US-backed efforts to create a ruling council for the Syrian opposition hit fierce resistance on Thursday, highlighting the obstacles to uniting the uprising against Bashar al-Assad as the country slides deeper into civil war.
The plan came under fire from both established regime opponents who could lose status under it and grassroots activists, with many fearing it will prove impossible to bring together the increasingly autonomous armed groups fighting on the ground.
Washington wants a gathering of regime opponents in Qatar next week to hammer out the new body after the failure of the largest existing umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, to attract broad support from the country’s political and sectarian interest groups.
Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, said on Wednesday that the SNC should no longer be considered the “visible leader” of the opposition, and called for greater inclusion of those “on the front lines fighting and dying”.
The working idea for the Qatar meeting is a proposal first put forward some weeks ago by respected dissident Riad Seif, to create a council of about 50 people representing different groups in the opposition that would later produce a transitional government of technocrats.
Former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected from the regime in August, is said to be one of the names proposed for the council, which is also supposed to include representatives from local revolutionary councils in Syria and the SNC itself, though its share of the seats has yet to be determined.
Some voices within the SNC have already spoken out against the initiative, and Salman Shaikh, director of the Doha Brookings Center think-tank, warned that the Qatar meeting could become an “unholy scrap”. “There’s a lot of factions in the SNC who are not willing to let go,” Mr Shaikh said.
Radwan Ziadeh, a senior SNC member, cautioned that the proposed initiative would struggle to gain legitimacy.
“Even if Clinton wants to back it, it won’t work if it has no inside support,” said Mr Ziadeh, who has been working on a rival initiative involving an elected body to represent the opposition. “After a year and a half you can’t appoint people, the initiative has to come from the bottom up, the people inside Syria have to feel they are part of initiative.”
Amr al Azm, a US-based dissident well-connected in opposition circles, also questioned whether the proposed council could be effective without official representation of the armed groups on the ground.
The council’s proponents “don’t want an overt military presence because it makes it harder for international community to deal with it,” he said. “[But] these guys are running the show.”
Lack of sway over the military factions on the ground would be particularly problematic for the body if it is intended to negotiate truces and ceasefires.
“[The Seif plan] would be good for foreign diplomats, but it wouldn’t be good for Syria,” said Dubai-based dissident Samir al Taqi. “It won’t be capable of implementation.”
Nonetheless, Mr Seif’s initiative has some advantages over previous attempts to create a workable opposition body, which is seen as an increasingly urgent task as the security situation on the ground deteriorates at an alarming rate.
Mr Seif is one of the more credible figures in the opposition, and his proposal has found support in Washington, perhaps because it came at a time when the US was looking for ways to increase its engagement with the Syrian opposition amid widespread dissatisfaction with the SNC.
Even Qatar itself, a staunch supporter of the SNC, is believed to have accepted the idea that its influence will have to be diluted in a broader-based body.
Molham al Droubi, a Muslim Brotherhood figure in the SNC, said the SNC had not yet reached a collective position on it. “It’s a true statement that the SNC should have been more inclusive,” he said. “We welcome the more effective contribution of the international community and the US for the Syrian cause.”