Middle East

Syrian opposition split over key issues

Demonstrators protesting against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad
Image caption According to the UN more than 3,500 people have died in anti-government protests

Syria has a variety of opposition groups - some new and some old. While they share a desire for change, they disagree on some fundamental issues.

These include the question of whether or not to encourage foreign intervention, whether there should be regime change or dialogue, and whether there should be armed rebellion or peaceful protest.

The Syrian opposition can be divided into four groups:

  • dissidents in exile abroad who recently formed the Syrian National Council (SNC)
  • opposition blocs inside Syria itself who form part of the National Coordination Committee (NCC)
  • the grassroots protest movement in Syria
  • army officers who have defected and make up the Free Syrian Army

Calls for imposing a no-fly zone and foreign intervention appear to be the main points of contention for Syria's opposition both inside and outside the country.

The founding statement of the SNC openly rejects foreign military intervention on the ground, but the group has asked for ''international protection''.

Some members want a buffer zone or a no-fly zone, similar to the one introduced in Libya.

Haytham al-Malih, a prominent SNC member and the head of Syria's Salvation Congress, has said that the council is seeking a type of intervention that "would not turn into an occupation".

'Washington club'

But the NCC rejects foreign intervention as damaging to the revolution. It favours dialogue, with its programme of "three 'no's" rejecting foreign intervention, sectarianism and violence.

A leading opposition voice within the NCC, Haytham Manna, has described the SNC as "a Washington Club" and said he considers anyone calling for foreign intervention a "traitor". Another NCC member, Qadri Jamil, went so far as to describe members of the SNC as an "unpatriotic opposition in Istanbul that calls for and works towards western interference in Syria".

The NCC also appears to be reluctant to affiliate itself with the SNC for fear of being associated with the West - a criticism currently used by Syrian state media to tar the SNC's image.

SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun said in October that both groups were agreed on "a complete break with the regime and are clearly demanding its departure".

But NCC member Qadri Jamil told his party's conference the same day: "The slogan 'the overthrow of the regime' is unpractical, unrealistic and useless". He insisted on dialogue with the authorities.

Despite this, the NCC has refused to engage in the government's initiative for reconciliation talks with government opponents, saying that the authorities were merely trying to buy time while they ''liquidate the forces of the uprising''.

The SNC and the NCC share a declared commitment to peaceful protest and both stress the non-violent nature of their demands.

This appears to contrast with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has mounted sporadic attacks on Syrian security and regular army forces, in and around Homs and Idlib provinces.

The FSA has openly called for a UN-imposed no-fly zone. However, its leadership has admitted that it does not pose much of a challenge to the Syrian army in terms of numbers and military capabilities.

The emergence of the FSA has worried the various opposition factions, who fear it might escalate the crisis and trigger a civil war.

'Serious mistake'

Mr Ghalioun has said he has had little contact with the group but he could not afford to "ignore them, sacrifice them or leave them to work without a political agenda". He added that he was urging the FSA to coordinate with the grassroots movement.

Syria's Local Coordination Committees (LCC) and the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), the grassroots movements organising the protests via multiple social media platforms, both belong to the SNC.

The LCC and SRGC have organised pro-SNC protests, resulting in more demands from Syrian social media users for foreign intervention.

However, these pro-SNC protests have only irked the NCC, who described one of them as "a serious mistake because it calls for division and political disputation in the street, which is what the authorities seek".

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