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Cobbling together a Syrian opposition

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Uprisings are a messy business, but Syria’s has been messier than most.

As the bloodshed covers ever more of the country and the hold of President Bashar Assad’s regime weakens, the opposition seems only to grow more fractious. Syrian politicians in exile remain disconnected from local activists inside. While rebels of a moderate, secular bent warily eye Salafist fighters, emerging civilian and military leaders tussle over who should administer liberated towns and villages.

With Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations’ peace envoy, pleading that Syria risks becoming a "new Somalia" unless there are negotiations, outside powers are having another go at unifying Assad’s opponents.

In Doha, Qatar’s capital, a gathering of them is being prodded into backing a plan proposed by Riad Seif, a prominent ex-member of the Syrian parliament and a veteran opponent of the Assad regime who is, unusually, respected both inside and outside Syria.

The Syrian National Initiative is his blueprint for a new, 50-person body to include more young leaders on the ground and to act as a sort of proto-government, planning for a political transition and serving as the sole channel for funding local civilian councils. It would also set up a body to coordinate with military groups.

Unsurprisingly this has disgruntled the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group that has hitherto posed as the opposition’s main representative but which would have only 15 seats in the new body. The SNC’s leader, Abdulbaset Sieda, insists that his council should remain the cornerstone of any new arrangement. But its record of political naivete and bickering and the poor representation within it of anyone inside Syria — though more on-the-ground activists were recently added in a last-ditch effort to give the SNC more heft — has dismayed impatient foreign governments as much as Assad’s assorted Syrian opponents.

Tired of the SNC, most Syrians in the opposition camp welcome this belated focus on grass-roots figures. Western and other governments say that they will boost funding to Syrian civilians if there is a more unified and responsible body to deal with. Seif has hinted that promises have been made of direct arms supplies from Western countries, which have hitherto shied away from handing guns to myriad factions.

However, on Nov. 6 Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain again said that his government had no plans, for the time being, to provide the rebels with arms. Western diplomats are adamant that the new body will be political, though its relationship with the fighting rebels is bound to be murky.

Arms, many of them provided by the rebels’ Libyan, Qatari and Saudi friends, will continue to be channeled mainly via the Turks, whose government now suggests that it could host Patriot air-defense batteries under NATO auspices to shield a possible safe haven along its border with Syria. Protection from air attacks by Assad’s forces has been a long-standing opposition demand.

Such carrots may not be enough to persuade the opposition to come amicably together, however. Some dissidents bristle at what they see as high-handed manipulation by the United States, whose openly exasperated diplomats have more or less told the SNC and others to accept Seif’s proposal or lump it.

Other Syrians in the opposition fear that unification would be followed by pressure from friendly foreign governments to negotiate with the regime. They point, variously, to Brahimi’s comments that there is no military solution and to Cameron’s recent suggestion that Assad might be coaxed into accepting an offer of asylum.

Even if the Seif plan gains traction — "and that is far from guaranteed," a Western diplomat in Doha says — the chasm between civilian and military leaders is still wide. Rather than encouraging fighters to work with civilian committees, many dissidents have grabbed onto the coattails of the fighters, hoping to boost their own credentials. Seif wants to work with rebel commanders, but getting them to be represented on his new body will be tricky, since the rebel groups are so fragmented and so numerous.

In any event, Western diplomats fear that it may already be too late for the politicians to form a front that could control the fighters on the ground.

Unifying the rebel factions would be easier if backers could agree on which ones to supply. That is easier said than done. The Washington-based Syrian Support Group, which channels every sort of aid to the armed opposition and works closely with the American government, has struggled to persuade rebel militias to come under the command of provincial military councils. As fast as units sign up, however, rival councils sprout in the same province.

"It is very hard to unite them," the Support Group’s Louay Sakka says, "because countries such as Turkey and Qatar have personal links to certain groups of fighters. There is a lot of hand-picking and favoritism."

The stronger groups, such as the Farouq Battalion, which emerged in Homs and has now spread to the northern provinces of Idleb and Raqqa, may absorb the smaller bands. Farouq’s commanders in Raqqa say that they have already persuaded some smaller ones to join. But extreme Islamist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings, also have grown in size.

"We don’t like them, but it makes sense to work together," says Abu Saleh, a Farouq man, explaining that the two groups have been discussing how to coordinate their attacks in Raqqa.

For the past few months, there has been something of a military stalemate, with few big advances on either side, despite the army’s indiscriminate use of heavy artillery and a death toll that has been more than 1,000 a week. Regime fatigue may be growing, however. The government’s supply lines to the vital battlefield of Aleppo have been squeezed, and some of the army’s best units are said to have been recalled to Damascus, where rebels continue to press in from the suburbs despite aircraft and artillery pounding them ferociously.

For the first time rebel bombs and mortars have hit districts of Damascus that were hitherto considered safe for the regime.


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