Syrian opposition reaches contentious consensus in Cairo

A two-day meeting of Syrian opposition groups, considered one of the most diverse and inclusive since the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, highlighted longterm ideological disparities and mistrust between various factions. Despite fighting over their differences, however, and even coming to blows at one point, participants found some consensus, concluding the meeting Tuesday with an outline of broad modes of action.

More than 200 opposition leaders, representing a broad spectrum of ideologies and affiliations, attended the meeting, hosted by the Arab League in Cairo, in an attempt to form a united opposition front to put increased pressure on Assad’s dictatorship.

“All the attendees of the conference agreed that the political solution has to start with the overthrow of the regime represented in Bashar al-Assad and the icons of his power, with a guarantee to punish those implicated in killing Syrians, ” the final statement read.

The statement also called for an immediate end to the violence perpetrated by the Syrian regime, the withdrawal of the army, an end to the sieges on cities, and the release of all detainees.

“The conference reaffirmed its support for the Free Syrian Army and all forms of revolutionary movement while working on uniting all its forces and leaders to serve the revolution’s goal,” the statement read.

However, some FSA members boycotted the meeting, denouncing it in a statement as a “conspiracy” that served the policy goals of Damascus allies Moscow and Tehran.

The FSA, which is mostly made up of Syrian military defectors and civilian volunteers, is one of the main rebel armed forces on the ground. Its brigades formed after the outbreak of the uprising, but after well over a year of fighting it still lacks a central command.

Although many opposition groups have expressed support for international action, the FSA statement signatories accused the Cairo talks of “rejecting the idea of a foreign military intervention to save the people … and ignoring the question of buffer zones protected by the international community, humanitarian corridors, an air embargo and the arming of rebel fighters.”

The opposition conference discussions highlighted contentious visions over how to force Assad’s regime out. Attendees argued over the possibility of foreign military intervention and the arming of the Free Syrian Army.

“What was taken with blood must be returned with blood,” said Akram Abdul Dayem, deputy head of the Freedom and Construction Bloc, an offshoot of the Syrian National Council (SNC), which has claimed representation of the opposition movement abroad.

“We want freedom and I don’t care how it comes because people have had enough. If we don’t provide the FSA with the necessary weaponry, Assad will stay until he eradicates the Syrian population,” he said.

Abdul Dayem coordinates with about 70 FSA brigades around the country to supply them with artillery paid for by donations from Syrian businessman abroad. He buys the missiles from Syrian army officers willing to sell them illegally to get money, Abdul Dayem told Egypt Independent.

The businessman, who used to run a school in Homs, fled the violence-stricken city with his family last September after his 22-year-old son was shot in the stomach. He is now living in Cairo and plans to move to Turkey to help Syrian refugees there.

The majority of groups, including the Brotherhood, the Syrian National Council and other liberal and secular organizations, advocated for foreign military intervention and supporting the FSA.

“For us, intervention doesn’t mean military occupation of Syria. We envision solutions like selective military strikes on regime army bases, buffer zones and no-fly zones by an organization such as NATO,” said Khedr Sotary, speaking for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Thaer al-Haji, representative of the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union, called on Saudi Arabia to provide advanced weapons to the FSA.

The Syrian regime has alleged the opposition is being manipulated by world forces, particularly Gulf countries which have long been Assad’s adversaries given his administration’s ties to Iran.

The opposition groups invoked Chapter VII of the UN charter which authorizes “such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.” 

They also mentioned the “Responsibility to Protect” resolution passed by the UN in 2005, which acknowledges that states have the responsibility to safeguard citizens of any other country being attacked by their own government.

But some opposition representatives disagree with the stances adopted by their organizations.

Although the Syrian National Council is officially requesting military intervention and aid for the FSA, council member Afra Jabali told Egypt Independent she is concerned that unchecked arming of an unorganized group like the FSA could lead to more bloodshed and possible civil wars after Assad is removed from power.

“There are also members of the SNC who don’t completely back the foreign intervention,” Jabali said. “We feel it’s not even viable and we’ve put so much effort into mobilizing and campaigning for international intervention and it ended up happening at the expense of actually supporting and mobilizing Syrian civic movements and other means to bringing down the regime.”

Meanwhile, the leftist Syrian National Coordination Body objected to all forms of violent solutions, despite earlier expressing support for armed resistance.

“The use of violence will lead us to a long war whose winner will be unknown. There has to be a mutual agreement to halt violence from both sides and release all political prisoners,” said Haytham Mannaa, head of the group.

The group also expressed acceptance of a Russian-backed plan for a joint transitional government between Assad’s regime and the opposition as a step toward elections. The plan, which was proposed during a meeting of world leaders in Geneva last weekend, was rejected by almost all the other opposition groups.

Other opposition groups have accused the Syrian National Coordination Body of collaborating with the Assad regime.

“They have been paid to say that,” alleged Abdul Dayem. “The US is using the National Coordination Body to project the image that the Syrian opposition is divided. In my opinion, the US and the west want Assad to stay. All they offered was talk.”

During the Cairo conference, opposition forces also discussed a nine-page national pact that laid out steps to be taken in a transition period that would follow Assad’s removal.

“There is a unanimous agreement by all forces that Syria should be a civil, democratic, pluralistic state after Assad’s departure,” said Sotary, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood representative.

The pact tackled issues such as transitional justice and putting on trial members of Assad’s regime, and the formation of a National Defense Council that includes the Free Syrian Army and honorable elements of the official military not involved in perpetrating attacks against Syrians.

But just before the end of the meeting, members of the National Kurdish Council burst out of the room in anger after a heated discussion over their role in a post-Assad Syria.

“Scandal, scandal,” cried delegates. Women wept as men traded blows, and hotel staff hurriedly removed tables and chairs as the scuffles spread, Reuters reported.

“We will not return to the conference and that is our final line. We are a people as we have a language and religion, and that is what defines a people,” said Morshed Mashouk, a leading member of the Kurdish group that walked out.

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, (the majority are Sunni Muslims) and have been subject to systematic discrimination, including the arbitrary denial of citizenship to an estimated 300,000 Syrian-born Kurds.

Wahid Saqr, member of the liberal National Change Current, told Egypt Independent that the Kurdish group demands autonomy, “but we consider Kurds an inalienable part of the Syrian people.

“They have the same rights and obligations as all of the Syrian citizens. We are against dividing Syria into confederations,” he said. “It is a shame to discuss such issues before toppling Assad’s regime … We are here because our people are being slaughtered in Syria,” said Saqr, who is a member of the Alawi sect, the same religious minority as Assad.

Government forces continued to bombard several Syrian cities throughout the conference. The death toll has surpassed 100,000 since the uprising began on 15 March 2011, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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