As blood continues to spill on the streets of Syria, opposition groups are convening in Doha, Qatar, this week to address one of the movement’s most fundamental challenges.
Ever since the Syrian rebellion began in March 2011, the resistance has been plagued by fragmentation, both on the ground and among organizations in exile.
The Syrian National Council has gathered for the beginning of a week-long conference in Qatar in hopes of addressing this problem. The SNC has long claimed to represent the international face of the resistance movement, but the group, which consists mostly of long-term exiles, has often been criticized for being out of touch.
Early reports from the Doha gathering suggest that efforts to reach an accord are quickly deteriorating. On Monday, according to the Guardian, former SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun said the Doha talks were already “dead.”
His pronouncement recalls a similar meeting that took place in Cairo in July. That conference ended in scuffles and even a brief fistfight, with the SNC refusing to yield authority and a group representing Syrian Kurds walking out early.
Following that embarrassment, the international community is wary about the prospects of the current gathering in Doha.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her position very clear on Oct. 31, when she said during a press conference that the SNC was no longer considered a viable representative of Syrian rebels’ interests.
"We've made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition," she said, according to Voice of America. "They can be part of a larger opposition. But that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard."
Clinton warned that a group of long-term exiles -- especially one as riven by internal disputes and personal clashes as the SNC -- would have to become more inclusive in order to be legitimate.
"This cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes but have, in many instances, not been in Syria for 20, 30, 40 years. There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom," she said.
The Doha gathering began Sunday, with SNC members constituting most of the attendees. But on Wednesday, reports the New York Times, other groups will join the discussion in attempts to form an umbrella organization.
Some non-SNC rebel leaders have proposed the creation of a new 50-member council, 15 of whom would come from the SNC. The remainder would consist of officials and military leaders with a close connection to events on the ground in Syria.
This idea is backed by the United States, but SNC leader Abdulbaset Sieda is likely to fight for greater representation for his organization.
“The main aim is to expand the council to include more of the social and political components,” he said on Sunday, according to the New York Times.
Another opposition group, called the Local Coordination Committees -- which has much stronger connections to rebels on the ground than does the SNC -- has already criticized the Doha meeting.
In a Monday statement, the LCC argued that “any formation of a new political entity must aim to represent the revolution and prioritize securing organized military support for the rebels and for relief efforts, despite personal loyalties and interests.”
But this group, too, seems to be plagued by division; it rejects foreign interference even as it pleads for military assistance.
While internationally based groups struggle to find common ground, the situation in Syria is worsening by the day. No Western military assistance has been committed, despite widespread calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Meanwhile, weapons provided by Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia bypass exiled groups like the SNC and go straight to the rebel fighters.
But those fighters, loosely organized under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, are still lightly armed in comparison to Assad’s formidable forces. They have been sporadically winning and losing pieces of territory over the past 20 months, and the costs of the struggle are mounting. According to some opposition activists’ estimates, more than 36,000 people have lost their lives so far, many of them civilians.
But even on the ground, division impedes long-term progress.
A March report from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, named 22 rebel fighter groups that had formed to resist the regime. In the estimation of study author Joseph Holliday, only four of them had demonstrated clear ties to the FSA as well as a clear pattern of engaging regime troops. Five had ties to the FSA but engaged in battle only rarely, if at all. The other 13 showed little or no evidence of waging effective battles against Assad’s forces.
This fragmentation has been cited as a major challenge to international powers who might otherwise work more closely with the rebels to oust the regime. As U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, “It is not clear what constitutes the Syrian armed opposition -- there has been no single unifying military alternative that can be recognized, appointed or contacted.”
Another problem has to do with extremists’ ongoing infiltration of the rebel movement, which turns the political conflict into an increasingly sectarian one.
“As the militias continue to face overwhelming regime firepower, the likelihood of their radicalization may increase. Moreover, the indigenous rebels may turn to al Qaeda for high-end weaponry and spectacular tactics as the regime’s escalation leaves the rebels with no proportionate response,” explained the ISW report.
Considering the turmoil in Syria, uniting opposition groups abroad should be easier than achieving unity on the ground -- but this essential first step that has been a long time coming. If this week’s Doha meeting is to be a success, groups with competing interests will have to put aside their differences in favor of their common goal: ousting Assad.
So far, that goal remains out of reach for exiled groups struggling to exert themselves -- but at the very least, their failures are not due to a lack of willpower.
“It is no longer acceptable, under any pretext, to continue with the absence of a unified and effective political leadership for the revolution,” said the Monday statement from the LCC.
“All political parties must come together as quickly as possible to reach the proper political representation of the revolution.”