Syria’s splintered opposition factions prepared to begin talks in Qatar on Sunday on a common front to gain international respect and recognition and, crucially, better weapons for their quest to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
It was the first concerted attempt to meld opposition groups based abroad and align them with rebels fighting in Syria, to help end a 19-month-old conflict that has killed over 32,000 lives, devastated swathes of the major Arab country and threatens to widen into a regional sectarian conflagration.
Divisions between Islamists and secularists as well as between those inside Syria and opposition figures based abroad have thwarted prior attempts to forge a united opposition.
Four days of talks in the Qatari capital Doha are expected with the goal of expanding and broadening the Syrian National Council (SNC), the largest of the overseas-based opposition groups, from some 200 members to 400, SNC politicians said.
SNC leaders hope this will pave the way for a separate meeting in Doha on Thursday of the wider opposition movement, aiming to form a united coalition.
“The four coming days for the Syrian National Council... will see for the first time the election of the leading committees and a new president for the council,” veteran opposition figure George Sabra told Reuters ahead of the talks.
The broadened council will include more representatives from other political and revolutionary groups, he said.
The United States called last week for an overhaul of the opposition’s leadership, saying it was time to move beyond the SNC and bring in those “in the front lines fighting and dying”.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the meeting in Qatar would be an opportunity to establish a credible opposition.
Internal divisions, including a lack of cooperation between leaders abroad and fighters in Syria, as well as the rising profile of Islamist militants in rebel ranks, have put off Western states otherwise keen to see Assad fall.
Influential opposition figure Riad Seif has proposed a structure melding the rebel Free Syrian Army, regional military councils and other insurgent units alongside local civilian bodies and prominent opposition figures.
Improving pitch for arms
Western, Turkish and Arab recognition of the new opposition structure, Seif said in an interview with Reuters last week, will help channel anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels and “decide the battle”.
Western diplomats based in the Middle East said Washington was supporting an initiative by Seif.
But there were early signs the discussions in Doha, the capital of Qatar, would not go smoothly.
Opposition sources said the success of Seif’s initiative would depend partly on the degree to which he could resist pressure from the SNC to pack the new assembly proposed by Seif with its members.
“The revolution in Syria has been making strides in its drive to remove Assad at a heavy cost in lives regardless and in spite of the disarray in political leadership,” Catherine al-Talli, a leading opposition campaigner, told Reuters.
“But Seif’s initiative will be well received if it results in a political leadership with representation of the real forces on the ground. This is critical to bring the support to the revolution that can accelerate the toppling of Assad.”
Senior SNC member Burhan Ghalioun said the assembly proposed by Seif would complement the SNC structure but not replace it. Ghalioun said the SNC backed “creating a circle that bring the opposition parties together and works as one team.”
“We will succeed if we make (the Seif initiative) an operation room for the opposition,” he said, adding that the SNC has 15 seats in the assembly proposed by Seif, and want to increase that to around 22 seats.
Seif’s proposal would suffer if it were perceived as nothing more than a replacement for the SNC, he added.