CAIRO (Reuters) - A brawl at a meeting of the Syrian opposition this week in Cairo put on display the divisions among those struggling to oust President Bashar al-Assad and provides an excuse for world powers who have been wary of intervention to sit on their hands.
The row that spilled into the marble-lined corridors of a five-star Cairo hotel on Tuesday came at the end of a two-day meeting sponsored by the Arab League that had begun with appeals from Arab and Turkish ministers for a show of unity.
There was little sign of solidarity from the outset as the 200 or so members of Syrian opposition groups and activists, ranging from Islamists to secularists, most of them living in exile, haggled over the shape of a post-Assad Syria.
“Such disputes will tarnish the image of the opposition and destroy the spirits of our rebel fighters inside,” said activist Gawad al-Khatib, 27, who watched in tears of frustration when Kurdish activists stormed out after trading blows with rivals inside the meeting hall. Opponents shouted abuse as they left.
After 16 months, the revolt in Syria has dragged on far longer than any other Arab Spring uprising, in part because of Assad’s willingness to turn tanks on his citizens, but also because of rifts in the opposition and among world powers.
Western governments are reluctant to throw their weight behind a splintered opposition. And those divisions fuel Assad’s argument that the only alternative to his rule is chaos.
Russia has blocked action at the United Nations against its longtime ally, while Western powers have pressed for punitive U.N. resolutions but have not sought the kind of military intervention used in Libya to help oust Muammar Gaddafi.
“If you are sitting in Moscow, this reinforces the point of view ... that there is no alternative to Assad,” said Nadim Shehadi of London’s Chatham House after the two-day talks.
But he said U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, after extricating U.S. forces from Iraq, also wanted to avoid becoming bogged down in a new conflict. “Let’s face it. The United States doesn’t want to do anything. The disunity of the opposition is a convenient excuse not to do much,” he said.
The Cairo meeting, one of the biggest such gatherings of Assad’s opponents, was supposed to help rally the opposition around broad principles for a new Syria and to appoint a follow-up committee that would have acted as their face to the world.
It fell short of that. They could not agree on a committee and many left with reservations about the main documents presented to them, which outlined principles on governing Syria in transition and drafting a new constitution.
“Cairo was just too big. It was trying to bring together too many people, some of whom have no credibility on the ground anyway,” said Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center.
“I had very low expectations for this meeting going into it, so I am not at all surprised that it turned out as it did.”
Those inside Syria have often watched in dismay as exiled politicians have argued amongst themselves abroad, even as guns rip through demonstrations and shells fall on their cities.
“Their meeting was a failure. In terms of the result, it’s unacceptable to the revolutionaries inside Syria. They’re trying to plan for the period after Assad and we’re still trying to get rid of him,” said an activist in Damascus who would only give his name as Samir to avoid identification by the authorities.
“The people who decide are those of us on the ground.”
Yet even inside Syria, there are rivalries between different Islamist or other groups and between those who call for peaceful protests versus those backing an armed struggle.
A spokesman in Turkey for the Free Syria Army, leading the armed revolt against Assad, said it had sent a representative to Cairo, but a rebel commander on the ground, Qassim Saadedin, said in a statement that the force had boycotted the talks.
Although dominated by exiles, the Cairo talks included some who had fled Syria in recent months or weeks, and a few who travelled to the Egyptian capital with plans to return to Syria.
Arab League diplomats and officials had expressed only modest hopes for the discussions even before they got underway. Privately, some voiced exasperation at the bitter rows that often flared and the barely concealed animosity during talks.
But a senior League diplomat told Reuters the world community had to lower its expectations of the disparate opponents who had been efficiently crushed for four decades under Assad and his father before him.
“If the international community wanted a nice, organised opposition in Syria, they are dreaming,” he said afterwards. “The reality of the situation in Syria is very difficult and confusing. This is result of 40 years of dictatorship.”
Though not a perfect start, he called the talks a “first step” that had created a frame of reference for what a post-Assad Syria would look like. The groups all backed broad principles for a future democratic state, even if agreement on details eluded them. “We can handle this later on,” he said.
The diplomat noted as a positive development that the Russian ambassador to Cairo had addressed the opposition meeting. “One month ago, Russians were refusing to attend such a meeting, much less speak,” he said.
The row between Kurds and other members of the opposition might have been predicted as their status in a new Syria has been a bone of contention even in preparatory talks, said Shehadi who had moderated a meeting held before Cairo.
Marginalised by Assad, Kurds want a degree of autonomy in a decentralized state, although even they do not always agree amongst themselves about how far that should go, said Shaikh, whose centre hosted talks in the past among Kurdish leaders.
Shaikh said outlining a future vision could build up opposition to Assad.
“The end state discussion is more about helping to turn the tide against Assad further, which gives confidence and brings in the minorities and others sitting on the fence,” he said.
After Kurds stormed out, Radwan Ziadeh, a leader in the opposition Syrian National Council, said fresh discussions would be held on Wednesday evening to bridge gaps. But the overture was rejected by Kurdish National Council leader Morshed Mashouk, who said he would not sit with “those narrow-minded people.”
The senior diplomat sought to explain the often heated sessions and short tempers by saying: “Everyone wants everything now. When they meet they all have their grievances”.
But he said world powers, whatever their worries, could not afford to stand idle. “This is dangerous. If the situation stays like this, we fear having a failed state in Syria,” he said.
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Graff