The Syrian opposition is struggling to coalesce. This is not news. The Free Syrian Army, a collection of rebels and army defectors, fights the regime every day with no real organization or strategic guidance. Local Coordination Committees from different cities organize dissent and provide updates to the outside world. Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council, a 270-member group of dissidents and Syrian exiles, works to legitimize the resistance on the international stage and secure support for it from foreign powers.
All three outfits seem to be working independently of one another, leading many observers to conclude the resistance will not unify. This has serious repercussions for outsiders wishing to do more: it’s impossible to assist a truly splintered opposition. Instead, foreign largess is hemmed in by anxiety, and worries that there is no reliable faction worth supporting. Simply saturating the country with arms–or intervening militarily–is not worth the risk if the opposition is broken, according to this logic. The results would be unpredictable.
Late last month, this trend received even more attention as international reconciliation failed, and the Syrian National Council supposedly broke down, spawning yet another faction within the opposition. Reuters ran a report on February 26 alleging that 20 members of the SNC had quit and formed the new Syrian Patriotic Group. Reuters quoted a statement from the group which admits the SNC has not done enough to help the opposition:
“Syria has experienced long and difficult months since the Syrian National Council was formed without it achieving satisfactory results or being able to activate its executive offices or adopt the demands of the rebels inside Syria,” a statement by the Syrian Patriotic Group said.
“The previous mode of operation has been useless. We decided to form a patriotic action group to back the national effort to bring down the regime with all available resistance means including supporting the Free Syrian Army,” the statement, which was sent to Reuters, said.
Reuters took this statement, however ambiguous, and framed it as an explicit break with the SNC, even though none of the quotes say so directly. All that’s being admitted above is that the Syrian Patriotic Group is pursuing a new direction.
Two days later, Asharq al-Awsat interviewed the supposed head of the Patriotic Group as named by Reuters, Haytham al-Malih. Malih flatly denied any split. He told Asharq al-Awsat that the “splinter group” is actually a military council within the SNC dedicated to coordination with the FSA. According to him:
“As a national council, we undertook a long time ago to support the Free Syrian Army politically and in the media. A committee has now been formed, consisting of 25 members of the national council and figures inside Syria who are effective on the ground. This committee undertook to secure practical aid to the free army [i.e. FSA].
“The main task of this committee, which operates under the umbrella of the national council, is to unify the armed battalions in Syria into a military council under the political leadership of the national council [i.e. SNC]. After unifying these battalions, we will secure for them equipments, such as night-vision telescopes, bulletproof armour vests, and others equipments”
Names of SPG members provided by Reuters on February 26 and Asharq al-Awsat on February 28 overlap. And so I’m willing to say with some confidence that the Reuters report mistook the Syrian Patriotic Group for a new faction when in fact it is really the SNC’s military coordination council. On March 1, Reuters acknowledged that the SNC has a fancy new military council—but the very last paragraph does not connect-the-dots. Instead it again references the supposed February “split.”
The March 1 report also quotes SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun, who said, “The creation of the military council was agreed upon by all armed forces in Syria.” “We will be like a defence ministry.” When reached for comment, Colonel Riad al-Asaad of the Free Syrian Army said he was not a part of the council’s formation, even though the SNC said its mission was to match resources with the needs of the resistance. “I don’t know about the objectives of this body,” he told Reuters.
Overlapping names and official denials suggest the SNC did not break down last month, even though Western media outlets continue to reference the “schism.” However, Col. Asaad’s statements confirm that this new military council—called SPG and mistaken for a splinter group—has its work cut out for it. Closing the gap between the Council and Army is critical. If the National Council can supply the Free Army both would benefit greatly: the SNC might be able to legitimize itself by funneling resources to rebels inside the country; and the FSA would enjoy greater firepower and direct links to foreign powers.
I’m eager to hear what others think about this issue. Clarifications are also welcome. I don’t post on Syria much. But it seems clear that the SNC has a gameplan at least and did not split up last month. Whether or not they are successful is another matter.
Update: Haytham al-Malih and two other members of the SNC resigned on March 13. “I have resigned from the SNC because there is a lot of chaos in the group and not a lot of clarity over what they can accomplish right now. We have not gotten very far in working to arm the rebels,” he told Reuters. An unnamed source also said that 80 more members of the SNC were expected to resign. But I’ve found no proof that they have.