Leaders of the Syrian opposition are holding a conference in the Qatari capital to reorganise their ranks, in the latest attempt to form a unified political and military anti-government front.
The meeting comes as violence continues in Syria, with an armed rebel brigade claiming responsibility for an explosion in the Syrian capital, while anti-government rights groups said that fresh clashes had occurred elsewhere in Damascus.
The US is pushing a proposal suggesting a new leadership, with fewer Syrian exiles and more military commanders, be elected at the meeting in Doha, held over five days, beginning on Sunday.
There remain serious doubts, however, over whether the divided and ideologically diverse factions can form a unified structure that the international community can engage with.
Leading Syrian dissident Riad Seif denied on Sunday he planned to head a government in exile. Long-time dissident Seif was reportedly touted as the potential leader of a new government dubbed the Syrian National Initiative.
But the prominent opponent to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was adamant that he does not want to lead such a government.
“I shall not be a candidate to lead a government in exile… I am 66 and have health problems,” he told reporters ahead of the Doha gathering.
Hundreds of figures from the Syrian opposition are taking part in the conference, all seeking a way to topple Assad and end the 19-month conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people.
There are, however, some notable absentees, including the National Co-ordination Body, a rival to the Syrian National Council (SNC), and the National Democratic Front.
‘Syrian National Initiative’
The key issue is whether the SNC, which consists largely of Syrian exiles and academics, will back a US initiative to set up a new 50-member leadership team with more representatives from inside Syria.
Under the new plan, called the Syrian National Initiative, the new leadership would include members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an armed group of rebels that has been battling the Syrian army for months. It would also include members of other political groups and local councils in Syria.
The SNC’s current leadership would be included in some form, but its influence would be significantly diluted under the new plan.
In addition to the leadership body, the proposal would establish a military council, a judicial committee and a transitional government to be made up of technocrats.
Burhan Ghalioun, a senior SNC member, said on Saturday that the group is willing to consider the idea, but has not made a decision on it yet. Potential members of the new leadership will discuss the initiative during Thursday’s session of the conference.
“We have agreed to attend the meeting, but there is no agreement to adopt the initiative as it is,” Ghalioun told the Associated Press news agency.
Foreign officials, particularly from the United States, have long complained that the lack of a cohesive and unified opposition group has held back more robust foreign involvement in the campaign to topple President Assad and his government.
The SNC has been plagued from the start by infighting, splits and frustrations over its failure to broaden its membership. An opposition meeting in Cairo earlier this year descended into chaos, shouting matches and walkouts.
“We are hopeful that if this leadership structure can emerge in a new and enhanced way, it will be an organisation that the international community can work with to better direct assistance, humanitarian assistance, non-lethal assistance, and other kinds of assistance,” Victoria Nuland, a US State department spokesperson, said on Friday.
She said the US also hopes this new body will encourage more defections and give the Russians and Chinese, who have both vetoed previous UN Security Council initiatives on Syria, “an address” where they can seek answers to questions about a post-Assad future.
Rebel fighters’ inclusion
There are also issues to be dealt with in the matter of including more rebel fighters into the opposition’s leadership structure.
Rebel fighters remain split into multiple brigades of military defectors and Syrian civilians who took up arms as the movement against Assad grew more violent. Many brigades are led by prominent local figures who are little known outside of their areas.
The Free Syrian Army is an amalgam of such groups, and itself lacks a single unified command structure.
Rebels have also set up local civilian councils to run affairs in towns and neighborhoods under their control, and finding a way to represent them in the opposition leadership could be difficult.
Over every level there are ideological differences, including between Islamists and secularists.
Anthony Skinner, an analyst at Maplecroft, a British risk analysis company, is doubtful the US initiative at Doha will succeed.
“That the SNC has been ineffective does not solely derive from the fact that many of its members have long been exiled and have been disconnected from the population at large. This is one of many factors,” he said.
Serious doubts remain about whether the disparate opposition groups can work effectively under one umbrella, he said.
Already, the SNC is angry after Clinton said on Wednesday that the Obama administration was suggesting names and organisations that should feature prominently in any new leadership to emerge from the conference.
“Only the people of Syria can decide who represents them and who doesn’t. No one else has a say in that,” Abdelbaset Sieda, the SNC’s outgoing president, said
He spoke in Istanbul on Saturday at a function aimed at raising funds for orphaned Syrian children.
Nuland said Friday that the US is not “dictating” for the opposition.
Meanwhile, in Syria, the violence continues. State media confirmed on Sunday that an explosion had taken place on Beirut street, in an area where many government and military buildings are located.
At least seven people were injured in the explosion, at least one critically, state media said. The explosion occurred after explosives planted underneath a car went off in an outdoor lot near the government Labour Union building.
The Grandsons of the Prophet brigade, a part of the FSA, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Elsewhere on Sunday, anti-government rights groups said Syrian warplanes had hit targets in the Ghuta area 50km northeast of the capital.
The air raids took place after dawn clashes between pro- and anti-government troops near a security building in Damacus, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.