AMMAN (Reuters) - A power struggle within Syria’s main opposition group is pitting Islamists against secular politicians and exiled leaders against activists at home, further undermining its claim to be an alternative to President Bashar al-Assad.
Fourteen months into an uprising, the squabbling in the Syrian National Council makes it even less likely to be able to win international recognition or to get more than half-hearted foreign support against Assad.
On the ground, the council shows no sign of exerting control as grassroots activists organize protests themselves and rebel fighters operate under nobody’s orders but their own.
More than anything, critics say, the disarray within the opposition mirrors the chaos of Syria itself.
“You have a classic situation in the SNC, not much different from the four-decade old totalitarian Assad family rule the uprising aims to topple,” said veteran opposition figure Fawaz Tello.
The internal conflicts have come to a head over the position of Burhan Ghalioun, who offered to step down as leader of the 313-member council last week if a replacement can be found - not that there is guarantee one will be.
Some critics brand the 67-year-old liberal sociologist a stooge of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and say he was chosen because he would attract Western support.
Some criticize him for monopolizing the position of council leader, which is meant to rotate every three months.
Others fault him for failing to back the armed rebellion against Assad.
“Burhan Ghalioun: the Syrian National Council is dying... We accept your resignation,” read placards at an anti-Assad rally in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor on Friday.
There are signs that foreign patience with the council is running thin too.
That does not bode well for the opposition’s chances of getting diplomatic or military support.
The Western and Arab countries which recognized Libyan rebels within weeks of them taking up arms against Muammar Gaddafi are still holding back when it comes to Syria.
A military source in France, one of Assad’s most vocal opponents, said the opposition needed to be better organized.
“We don’t have that and now it’s playing into the hands of Islamist groups and making it even more difficult for the opposition to organize itself,” the French source said.
The first step is sorting out the leadership position and the Islamists who dominate the council say they are trying to convince Ghalioun to stay on.
“If he insists on leaving it will be time to convene the whole council and choose a new leadership on every level,” said Mulhem Droubi, a high-level Muslim Brotherhood official.
Ghalioun is well-connected with France and with Qatar so may still be as close as possible to a consensus figure.
But counting against Ghalioun is opposition from inside Syria because of his skepticism over armed resistance by majority Sunni Muslims to the rule of Assad, who is from the minority Alawite sect.
“The rift between the SNC and those inside is growing,” said Yasser Saadeldine, an opposition leaning commentator living in the Gulf. “Ghalioun lacks charisma and he has not embraced armed struggle after Assad killed thousands of his peaceful opponents.”
A senior member of the Free Syrian Army rebel group said Ghalioun was not even “in the equation” but did acknowledge that the Islamists who support him were trying to build serious links with the rebels.
Another candidate for leader could be George Sabra, who came second to Ghalioun in the last leadership vote. Sabra is an ally of Syria’s top dissident Riad al-Turk, an 81-year-old former leftist who spent 25 years as a political prisoner and operates underground inside Syria.
The Islamists might also put forward another candidate of their own.
But demands are growing for a more radical change than simply a new leader.
“There is an elite in the SNC who have brought their own cohorts into the council. They will essentially re-elect themselves unless the SNC is seriously restructured,” said Tello, jailed for five years after a brief period of openness in 200, when Assad inherited power from his father.
Critics say the council needs to better articulate its policy on a U.N. and Arab League peace plan that envisages talks with the authorities on a transition, but not removing Assad’s family or dismantling the police state.
Some believe the council will fall apart if it does not undergo a radical overhaul.
“The SNC is on the verge of collapse unless it becomes representative of the whole opposition,” said Rima Fleihan, a human rights campaigner who quit the SNC last year.
“It needs to become democratic from A to Z. What is needed now is a broad opposition meeting to escape the vicious cycle of infighting and division.”
Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Matthew Tostevin