As the Slaughter Continues, the Syrian Opposition Still Can't Agree on an Armed Response

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Alessio Romenzi for TIME

Along with a cousin, a daughter mourns her father, who was tortured to death by regime militias ib al-Qsair, near the city of Homs, Feb. 14, 2012

For three weeks, the rebel district of Bab Amr in the Syrian city of Homs has been effectively cut off from the world, with little or no electricity, water, food and fuel. At the same time, it suffered relentless barrages of Russian-made 240 mm mortars, one of the most powerful in modern use, and other weapons supplied by the regime's ally, Moscow. On Thursday, units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who have had to do with smuggled light weapons, announced a "tactical retreat" from Homs. "We are also lacking in enough arms to defend the citizens," they said in a statement posted online. However, the withdrawal quickly opened the way for regime troops to fulfill orders to "cleanse" the area. The Syrian troops reportedly went door-to-door in Bab Amr; the global activist group Avaaz said that 17 civilians were beheaded or partially beheaded and that there were bodies on the streets.

Amid all this, the various factions of the Syrian opposition have been at loggerheads over how to respond. The head of the Syrian National Council, the predominant political opposition group, has long insisted that his country is not at war. Indeed, for months, Burhan Ghalioun has resisted calls for a militarized response to the repression of the Assad regime, resulting in a lack of coordination between the SNC and the armed guerrillas who are loosely affiliated under the FSA banner. But on Thursday, Ghalioun and the SNC seemed to have reconciled themselves to the "newfound reality" in Syria and announced the formation of a military advisory bureau — even though Ghalioun continues to deny that his country is in the middle of a civil war. The decision, however, hasn't really helped the opposition to coalesce.

The bureau, which will be made up of an unspecified number of military and civilian personnel, will oversee, organize and unify the ranks of the FSA and "define their missions," Ghalioun told a press conference in Paris. The trouble is, it was news to the FSA as well. Although Ghalioun insisted that "before we announced this advisory bureau we spoke to them," the FSA's purported chief-in-exile Colonel Riad al-Asaad told Al-Jazeera in a phone call from Turkey that wasn't true. "Burhan Ghalioun made this one-sided announcement," he said. "I did not know about it. We will not deal with [the military bureau] at all because we don't know its aims or its strategy."

The FSA weren't the only ones apparently kept in the dark. Ghalioun said he expects the military bureau to be headquartered in Turkey, although he admitted that he hadn't asked the Turks yet. "We will speak to our friends the Turks, perhaps tomorrow, but I don't think this will be a problem for them," he said.

It's just the latest embarrassing example of the disunity that plagues the Syrian opposition. The SNC had previously offered only timid, belated support for the armed rebels, who are hugely popular in the cities and towns they protect from President Bashar al-Assad's forces. The SNC had offered to find financiers and funnel money to the group, but not weapons. That half-hearted backing had threatened to chip away at the SNC's credibility and support with some protesters, and made the group's leadership of exiles seem out of step with the situation on the ground. Colonel Asaad (whose own credibility, level of support and command over armed elements within Syria is questionable) had previously gone so far as to call the SNC "traitors" for not providing money and supplies to rebel fighters.

Thursday's announcement is unlikely to change his view. If it was a bid to unify ranks, it seems to have done the opposite. It also appears aimed at undercutting dissenters within the fragmented SNC. Just days ago, several prominent Syrian dissidents formed a splinter group within the SNC, the Syrian Revolutionary Patriotic Group, with the aim of ramping up support for and providing arms to the FSA, decrying the SNC's previous efforts as "useless." Walid al-Bunni, a prominent member of both bodies was wary of Thursday's announcement. "It looks like Burhan responded to some of our demands. That's good," he told TIME from Cairo. "If [the military bureau] is real, we are with it. If it will be a real bureau, and get things done, why not? We don't care who cleans the street, as long as it gets done. But if it's going to be comprised of Muslim Brothers, or just for show it'll be a problem."

The timing of the announcement of the bureau may be the result of yet another power play within the fractitious SNC, an attempt by Ghalioun and others to assert authority over restive members. Regardless, the fact is that Syria's rebels are likely to get weapons, with or without the SNC's help and supervision. Regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Kuwait, have called for just that, while on Wednesday, Libya's new government pledged $100 million in humanitarian aid to their Syrian brethren.

Ghalioun seems to be trying to get out in front of calls to back the FSA, or risk being sidelined. "We know that there are some countries that have said they are prepared to arm the revolutionaries," Ghalioun said at the press conference. "We don't want chaos, we want to organize this flow. We will not permit direct arms deliveries from countries — there haven't been any yet — but we will not permit countries to directly supply weapons. We want everything to pass through the national council so that there is control and this is the main role of the military bureau."

Ghalioun downplayed fears, including those of the United States, that arming the rebels will fuel a civil conflict. "This is about defending civilians, not launching a war," Ghalioun said. "This is about protecting the people's peaceful revolution. That is the defensive mission given to our armed groups. The aim of the [military] bureau is to prevent civil war, not the opposite."

There continue to be loud opinions against arming the rebels. Said Arab League Secretary General Nabil El-Araby: "I am against using violence and the Arab League has no link to arming. What is demanded now from the National Council and all the opposition is to unite their ranks." Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, believes the disunity within opposition ranks is actively fomented by the regime. "I suspect the regime has a hand with all of this," he told TIME in a phone call from Brussels. "I'm sure the SNC is pretty heavily infiltrated and that some of these oppositions efforts are being undermined."

With the exiled opposition in disarray, Shaikh sees local groups inside Syria taking the lead in conducting the direction of the uprising. "This started with people on ground and will be finished by them on the ground," he said. Whatever authority the SNC may have had in the beginning, he says, "is going to be more and more difficult to keep up." But so will a rebellion without arms to match the firepower of the regime. For now, advantage Assad.