's death.

Haytham Manna, a Paris-based dissident who heads the external branch of a smaller rival group called the National Committee for Democratic Change, objects to any possibility of military intervention.

"The Libyan experience is a painful one," he said. "There has been so much destruction and I don't wish for my country anything like that."

Manna, whose brother was killed by Syrian security forces in the southern town of Daraa during a funeral in August, says the SNC had no right to say they represented Syria.

"Having one representative is dangerous and reminds us of the one-party rule which we have been fighting for decades," he said. Another key point of contention is whether to negotiate with the regime. Some dissidents point to dialogue as one of the only ways out, but others reject the idea as long as the government keeps up its deadly military assault on protesters.

Al-Maleh, who fled Syria in July after receiving threats of violence and arrests, emphasized the most important thing was that everyone shared the same goal - the end of the Assad family's 40-year ruling dynasty in Syria.

"The lid has been opened," al-Maleh said. "People have come out and every one is trying to find their way."

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