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Why Can't the Syrian Opposition Get Along?

Persistent divisions and a brutal crackdown have prevented Syria's dissidents from presenting a united front against the Assad regime.

The buoyant images of Libya's rebels, who are currently tearing down the last vestiges of Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, have also underscored the challenges facing the fragmented opposition in another Arab country -- Syria. Five months after the start of an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that has left more than 2,200 people dead, dissidents are still struggling to forge a united front that could duplicate the role played by Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC).

The NTC was created just 12 days after the start of the Libyan uprising, quickly organizing resistance to Qaddafi within the country and lobbying for support on the international stage. By contrast, the opponents of Assad's regime have held gatherings in Antalya, Turkey; Brussels; Istanbul; and even Damascus, the Syrian capital, to shape the opposition's leadership and articulate a road map toward a democratic Syria. But as of yet, Syrian activists  in the diaspora have failed to establish an umbrella group that has earned the endorsement of the only body that can confer legitimacy -- the protest organizers inside Syria. Although Assad's brutal crackdown has undoubtedly made this a difficult task, the absence of a united front has hindered the opposition's ability to effectively communicate to regime-change skeptics that there is a credible alternative to the Assad government.

The disarray in the anti-Assad camp is recognized all too well in Washington. "I think the [international] pressure requires an organized opposition, and there isn't one," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when asked on Aug. 11 why the United States didn't throw more weight behind the protest movement. "There's no address for the opposition. There is no place that any of us who wish to assist can go."

Given the lack of a recognized leadership, different Syrian groups -- mainly based in the diaspora -- have been jockeying to assert themselves. Most recently, on Aug. 29 young dissidents speaking on behalf of a revolutionary youth group inside Syria named a 94-person council to represent the Syrian opposition. At a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, Syrian dissident Ziyaeddin Dolmus announced that the respected Paris-based academic Burhan Ghalioun would head the so-called Syrian National Council, which would also comprise the crème de la crème of Syria's traditional opposition.

Dolmus said the council would include many of the traditional opposition figures based in Damascus, such as former parliamentarian Riad Seif, activist Suhair Atassi, and economist Aref Dalila. "Delays [in forming a council] return our people to bloodshed," he said at the news conference, which was broadcast by Al Jazeera.

But no sooner had the council been announced than it started to unravel. When contacted by the media, Ghalioun and the others quickly distanced themselves from the announcement, claiming they had no prior knowledge of it, according to reports in the Arabic press. Later, Ghalioun denied any association with the group on his Facebook page. One Washington-based Syrian activist, Mohammad al-Abdallah -- whose father, Ali al-Abdallah was named to the council -- dismissed it as a joke.

Others said it was an attempt by young revolutionaries, upset over the lack of progress, to put forward a wish list of opposition members. U.S.-based Syrian activist Yaser Tabbara, who had helped organize a gathering of anti-government Syrians a week before in Istanbul, called it "an earnest attempt by youth to reach out and demand that we move faster than we have been."

According to Tabbara, the Istanbul conference that concluded on Aug. 23, was motivated by a similar sense of urgency. "It has been five months since the uprising started, and we don't yet have a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Assad and his cohorts for their massacres," said Tabbara. "Part of the reason is that some in the international community, like India, Brazil, and South Africa, do not see a viable alternative to this regime."

The four-day Istanbul gathering, according to organizers, sought to unite all the efforts of previous opposition efforts under one banner. Few of the groups or individuals from previous opposition gatherings attended the meeting, however. Members representing a consultative committee that emerged from a June opposition gathering in Antalya withdrew at the last minute, claiming, according to Reuters, that it "did not build on earlier efforts to unite the opposition."

The conference was further handicapped by what Syrian journalist Tammam al-Barazi called "the perception that it was held under an American umbrella." Its organizers included members of a grassroots community group based in Illinois, the Syrian American Council.

Although dismaying, the opposition's divisions and sniping are hardly surprising. Most activists grew up under the Assad family's authoritarian rule, and their differences reflect the many divisions inside Syrian society, which is split by sect and ethnicity as well as ideology. The opposition includes Arab nationalists and liberals with little trust for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose supporters were accused of dominating the first Istanbul conference organized in July by a leading human rights lawyer, Haitham al-Maleh.

The many Kurdish parties that have participated have also been unhappy with some dissidents' attempts to define a future Syria as "Arab." Most are also highly suspicious of the West and any support it might offer.

The other challenge has been linking the diaspora opposition, which has been leading lobbying efforts abroad, with the political activists inside Syria. Although the diaspora has contacts among the traditional Syrian opposition based in Damascus, such as writers Michel Kilo and Louay Hussein, it has struggled to familiarize itself with the young activists who have led the protest movement. These protesters, who have organized themselves into local coordination committees, have largely remained anonymous to avoid arrest.

Signs are growing that some of the protest leaders are unhappy with the recent flurry of gatherings abroad. According to Washington-based dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, a group calling itself the "Syrian Revolution General Commission," which he says represents up to 70 percent of the local coordination committees, reacted to the Istanbul meeting. In an Aug. 21 Facebook message, it supported efforts by the opposition to coordinate activities meant to support the revolution, but advised against forming any kind of representative body to speak on behalf of the revolution.

The reasons for the Syrian opposition's inability to organize an umbrella group may be understandable, but the costs of failing to do so remain real. It will take a unified effort to communicate the opposition's vision for their country's future and convince those Syrians still sitting on the fence that a viable alternative to Assad's rule exists. The opposition must also coordinate its message to encourage defections among the main supporters of the regime -- informing them that their rights will be guaranteed under a democratic Syria, but that they will eventually face justice if they continue to support the government's crackdown.

A united opposition is also urgently needed to challenge the growing call for armed resistance by some protesters in cities like Homs, where the Syrian government's crackdown has been especially harsh. Some protest leaders have suggested that the Assad regime's crackdown can only be effectively opposed at this point through force, while other protesters have held banners calling for a no-fly zone.

Just across Syria's border in Antakya, Turkey, two groups of renegade Syrian army officers -- the Free Officers of Syria and the Free Syrian Army (sometimes known as the Free Officers Movement) -- are arming, according to Abdulhamid. A YouTube video uploaded on Aug. 18 shows an announcement by the Free Officers Movement declaring itself to be an armed group committed to protecting "the peaceful revolution and protesters." Just last week, the Free Officers of Syria published a statement claiming that the defections of a significant number of soldiers were reported in a Damascus suburb.

The dissidents gathering in the many meetings outside Syria say they remain committed to a peaceful revolution free of outside intervention. The local coordination committees in Syria also released a statement condemning the use of force as "unacceptable politically, nationally, and ethically."

But clearly, the many Syrians who have not yet abandoned support for Assad's regime fear what will follow its collapse. If they are to be convinced otherwise, they will need to see the establishment of a broad-based opposition leadership whose public face is comprises respected dissidents living in exile, like Ghalioun, who reject armed struggle to achieve their aims.

Such a unified coalition has the opportunity to help Syria make a peaceful transition to a democratic, pluralistic form of government. Until that happens, a storybook ending to Syria's uprising remains little more than a distant hope.

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

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