Syrian government forces are killing demonstrators at the rate of 50 to as many as a 150 a day, but Syrian opposition leaders in exile and in Syria still cannot unite around the common goal of how to topple a brutal dictator.
At this week’s meeting of Syrian opposition leaders in Cairo, Egypt, the groups meant to come to an agreement on how to achieve a political transition to a government without President Bashar al-Assad at the helm. Instead they came to blows after heated arguments turned into scuffles in the five-star suburban where they convened.
They disagreed on almost everything, such as how to get rid of Assad.
Khalaf Dahowd, president of the National Coordination Body’s Congress in Exile, said he is against violence. He said he believes in peaceful protest and political and diplomatic pressure: “Arms have to stop, the voice of political solution will rise up. The voice of the guns will be stopped.”
Dahowd opposed an armed revolt and international military intervention.
“If any military attack happens, it will destroy the social contract and the state, not the regime,” he said. “It will destroy the social infrastructure and peace within society.”
He argued that militarizing the revolution has given Assad “an excuse to enforce real power with atrocities.”
“The regime can succeed in the field of war. It knows how to use force. We say that in politics, they will lose,” he contended.
Dahowd was not alone.
“(Special UN Envoy) Kofi Annan’s six-point plan and Geneva transition plan must be supported internationally by the United Nations Security Council to stop the killing,” said Sinam Mohamed, female president of the People’s Council for Kurds in West Kurdistan. “If we support the revolution with weapons, it will lead to civil war between the Alawis and Sunnis. It is already starting in and around Homs.”
Mohamed also called for equal rights for Kurds who are not recognized as a separate ethnic group with a distinct language.
“If we support weapons, we will have a war; Syria as a country will be finished,” she said. “We don’t want to have what happened in Libya. War always ends in dialogue.”
Why not have dialogue now, Mohamed contended.
Others held just as fervently to armed rebellion.
George Sabra, Syrian National Council spokesman, attends a Syrian opposition meeting in Cairo, Egypt, to discuss political transition in Syria.
“I am sure Al Assad will leave by demonstrations in the streets and the Free Syrian Army (FSA),” said George Sabra, spokesman for the most widely recognized opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC). The FSA is made of defected Syrian soldiers and civilians who are fighting the regime with arms captured from raids and attacks or supplied from other countries in the region. He said he is optimistic about the FSA’s progress and claims they now control 60 percent of the country.
“They are making battle in the capital. It is a war between the Free Syrian Army and the government,” Sabra said.
“The difference between the SNC and other opposition groups is that we strongly support the FSA and are looking to supply them with weapons and other kinds of support. It’s a real war,” said Sabra, who spent eight years in prison and was tortured along with his son.
Mustafa Zakwan, director of the “I Love My Country Group,” said force is the only option:
“The issue facing the opposition is clear. Syrian support is fragmented. Each region has a different opinion of how to move forward. This meeting is a useless waste of time. How do they expect that they could possibly come up with a solution in two hours when everyone disagrees. The only thing that anyone can agree on is opposition to Kofi Annan’s entirely ineffective plan. Assad will not work with Annan, it is totally unrealistic. There cannot be a solution that comes from the outside. It must come from Syria, from our country. Syrians have to rely on force. It is the only way. The international community is afraid of Syrian rebels but they do not respect them. They are not engaged with them the way they need to be, with the real people on the ground.”
Activist Bashar Kattab has lived outside of Syria for the past 20 years and supported removing Assad by force.
“Hope for a peaceful solution is lost,” Kattab said. “As long as Al Assad doesn’t believe in peace, neither can the protesters.”
Opposition groups are vehemently at odds about whether they should unite at all. Many find it undemocratic that one voice would represent so many diverse interest groups. The Syrian National Congress purports to represent the opposition and is largely regarded as such by the international community and the media despite objections by other activists.
“The SNC … wants to dominate power,” Dahowd said. “They are not democratic. We can’t go forward with that policy. The SNC is based on the Libyan model. It won’t apply to Syria because there are 26 different groups in Syria.”
Dahowd and many others said the SNC is dominated by fundamentalist Sunni ideology and will seek to impose its will on other social groups. Syria, with its large Shiite, Kurdish and Christian minorities, is a much more complex society than mainly Sunni Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. They were able to unite across the fault lines of religion, ideology, tribe, party and gender to unseat their respective dictators. It was only afterward, on the long and messy path to democracy, that discord emerged between factions seeking their own interests rather than the greater national good.
In Syria, the fault lines continue to impede a solution that can be embraced by all parties. After two days of rancorous talks, the final statement reflected a fractured opposition; it simply called for a halt to violence, the fall of Assad’s regime, support of the Free Syrian Army and the protection of civilians.
Participants disagreed about who would represent the opposition and the need for foreign military intervention.
The most powerful opposition group, the Free Syrian Army, boycotted the meeting altogether, saying in a statement “We refuse all kinds of dialogue and negotiations with the killer gangs…,” essentially undermining the meaning of any consensus.