Just When They Needed It Least: The Syrian Opposition Fractures Again

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Bradley Secker / ENN / AFP / Getty Images

Members of the Free Syrian Army move weapons, medicine and personnel across a river near the Syrian border on Feb. 23, 2012

It's getting harder for the Syrian National Council (SNC), the de facto political opposition group, to hide its many divisions, even as the international community cries out for a unified front against President Bashar Assad. It's an open secret that the 270-member body, with its mix of Muslim Brothers, secular intellectuals, youth activists and others, has never really been cohesive despite efforts to present itself as such. On Monday, those differences were again exposed, with the announcement of a splinter group, the Syrian Revolutionary Patriotic Group, led by the grand old man of the Syrian opposition, Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge who has cycled in and out of Syrian prisons for decades.

The new body will focus on supporting the ragtag groups of armed rebels that make up the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and will try to directly arm them, something that regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Qatar have backed but the SNC has shied away from. "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," the Patriotic Group said in a statement sent to Reuters. "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."

Just hours later, however, Walid al-Bunni, an outspoken member of the SNC who is also part of the new body, told TIME that the new group wasn't exactly a new group. "It's not a split, and it's not a new group," he said by phone from Cairo. "In the council there are Muslim Brothers, members of the Damascus Declaration, and now there's the Patriotic Group," he said. "What's the problem?"

There are 20 or so members of the new body, including Kamal Labwani, a longtime dissident who spent most of the past decade in prison. He reiterated that the Patriotic Group didn't represent a split in the opposition, yet suggested that the SNC hadn't done enough. "We will not wait while our people die. We must arm the Free Army," he told al-Jazeera satellite channel. "We have not split, this council is ours, these people are ours, but we will not stay on the sidelines and do nothing."

For his part, SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun told al-Jazeera that it wasn't the time for divisions. "At this time when the youth of the revolution are staging a revolution and the Syrian people are facing real massacres, it's unacceptable for divisions to enter our ranks. We must be one."

But they're not. Eleven months into an asymmetrical conflict, Syrian's main political opposition group is yet to get its house in order even as triple-digit death tolls rapidly become the daily norm. The situation could not be more grave: parts of Homs, like the tortured neighborhood of Bab Amr, have been shelled continuously for weeks, cut off from the world as part of a collective punishment for defying the decades-old Assad ruling dynasty.

In the midst of such suffering, the SNC is already perilously close to losing any credibility with the activists, protesters and fighters inside Syria, not because it is too hawkish but because it is not hawkish enough. "Those on the streets are all to the right of the SNC, and that's the irony," says Emile Hokayem, Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "They want more forceful action."

He's talking about people like prominent Homs activist Khaled Abu Salah, who recently posted an impassioned video message on the Internet to the political opposition in exile. "You haven't done anything of substance since the beginning of the bombardment," he said, standing in the rubble of a building. "We gave you legitimacy, and we can take it away."

Although the SNC has belatedly offered verbal support to the FSA, vowing to help funnel funds to it but stopping short of offering it weapons, members in the Turkish-Syrian border area say they have yet to see anything tangible. "These members who formed the new group, they are the honorable ones, they are going to help arm the Free Army," said Omar, a refugee in the Yayladagi camp and a civilian member of the FSA. "The rest are all liars, they're interested in making names for themselves, they don't care about the people, the blood in the streets or us in these tents," he told TIME via Skype.

The lack of SNC unity is also unlikely to coax the many Syrians fearful of what may come after Assad from breaking with the devil they know. On Monday, the Interior Ministry announced that Syrians had overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in a weekend referendum, with 89.4% backing the measure. On paper, the new Syrian constitution looks like a model document, an enlightened blueprint for a secular democratic state that enshrines freedom as "a sacred right" and assures the "inviolability" of human life. But that's what is on paper. On the ground, the tanks are still rolling into restive cities, and the amateur videos displaying dead men, women and children are still being uploaded into the Internet at a depressingly fast pace.

The West roundly wrote off the referendum as little more than political theater. While the European Union slapped further sanctions on the Assad regime on Monday, the international community continues to grapple with finding a way out of the crisis given Russian and Chinese intransigence that has repeatedly spared Assad from meaningful censure. A government in waiting akin to Libya's rebel council, which formed within weeks of that country's uprising, would likely rally support, but recognition has been sparing. The Friends of Syria gathering in Tunis over the weekend conferred a measure of legitimacy to the SNC by recognizing it as a representative of the Syrian people, but not the sole representative.

"It's immaturity, it's total immaturity," Hokayem, the analyst, says of the SNC's fractitious nature. "There's an issue of mismanagement and disorganization that is almost independent from leadership issues. They don't have the skills to run an organization like this one at a time like this."

Some have said that it's unrealistic to expect too much from the Syrian political opposition after five decades of one-party rule that crushed any form of dissent. Others say the group's disunity is healthy, an example of democracy at work and a portent of the system they hope to put into practice in their country. Still others say that while Syrian blood is shed on the streets, the least the political opposition in exile can do is present a united front.

The timing of the announcement of the new group is inopportune to say the least. As calls mount to arm the FSA, the need for political oversight of any arms supplies is likely to be a key condition for just such a move. Just days ago, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was premature to consider arming the rebels "because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point." He was speaking about the armed groups on the ground, of course, but perhaps the same question should be asked of the political opposition. "Western diplomats are asking me, 'Who are we dealing with at the end of the day?'" Hokayem said. "It's worrisome, I'm not saying the SNC is a dying patient, but it's in pretty bad shape."