Last week, for instance, coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib announced a last-minute boycott of a "Friends of Syria" summit in Rome in protest of the Scud missile attacks on Aleppo, which left scores dead and leveled residential neighborhoods. When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry personally requested the coalition's presence and promised increased American support, Khatib changed his position. But the SNC resolved to uphold the boycott, leaving the coalition leader to attend alone and once again exposing a divided opposition front.
Khatib and the SNC have also sparred over the coalition leader's unilateral initiative --announced on his Facebook page -- to open negotiations with the regime. Some Syrians viewed the initiative as a sign of weakness, while others believed that beginning the dialogue process was the only way to move forward. But behind the scenes, it seems that some of the SNC's public outrage was just a show for the public. As one senior Syrian political activist confided, in explaining opposition to the plan: "Many in the coalition were afraid their cards would burn if they had openly backed Moaz al-Khatib's dialogue initiative."
Responses like these show that Syria's emerging political personalities are still riding their 15 minutes of media fame. They jet from conference to conference, proudly announcing this statement or that boycott as major accomplishments. Rather than working together, they snipe at each other on Arabic satellite news channels and social media. These ugly debates further disconnect the opposition from the very people they claim to represent.
Some Syrians are beginning to lose patience with this charade, and have begun harshly questioning the incompetence of their supposed leaders. Former U.N. official Samir Shishakli has sharply criticized both Khatib's habit of bypassing the coalition and the undermining tactics of his rivals. On Feb. 4, he posted a scathing critique of the state of the political opposition on his popular blog: "I can't imagine this new low that the opposition has sunk to, functioning without considering the revolution, despite their claim that the revolution is the only source of legitimacy," he wrote.
To be fair, Syria's anti-Assad forces face a conundrum. The overwhelming likelihood is that, in the short-term, the political opposition in exile will remain in exile. Asking it to establish its headquarters inside Syria while Assad's Scud missiles continue to target the north is a request to sign a mass suicide note.
And so we reach the Arab Spring cliché once again: Syria is not Libya. Without a protected zone inside Syria, it will be impossible to forge a united political and military opposition. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, various opposition coalition members periodically enter northern Syria under rebel protection -- Khatib himself made a surprise visit to the town of Minbej in early March. The coalition has also taken a larger role in distributing humanitarian aid, assisting local civil councils and monitoring elections for local governments.