ROME (Reuters) - When it comes to influencing Syria’s bloody struggle between President Bashar al-Assad and rebels trying to unseat him, the exile opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) seems as helpless an onlooker as world powers groping for a strategy.
The SNC tepidly backed the peace plan U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan agreed with Assad a month ago with the support of the West, China, Russia, the Arab League and almost everyone else.
But Annan’s ceasefire is in tatters and the rest of his six-point deal is mostly confined to the paper it was written on.
U.N. monitors are trickling in, but it is unclear how even the full 300-strong team can halt a budding civil war in Syria, where deadly car bombings present a murky new challenge for the Syrian opposition and its Arab and Western well-wishers alike.
The outside world still clings to the Annan plan as it has nothing to fall back on, given widespread aversion to military intervention or arming rebels and the lack of international consensus even for U.N. condemnation of Assad’s attempt to crush dissent by killing well over 9,000 people in 14 months.
Damascus says foreign-backed “armed terrorist groups” have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and police who are fighting a plot to divide Syria and bring down a reform-minded president.
The SNC, beset by rifts and lacking full world recognition, has struggled, like the West, to keep pace with events at home.
Initially wary of armed resistance in response to Assad’s violent crackdown, it now backs the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is itself divided and has only tenuous control over the outgunned local groups fighting the Syrian army.
An FSA spokesman inside Syria acknowledged as much.
“Communication lines are always being cut and it is difficult to organize between different regions, I can’t hide that this is a problem,” Colonel Qassim Saadeddine, who heads the FSA’s military council in Homs, told Reuters by Skype.
A spate of explosions, such as two that killed 55 people in Damascus last week, may be the work of Islamist suicide bombers, as the authorities insist, or part of an Assad plot to discredit the popular uprising, as the opposition claims.
Either way, the SNC and outside powers, including its most fervent patrons Turkey and France, risk losing any traction in a conflict which has its own dynamics - and some of the sectarian flavor of those that previously wrecked Lebanon and Iraq.
The United States, wary of another foreign entanglement, especially in a presidential election year, has bombarded Assad with rhetoric, but offered only “non-lethal” aid to his enemies.
The opposition within Syria may eventually throw up its own leaders, but for now outside powers are largely in the dark.
“Some of them do seem to realize that sooner or later the real centre of gravity has to be inside Syria, but they don’t quite know how to find that,” said Yezid Sayigh, at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut.
So the opposition’s main external face remains the SNC, an umbrella group of factions in which the Muslim Brotherhood, persecuted in Syria for decades, has a substantial role.
Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based academic, has led the SNC since its creation in August, despite criticism that he is out of touch with Assad’s foes in Syria. SNC officials were meeting in Rome this week to decide whether to pick a new leader.
On Monday the SNC snubbed an Arab League attempt to help it reorganize, saying the invitation to talks in Cairo had only been for individual SNC members, not for the council itself.
However, some SNC members said the real discord was over a perceived Arab drive to draw the opposition into talks with Assad on a political transition, as called for in Annan’s plan.
“I told (Nabil) Elaraby, you are dreaming,” said Fawaz Tello, an SNC leader who met the Arab League chief in Cairo last week. “No opposition leader will accept this...Any real change in Syria means the removal of the Assad family and fundamental and total overhaul of the military and security apparatus.”
No comment from Arab League officials was available.
Some Arab hawks, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have said the world should arm Syrian rebels, but Riyadh’s main motive is to weaken its arch-rival Iran by dumping Assad, Tehran’s main Arab ally. Neither Gulf state is committed to democratic change - something the Saudis have tried to snuff out in Bahrain.
Gulf promises of guns and money have remained just that, according to SNC member Jamal al-Wadi, interviewed in Istanbul.
“No government has institutionally helped the rebels with either weapons or humanitarian aid,” he said. “Weapons smuggling has been done by individuals, despite promises by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others to support the Syrian people.”
Wadi, who is from the southern town of Deraa, cradle of the revolt, said Turkey in particular had failed to match its anti-Assad rhetoric with action, and hit back at those who say they cannot help the opposition while it remains fragmented.
“The international community is using the excuse of a divided opposition as a coat hanger to escape its responsibilities, when it has the moral and humanitarian obligation to stop Assad’s bloody crackdown,” Wadi said.
Other SNC members said Western nations had not been so fussy in helping opposition groups in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya.
Yet if Western governments were leery of involvement before, the role of Islamist militants in the rebellion, whether or not this includes suicide bombings, may give them further pause.
Islamists are an integral part of the Syrian opposition, but its leaders say this does not mean jihadi militants are involved and they disavow any connection with al Qaeda or its affiliates.
“The problem is we can’t prove if al Qaeda is present or not,” said the FSA’s Colonel Saadeddine, the defector who now speaks for the rebel army’s fighters inside Syria.
“We have nothing to do with al Qaeda,” he said. “The regime is just trying to hurt the opposition’s image and terrify the international community, but this doesn’t frighten us.”
Saadeddine said he couldn’t prove the authorities were behind what they say are suicide bombings, but added: “The only one who benefits from this is the regime. It gets across their main message: either us or chaos, us or another Afghanistan.
The harsh reality is that peaceful protests, armed rebellion and Western sanctions have failed to cripple Assad, who has shored up his power by playing on the fears of his own Alawite community and other Syrian minorities unsure of their fate if the mostly Sunni Muslim uprising succeeds.
“The regime is still very much in power,” said Nikolaos van Dam, a Dutch historian of Syrian politics and former diplomat.
“Sectarianism is an essential dynamic for the regime and in effect is making the regime stronger. Those within the (Alawite-led) security forces who are loyal to the president may now feel even more solidarity than before,” van Dam said, adding that this had decreased chances of an inside coup against Assad.
“I don’t see how you bring down this regime without violence, but those who are willing to use it lack the capacity.”
Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Simon Cameron-Moore in Istanbul, James Mackenzie in Rome and William Maclean in London; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Samia Nakhoul