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Syrian Opposition Groups Try to Meld Divergent Approaches

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Syrian protesters shout anti-Assad slogans during a protest in front of the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, November 12, 2011.

Syrian protesters shout anti-Assad slogans during a protest in front of the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, November 12, 2011.

As the Arab League moves closer to Syria's opposition, differences in both aims and approach among anti-government forces are coming to the fore.

Syria's opposition is united on one point: the status quo cannot hold - and many praise the Arab League for the way it framed the issue.

The league's ultimatum for a withdrawal of security forces, the release of jailed opponents and dialogue has some activists calling it a strategic move that highlights the Syrian government's plight.

Cairo-based activist Mohamed Aloush says if the regime implements the Arab League plan, it is finished -if it does not implement the plan, it is finished as well. The independent activist says the government fell the moment the uprising began and now it is just trying to buy time.

The Arab League and others are reaching out to members of Syria's opposition, reportedly even the government's long-time backer, Iran. But even as the call for change grows - most recently from Jordan's King Abdullah - divisions among anti-government forces are emerging.

Reform through dialogue

Among the disparate voices is the National Coordination Committee, led by Hassan Abdul-Azim. The mainly Syria-based group hopes to persuade the government to reform through dialogue and building civil institutions. The approach has earned the NCC the wrath of other activists, who threw eggs at members engaged in talks in Cairo last week.

Activist Aloush thinks the reaction is unfair. He says there is no denying the NCC has people who carry weight within the opposition and have a documented history of struggle. Their patriotism, he adds, cannot be doubted.

But many in the opposition look to another group, the Turkey-based Syrian National Council. Its supporters prefer the group's rejection of dialogue with the government of President Bashar al-Assad and just want him to leave.

Supporter Abdel Kader of the opposition Syria Media Office says the Syrian National Council represents the "Syrian street," and that can be seen in a recent rally in its support, which he says drew millions of people.

Despite their differences on goals, the two groups are united in their methods. Both share a commitment to peaceful protests, no matter what the provocation of Syrian government forces.

Offensive stance

But a third group has shown increasing willingness to go on the offensive. The Free Syrian Army, made up of some of the estimated 10,000 military defectors, was initially formed to protect civilians, but some members have recently gone on the attack.

Amateur video indicates they are also increasingly better armed, trading the standard-issue rifles they defected with for machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

The idea of armed resistance is gaining traction among some government opponents. Activist Taha Khelo has been keeping vigil outside Arab League headquarters in Cairo.

Khelo calls for a no-fly zone, to keep the Syrian military under control, and the creation of a buffer zone for civilians as well as military defectors from which they can attack government forces.

Political observers say regional and international action, or inaction, on Syria in the coming days could either help coalesce or further divide these competing groups.