BEIRUT/CAIRO (Reuters) - A year into the revolt against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian National Council has emerged as the international voice of the uprising — it just can’t seem to lead it.
The mainly exile opposition group has gained the ear of foreign powers around the world, and some anti-Assad demonstrators in Syria are chanting their support for the SNC.
But it has yet to show any real command over the Syrian street, where grassroots activists insist they can drive the protests and an armed insurgency on their own.
“The Syrian people can lead their revolution against the regime by themselves,” said Abu Yazen, an activist in the rebel stronghold of Homs. “The SNC’s job is to act on the demands of the street and get support for the rebels abroad.”
Doubts over the SNC’s authority inside Syria have been brought sharply into focus by a February 24 meeting in Tunisia of the “Friends of Syria,” organised by the Arab League to try to build international momentum against Assad.
The council hopes recognition from Arab countries could finally crown it the opposition’s government-in-waiting, just as foreign recognition of Libya’s National Transitional Council last year helped rebels who eventually ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
But 11 months into the bloodiest crisis of the Arab Spring, with more than 5,000 people killed, Arab powers are wary of throwing their weight behind an opposition group that is still divided and unable to drive events on the ground.
The SNC for months had been vague about its views on foreign intervention before finally being forced to take a stronger stance by protesters demanding foreign help as their neighbourhoods were battered by heavy army shelling.
But it remains internally divided over the issue, some members say, and has struggled to bridge differences with less prominent opposition groups which reject that position outright.
“Gulf states and other Arab and non-Arab states that want to recognise the SNC fear splits inside the opposition, so that recognising the SNC turns into a point of weakness for the opposition instead of a point of pressure on the regime,” said an ambassador to an Arab state at the Arab League.
The League recently severed ties with Damascus, led by wealthy Sunni Gulf states eager to weaken the influence of Shi’ite rival Iran which has been closely allied to Syria.
Now the Arab League is trying to find a way to support the uprising and has promised “material support” that could include arms supplies to beleaguered rebel fighters outgunned and outmanned by Assad’s forces.
Some analysts say the SNC, despite its weaknesses, is still critical for the opposition inside Syria.
“Activists know they can’t affect policy so they’re willing to let the SNC play that role abroad because they can’t,” said Barak Barfi, from the New America Foundation.
But for states actually considering bank-rolling the opposition, the SNC’s inability to lead these activists and create a unified movement makes the group hard to get behind.
“There were attempts to unite the opposition but so far this did not lead to what we hoped,” the Arab League ambassador said. “The ball is now in the opposition’s court.”
Trickier yet is the fact that most prominent members of the SNC were in exile before the uprising and have little following inside the country. Many activists in Syria say the names of many members mean little to them and stir no sense of loyalty.
Foreign powers have taken note.
“Some of the SNC members haven’t lived in Syria for years and don’t represent what’s on the ground, so recognising them as a government won’t be easy,” a Gulf official told Reuters.
The SNC argues it has been building a more local base.
“In the executive council we have the names of people who work with us living on the inside, but we can’t announce them for their own protection,” said SNC Secretary General Wael Merza.
The SNC’s burden now is to prove it has internal support and it has recently sought to strengthen ties with rebel forces known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The SNC hopes it can be the one to strengthen the loose organisation of rebels and army deserters who are now widely supported by protesters.
It has been an uphill battle. The FSA’s leader Riad al-Asaad
called the SNC “traitors” in a television interview last week because it has yet to give rebels promised money and supplies.
Worse, the rebels are also a disjointed group, like the SNC, whose exile base has little control over fighters inside Syria.
There are essentially two leaders among army officers who have defected and are now based in Turkey, and they themselves may be in competition. Colonel Riad al-Asaad, an early defector who created the FSA, is chief of operations. General Mustafa Sheikh, who defected recently, heads a new military council to organise defector officers.
These calculations mean little for fighters on the ground, who are often left to their own devices since Internet and phone connections were cut off in much of the country. Fighters often launch attacks that conflict with statements from above.
“They can’t or aren’t listening to their outside leaders and the SNC really needs to do something about this ... But we ourselves are just as disorganised and can’t get much done,” said one SNC member, who asked not to be named.
Rebels and activists in Syria know the fractured nature of their networks is an impediment to foreign support but argue it is also their only protection from Assad’s intelligence services, seeking to infiltrate them and also picking off any emerging local leaders by assassinating them.
“We have no choice but to be localised like this. Every time a group of soldiers defects, it can take months to determine if you can trust them enough to cooperate,” said one rebel fighter, who asked not to be named. “The disorganisation is frustrating but it also protects us.”
Like the rebels, the people actually running the protests in Syria are a diffuse, localised and often secretive network of local committees that run neighbourhood by neighbourhood.
“For most people working for the revolution here, the only person who knows they are an activist is their wife,” said Adnan, speaking by Skype from southern Deraa, cradle of the uprising. “It’s a big problem but I don’t see how we can solve it, it will have to be a gradual process.”
The SNC is also plagued by suspicions over its Islamist membership. Some fear Syria’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood is taking control. One secular SNC member said more than half of the council is Islamist.
The Muslim Brotherhood denies this. Melhem al-Droubi, a high-ranking member of the Brotherhood and member of the SNC, said only 30 percent of the body was Islamist. Two of the nine-member executive council were Islamist, he said. He brushed off fears that Islamists had a heavy influence and may intimidate religious minorities or secularists.
“We believe in pluralism. Every party will have their own political plan and the people will decide what they like, that’s democracy,” Droubi said. “We in the Muslim Brotherhood have said clearly that what we want is a civil state.”
But some argue that “civil state” is a vague phrase meant to patch over differences and a lack of a clear political plan.
“I have no idea what a ‘civil state’ is. Does that mean we will not be a military state? Does it mean not religious?,” the anonymous SNC member said. “There’s no plan and we should be reaching out more to minorities scared by this. I find this situation worrisome and I’ve been backing off my SNC work.”
For Arab states mulling recognition, the Tunis conference may be the barometer for whether the opposition will pull together or go it alone.
“If they close the gaps between them, this will hasten recognition,” the Arab League ambassador said. “If it doesn’t happen by the Tunis conference, the Arabs and the world can only wait ... until the regime collapses or the opposition unites.”
Reporting by Erika Solomon, Additional reporting by Amena Bakr and Nour Merza in Dubai,; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Peter Millership