Thursday, May 23, 2013

Madrid Meeting Exposes Divisons in Syrian Opposition

by Andrés Cala

Opposition can only agree on refusal to negotiate with Assad
Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib (L) meets with Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister Manuel Garcia-Margallo in Madrid on May 21, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/ DANI POZO)
Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib (L) meets with Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister Manuel Garcia-Margallo in Madrid on May 21, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/ DANI POZO)

Madrid, Asharq Al-Awsat—A two-day meeting of the Syrian opposition in Madrid ended yesterday, with agreement on few issues except the refusal to negotiate with a Syrian government led by Bashar Al-Assad.

The conference’s final resolution called on the international community to ensure that Assad has “no role in the decisions taken regarding Syria’s transition period or the future of the country.”

The divisions within the fractious opposition movement were obvious to observers at the conference, prompting Syrian National Coalition (SNC) interim president Moaz Al-Khatib to admit that the opposition’s biggest challenge is its lack of unity.

“The revolution’s weakness is that it lacks a political brain,” said Khatib, a former moderate imam of the Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque. 

“If we can’t overcome this, only one front of the conflict will be open, the international front. We have to unite and coordinate ourselves to overcome this weakness,” he told delegates in Arabic.

Khatib also condemned ties to Al-Qaeda held by some Syrian militias fighting Assad, perhaps the biggest factor in the international community’s reluctance to arm Syria’s rebels. 

However, he also said he would be willing to negotiate with groups associated with Al-Qaeda in order “to reorient them,” which is sure to raise alarms in Western capitals that have demanded that the opposition break with terrorist-affiliated militias.

Khatib resigned in March after being criticized for his perceived willingness to negotiate with Assad, and is currently waiting for the nomination of a new leader for the SNC. In Spain he reiterated his willingness to talk to the Syrian regime to end the war that has killed more than 70,000 people and left more than 1.5 million displaced, as long as it involves Assad stepping down. 

The conference follows signals from the international community that it expects Khatib and his followers to do more to unite into a cohesive and credible opposition, or risk being sidelined. Accordingly, the SNC and Khatib were not invited to this week’s Friends of Syria conference in Jordan. 

The results of this week’s opposition conference is likely to raise doubts about the prospects for success of the international conference proposed for June by Russia and the US, which is intended to seek a political solution to the ongoing Syrian crisis.

The SNC will meet again in Turkey this week, and decide within the next two weeks whether they will participate in proposed US-Russian brokered talks that would include representatives of Assad’s regime.

However, if they continue to insist that Assad steps down as a precondition for talks, it is unclear if the Syrian government will be willing to negotiate in earnest.

Andrés Cala is an award-winning journalist, columnist and analyst specializing in geopolitics and energy whose career spans three continents and over a dozen countries.


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