BEIRUT Aug 5 Three separate Syrian opposition
groups have floated proposals for a transitional government in
the past week, a sign that differences among the many factions
opposing President Bashar al-Assad are deepening even as victory
With fighting reaching Damascus and Aleppo in the past
month, Western countries are increasingly anxious to see the
disparate groups agree on a credible plan for a transitional
government should Assad fall.
The head of the Syrian National Council (SNC), a
long-established opposition umbrella group, said talks would be
held within weeks to form a transitional government.
The next day the Free Syria Army, a loosely coordinated
group of insurgents fighting Assad's forces, floated a separate
proposal that called for the establishment of a higher defence
council bringing together military and civilian figures.
And the day after that, a group of exiled Syrian activists
who left the SNC announced a new opposition alliance that also
aimed to form a transitional government.
It is neither news nor a surprise that Syria's opposition is
divided. Assad's opponents include Islamists and secularists,
Kurds and Arabs, Sunni Muslims and members of religious
minorities, defected army officers and the political activists
they once hunted, exiles abroad and fighters on the ground.
The Istanbul-based SNC in particular has come under fire for
being out of touch with the fighting in Syria itself. Colonel
Riad al-Asaad, nominal head of the Free Syria Army, said it was
made up of opportunists who want "to ride over our revolution
and trade with the blood of our martyrs".
Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge, broke away from the SNC to
launch the "Council for the Syrian Revolution".
"I don't differ with the Syrian National Council over their
vision, but over their tactics. I'm different in that I'm
working on the ground, and they're just theorising," he told
Burhan Ghalioun, the SNC's former leader, said news of the
SNC's plans to form a transitional government had created "a
competitive dynamic" among those who want a role.
"I think we will be able to overcome this competition ... I
think Haitham's move was a wrong one and it must be fixed with
minimum fuss and without giving it importance," he told Reuters.
Most alarming for the West, the rebels fighting inside Syria
include al Qaeda-style Islamist fighters with a strong
sectarian, Sunni Muslim agenda. Secularist opposition figures
and members of religious minorities are also worried.
"Several opposition groups have adopted an increasingly
fundamentalist discourse and demeanour, a trajectory that
mirrors the conflict's gradually deadlier and more confessional
turn (and) popular loss of faith in the West," the International
Crisis Group said in a report.
Western countries fear that sectarian killings could make it
difficult to halt the fighting even if Assad falls, and could
unleash the sort of mass slaughter that erupted in Iraq after
Saddam Hussein was toppled.
Among other issues dividing the opposition is the role of
senior defectors like Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, a former
member of Assad's inner circle who fled Syria and has since been
hosted by anti-Assad governments in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Many opposition activists say Tlas is tainted by his long
service under Assad and worry that he will be foisted on them as
a future leader. Ghalioun said he sees a military role for Tlas
and other defecting officers to retake control of the army and
re-establish security in the country. Maleh was dismissive.
"I do not think that Manaf Tlas has a role in the coming
time as a leader. He should have announced his defection when he
left Syria and said 'I'm joining the Free Syrian Army and I will
fight alongside them,'" Maleh said.
However, some experts say the opposition's fractiousness has
a positive side, showing pluralism emerging after decades of
repression under the Assad family's Baathist rule.
"This is a political society emerging after almost nothing.
So the diversity is normal and healthy," said Nadim Shehadi,
Middle East expert at London's Chatham House think tank.
"This argument about the incoherence of the opposition and
the fact the opposition doesn't constitute an alternative to the
regime was used before as an excuse to do nothing," he said.
"We have to help the opposition to come up with a transition
plan and with an alternative."