The many different opinions in opposition

Those trying to seize Syria can't seem to agree on a cohesive plan. By Kim Sengupta in Brussels
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The Independent Online

As the uprising against Bashar al-Assad's regime started, the political voice leading the dissent supposedly came from the Syrian National Council. But then came the National Co-ordination Committee with its own agenda. And last week saw the emergence of the Syrian Patriotic Group.

Relations between the military factions are equally fraught: first it was the Free Syria Army, with the Free Officers Movement in competition. Now the Syrian Liberation Army says it's doing the real fighting.

With this disunity apparently holding up international recognition and the cash and weapons that come with it, representatives of the groups are meeting to fashion something resembling a common platform. But the confidential, low-profile discussions held in Amman, Paris and Brussels have, at times, been fractious.

"We have made a little progress, but there have also been disagreements," said activist Qais al-Baidi. "It has sometimes been reduced to shouts about who betrayed whose father to whom. The people on the ground are being tortured and massacred. It is urgent the leadership outside the country get organised." The most glaring division is between the leadership of the civilian wing of the revolution and the rebel fighters. The Syrian National Council (SNC) in particular has been accused of turning into a cosy club of people staying outside Syria who swan around international conferences paid for by the Qataris and Saudis.

One of the main points of contention has been who would control the weapons coming from outside the country. The SNC leader, Burhan Ghalioun, announced the setting up of a Military Council, which he said had been approved by the armed factions. "We will look at the military needs of each force and supply them with what is needed," he said.

But this has been contradicted by the head of the Free Syria Army (FSA), Colonel Riad al-Assad, who claims he has not been consulted.

"I really don't know the objective of this body," he said. "They say it is the Military Council, but the military men are not properly asked about their views."

But some rebel factions are themselves dissatisfied with the FSA. Mohammed Mifsud Abdullah, an officer with the Syrian Liberation Army (SLA), who has been fighting in Idlib, said: "Our area has received the most government attacks after Homs.

"So where were the FSA? We are protecting the people here and we certainly do not recognise the FSA as being over us."

Kamal al-Labwani, who left to form the Syrian Patriotic Group, emphasised that the new organisation did not want a confrontation with the SNC. But he added: "We cannot have the constant infighting which has gone on. Also, we believe that the Muslim Brotherhood has too powerful a role [in the SNC]."

Another high-level defector from the SNC is Haitham al-Maleh, a lawyer and former judge who has been repeatedly jailed by the regime.

"A lot of people need to send weapons to the Free Syrian Army, maybe from Jordan, from Lebanon, from Turkey. A lot of people know they can take the weapons through the border," he said. "We need to support the Free Syrian Army by medium weapons, because we cannot bring tanks, or helicopter or something like this; with medium weapons they can finish this regime."

But it remains highly unlikely the rebels can fulfil Mr al-Maleh's expectation of finishing the regime, at least in the short term. The main reason is that none of the various forces have command and control structures.

Hanging over the revolution is the dark cloud of sectarianism. There are no Alawites, the community from which Assad and the country's elite are drawn, in top SNC positions.

Some of the rebel "brigades" openly espouse hardline Sunni and anti-Shia sentiments. The Alawites are a Shia offshoot. Three bombings, in Damascus and Aleppo, are thought to have been the work of al-Qa'ida.

The rebels do have some money for arms, but supply is a problem. Last week Izzadine Hihano slipped across the border into Turkey to buy ammunition. He got 300 bullets.

"How long would that last?" he said. "Some of the other groups have more money and so they are getting weapons by paying higher prices. But they are also extremists. In our brigade one senior officer is a Christian and we have Alawites helping us across the border. But if we don't get help the extremists will succeed."