A Meeting in Tunisia: Can Syria's Opposition Get Its Act Together?

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Fethi Belaid / AFP / Getty Images

The head of the Syrian National Council (SNC) Burhan Ghaliun arrives on December 16, 2011 in Tunis, on the second day of a three-day meeting of the Syrian opposition.

In a resort town outside of the Tunisian capital, the opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shuffled through the mosaic-tiled floor of a luxury hotel lobby headed for closed-door meetings. Name tags hanging from lanyards around their necks, the participants — part of the 260-member Syrian National Council, the opposition's wannabe government-in-waiting — have been engaged in working groups in a bid to hammer out a way forward in their struggle against the regime. It has been confusing.

For a while, many participants did not even know which hotel in Gammarth, which is north of Tunis, would play host to the conference. But the organizers insist the SNC is getting its act together. "This is a working meeting, not a political meeting," said one young activist. "We're past the stage of figuring out if we can all get along, we're down to the details." Indeed, there seem to be serious proposals, at least in draft form, dealing with everything from immunity for Assad to some kind of partnership with the military establishment.

The people trying to work out Syria's future from Tunisia are a diverse bunch: a handful of women among them as well as conservative bearded Salafis in traditional dress. There were representatives from across Syria's multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian patchwork society, including some, but not many, protesters from inside Syria.

A founding member of the SNC said that there are strategies to reach out to Syria's nervous minorities. Some 50% of the SNC's executive office is comprised of minorities, he said, "and they're not placeholders." The member was upbeat about the conference. "This has been unexpectedly smooth, we have developed from being a purely political body into a technocratic, administrative and operational body meaning that we're getting things moving," he said.

Despite the tight security and secrecy about the conference, about two dozen angry, Syrian-flag waving pro-Assad demonstrators managed to discover its location and staged a brief, but noisy demonstration outside the hotel. "Degage, degage!" (get out, in French) they chanted, echoing the cry that rattled throughout Tunisia a year ago and felled its dictator. Some protesters held up their shoes and denounced SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun as a traitor. "No new Libya" read one cardboard placard.

Bemused SNC members watched from the lobby. "It's a demonstration of shabiha," said one, referring to the armed, largely Alawite thugs who have brutally suppressed anti-Assad protests in Syria. Other SNC members responded angrily, with some goading the pro-regime demonstrators by shouting back or filming them on their cell phones, much to the dismay of flustered hotel security who tried to keep the two sides apart. The confrontation was short-lived, over almost as quickly as it began.

Still, it was a reminder of the heated emotions on both sides. The SNC members meeting in Gammarth know that the world is watching, and waiting for their next move. A press conference is still scheduled for Monday morning to announce the group's grand plan. But before then, the notoriously fractured body must unite and agree to the same vision. The clock is ticking for the future of Syria.