Syria Opposition Struggles to Overcome Rifts

Human rights activist Haitham al Maleh reluctantly concludes there is no choice but to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army, in Cairo, Egypt, March 6, 2012.
Human rights activist Haitham al Maleh reluctantly concludes there is no choice but to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army, in Cairo, Egypt, March 6, 2012.
Elizabeth Arrott

Members of Syria's opposition are downplaying a rift in their ranks, but acknowledge problems within the Syrian National Council. Some of the main opposition group's more outspoken members have been talking about the ways they think are best to proceed.

Main Opposition Groups

  • Syrian National Council: Established in Istanbul in October 2011. Members include Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, pro-democracy group Damascus Declaration and Local Coordination Committees.
  • Syrian Patriotic Group: Formed in February 2012 by disaffected SNC members. The group seeks to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad's government.
  • National Coordination Body for Democratic Change: Established in Syria in June 2011 to promote "peaceful" departure of Mr. Assad's government. Members include Arab socialist parties and Kurdish parties.
  • Free Syrian Army: Formed in July 2011 by military defectors. Group initially focused on protecting opposition protesters from attacks by pro-Assad forces but later shifted to offensive operations against government forces.

Much of the opposition within Syria is fragmented, struggling simply to survive against the onslaught of the Syrian army. Those abroad have for the most part coalesced under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council [SNC], led by the Paris-based academic Burhan Ghalioun. Late last month, however, several prominent SNC members appeared to split from the group over military support for the rebel Free Syrian Army.

The leader of what was dubbed the Syrian Patriotic Group, long-time human rights activist Haitham al-Maleh, said he did not abandon the SNC, but that the time has come for military action. He argues any healthy opposition has a multitude of voices.

“The opposition is not one body, one union. But we have one view for the future, so this is very important," said al-Maleh. "Inside the Syrian National Council, there is also some different ideas. In my opinion, Burhan Ghalioun doesn't want to take the hard step to support the [rebel] army by weapons. He doesn't want to play this side, maybe he is afraid. I don't know what his idea is."

Days later, despite an announcement by Ghalioun that he had formed a military council to work with the rebel army, the SNC leader's intentions remained unclear. The head of the Free Syrian Army said he was not consulted, and other factions of the armed opposition said they would continue to work independently.

Long-time political activist and SNC member Walid al-Bouni said Ghalioun's move was disingenuous.

“When you make a military council without making any discussion with other people inside the SNC. All of us, we heard this from the TV.  Do you think that such kind of man is serious for support this Free Army? No, I don't think so,” said al-Bouni.

Al-Bouni believes the SNC needs a more charismatic leader, and that the group must make more of an effort to bring a broader spectrum of prominent dissidents on board. He said it's “our fault” they have not been able to enlist such figures as Michel Kilo, Aref Dalila, or Suheir Atassi.

But al-Bouni argues that internal divisions are not so profound as to justify the lack of help and recognition the SNC is getting from the international community in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“They didn't act against him not because the Syrian opposition is not united. I'm not convinced that because of disunity of the Syrian opposition they didn't act until now. They didn't act because they didn't want to act,” said al-Bouni.

The United States and European nations have been strong in their condemnation of Assad, but like President Barack Obama said again Tuesday, unilateral action against him would be a mistake. With Russia and China opposed to military force, international efforts have been stymied.

The geopolitics of Syria are far more complex than that of Libya, where NATO played a decisive role. In addition, fears of what could replace the Assad government - from militant Islamists to sectarian strife - also have dampened enthusiasm for intervention.

Al-Bouni argued that not supporting the Free Syrian Army, though, all but guarantees such an outcome.

"By saying, like what the United States is saying and others, 'we will not support the Syrian [Free] Army. We will not arm it' -  what we will have? We will have that every Syrian group could have some money from other place, who supports one kind of militia and after Bashar al-Assad, then will be a very big chaos,” said al-Bouni.

Advocating armed insurrection, even under the unified command of the Free Army, is not something either man takes lightly. Both al-Bouni and al-Maleh have spent decades speaking out for reform and human rights - peaceful ways to ensure human dignity - and have spent years in Syrian prisons for their efforts.

But al-Maleh sees no other choice.

“Now we have only one way: to fight, because you know, all the world, the international community, did not do anything until now for Syria," said al-Maleh. "Do we have to stay and wait for more people to be killed for nothing? We know this is the tax for free[dom], but this is a really high tax and the people of Syria want to pay."

They will not stop, he argued, and neither will the Syrian government.

Join the conversation on our social journalism site -
Middle East Voices
. Follow our Middle East reports on
Twitter and discuss them on our Facebook page.
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Igor
March 07, 2012 7:56 PM
The rebels are armed gangsters wearing the so-called coats "Freedom fighters" given by the West. They have killed thousands of innocent people and blamed the gorvenment for the killings with the support of Westen media.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs

Day in Photos

A dog, with his fur dyed green and wearing antlers made out of red fabric, poses for a photograph before participating in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in El Paso, Texas, United States, Nov. 26, 2015.

A dog, with his fur dyed green and wearing antlers made out of red fabric, poses for a photograph before participating in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in El Paso, Texas, United States, Nov. 26, 2015.