Syria’s opposition: Transition and division

The formation of a Libyan-style NTC in Turkey has not united fractured opposition groups inside and outside of Syria.

Syria unrest
Syrian opposition demonstrators living in Turkey hold posters depicting Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi (L) and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad during a protest against Assad in central Istanbul [Reuters]

Opposition forces in Syria are trying to follow the example of their Libyan counterparts by creating a National Transitional Council (NTC), but internal divisions continue to plague activist groups.

The creation of Syria’s (NTC) in Turkey happened without the agreement of major opposition groups or even most of the 94 individuals listed as members.

“It was an effort to kick start the opposition. If their name is on the list and they say no then we say, ‘So tell us what you’re up to then,” said a Syrian activist involved in the initiative, which was announced on Al Jazeera Arabic on Monday from Ankara, Turkey’s capital.

Activists at the meeting appointed Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based professor of political sociology at the Sorbonne, to lead Syria’s NTC.

But in a posting on his Facebook page Ghalioun, while thanking the activists for the “great confidence placed in me” expressed his “surprise” at being nominated, acknowledging “the urgent need felt by the young people who are facing bullets every day”.

“It is a message addressed to all opposition forces to overcome divisions and rise to the challenges and tasks posed by the historical revolution of dignity and freedom in Syria,” he wrote. 

Divided groups

The Ankara initiative was criticised by several key pro-democracy groups inside Syria for having damaged their cause, underscoring the fragmented nature of the opposition. Members admit opponents of Syria’s regime remain plagued by competing egos more than ideological splits. Key international actors, such as the US, say the opposition must unite if Syria’s revolution is to succeed.

“This initiative was rushed and not done in a professional way. They should have held more discussions with the opposition inside Syria and the 94 members are not even in agreement with each other,” Omar al-Idlibi, spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), told Al Jazeera.

The LCC one of the first grassroots activist networks to go public. It helps organise and document protests, producing a daily newsletter for the international and Arabic media.


A spokesman for the recently formed Coalition of Free Damascenes for Peaceful Change (CFDPC), a network dedicated to organising and reporting protests in and around the capital, said the initiative to unite the opposition had to come from inside Syria.

“We’re trying to unite the committees on the ground. As soon as we get that done we’ll elect a transitional council, but we don’t want it to happen outside the country,” he said. “People outside don’t know what’s going on inside. We’re the ones with experience.”

The CFDPC criticised the distribution of seats on the proposed NTC saying that 42 members inside the country and 52 members outside was not fair because activists on the ground in Syria should have the majority representation.

Another activist and protester from the early days of the uprising was less diplomatic: “Just giving the names and then holding people to account, saying if they don’t join this they don’t support the revolution, it’s bullshi*t.”

The CFDPC was formed by former members of the LCC who left the group after growing dissatisfied with what they felt was too much focus on its media wing at the expense of on-the-ground organising of protests and other acts of defiance.

There are also known to be differences of opinion over how best to organise dissident activities between the LCC, whose senior leaders include human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouna, and the second major activist network, the Syrian Revolution Coordinators’ Union (SRCU), which is led by Suhair Atassi.

An intense crackdown by the regime’s security forces on the opposition, including waves of arrests and targeted detentions of the loved ones of leading activists, along with assassination attempts, have forced dissidents into hiding. Many move constantly between safe houses as they struggle to maintain the protests and political momentum.

“Because of the regime’s policies, one of the problems for the opposition in Syria is that we are always working as individuals, not groups, because we cannot work in public,” said the LCC’s Idlibi. “We’re always working in secret.”

Generation gap

The danger faced by activists on the ground was tragically illustrated earlier this month with the execution in Deraa of Maan Aloudat the brother of Haithem Manaa, a Paris-based Syrian opposition figure.

The opposition inside Syria is also divided between the youth-led groups such as LCC and SRCU and the street protesters and the older, established opposition, some of whom are distrusted by the younger generation for being too close to the regime, or for having failed to deliver significant democratic change despite decades of trying.

There are divisions between Syrian activists inside and outside of the country [Reuters]

Signatories to the 2005 Damascus Declaration, the first unified opposition statement demanding democracy in Syria, are privately criticised by some youth activists for having failed in the early weeks of the uprising to endorse the protests while now seeking to shape the political future those protests have made possible.

Outside Syria, the opposition may not face bullets and beatings, but their efforts to unite have proven no less fraught. By some counts there are at least seven distinct opposition networks abroad and at least five major public meetings of the foreign opposition have taken place.

On April 26, the first public meeting of members of the Syrian opposition was held in Istanbul at the invitation of Turkish NGOs and was led by the British-based Movement for Justice and Development. The MJD was formed by several former member of the Muslim Brotherhood and is a signatory to the Damascus Declaration.

A much larger conference of around 300 mostly exiled opposition figures was held in the Turkish resort of Antalya on June 2, reportedly funded by the Sanqar brothers, wealthy Syrian businessmen who reportedly fell out with Rami Makhlouf, the country’s leading tycoon and first cousin of the president.

Just a couple of days later a group of around 200 opposition figures gathered at a hotel in Brussels for a two-day meeting. Then on June 26 a state-sanctioned meeting of the Syrian opposition in Damascus was largely boycotted by activists and dismissed as a public relations exercise for the regime.

“The target is same for all of us: We all want to change the regime, we all want a civil state that respects dignity and human rights for everyone,” said Iyas al-Maleh, who helped organise the Brussels conference and is the son of veteran human rights campaigner Haithem al-Maleh.

“But everybody is not joining forces, just monitoring each conference. It’s still fragmented. Everyone thinks they can do it on their own. There’s a lot of ego unfortunately,” he said.

Experiences in democracy

Overarching the difficulties faced by the opposition inside and outside Syria is the near total absence of political culture among Syrians, who have lived for nearly half a century under a repressive police state whose ruling Baath Party is constitutionally guaranteed to rule.

“You can’t have a revolution without the politics and so far many of the activists have no idea about how to do politics,” said Wissam Tarif, a leading human rights researcher who has been pushing for activist networks in Syria to unite and form a political platform.

The effort appears to be beginning to pay off. Having initially avoided politics in favour of organising and documenting the street protests, the LCC, said Idlibi, is now fully engaged.

“As LCC we had a vision for the political future of Syria, but decided to leave the political work to the opposition. But when we saw that the opposition was too late we decided to be part of the political work of the revolution.”

The SRCU appears to have taken a similar step. Where once members touted their freedom from politics as credentials to join the network, many are now actively engaged in political debate, and beginning to favour real-time discussion over the endless anonymous sharing of social media.

“You can’t start a political programme on Facebook,” said one SRCU member, who said his group has now merged with what activists hope will be the unifying body for all protest networks inside Syria, the recently launched Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC).

The SRGC now boasts nearly 120 local committees, a small group of activists in a particular town or area of a city who are instrumental in organising protests and documenting the regime’s crackdown. The total number of local committees in Syria is not known but is estimated to be several hundred.

All activists interviewed said talks were underway to unite the different groups inside Syria, but so far the LCC, CFDPC and the April 17 Movement have not joined the SRGC.

Outside Syria, Oussama Jarrous, a Syrian activist working closely with opposition networks in Europe, said Ghalioun has been holding intense rounds of talks with colleague since the Ankara announcement.

“It will not be called a National Transitional Council as that would make it look as if the Syrian revolution is moving toward the Libyan model, which is against the campaign for peaceful change,” said Jarrous. “It also puts activists inside Syria in even more danger as they can be accused of forming a parallel government and of treason.”

Source: Al Jazeera