Screen grab of a demonstration on New Year’s day. The sign pictured bears the Syrian National Council’s logo.
Evidence of a rift in Syria’s anti-government movement has emerged as protests against the country’s President Bashar al-Assad continue for a 10th month. Demonstrators are now not only waving banners condemning Assad’s regime, but also signs declaring their support or disdain for Syria’s opposition groups.
Political opposition against Assad’s regime is mostly made up of two main factions: the National Coordination Committee (also known as the Syrian Coordination Committee), and the Syrian National Council (SNC).
The National Coordination Committee was created on June 21, 2011, the first of the two groups to emerge. It united 14 different traditional parties from across the political spectrum under the same name, and included everything from nationalists to the left-wing. Directed by Haytham al-Manna, the organisation in currently based in Syria’s capital Damascus, but also has a number of offices abroad.
In contrast, the more recent SNC, which was officially announced in Istanbul on October 2, is an organisation that operates outside of the country. The group is headed by Burhan Ghalioune, a Syrian political-scientist based in Paris who also helped to found the National Coordination Committee. One of the SNC’s main goals is to unite Syria’s political opposition under one banner.
“There are no divisions between Islamist and secular, or between exiles and locals”, Ghalioune says.
Representatives from the SNC and the National Coordination Committee held talks in Cairo on December 27, 2011 on merging the two groups, but failed to reach an agreement.
On January 1, one day after opposition unity talks end in Cario, protesters in Syria’s flashpoint city of Homs hold up a sign which reads, “On behalf of Homs’ revolutionaries: we refuse all talks with the Syrian Coordination Committee. We maintain, to Burhan Ghalioune, that the Syrian Coordination Committee does not represent us”. Video posted on YouTube by OmawiTV.
"Anti-government protesters see the National Coordination Committee as a puppet"
Abu Rami is the spokesperson for the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC) in Homs, an opposition coalition group.
Our group is the only entity that is really present in the field. We don’t organise the protesters, we are simply their media intermediary, an antennae that informs international media about the protests. We are independent, we don’t represent the protestors. We convey and follow their policies.
"The National Coordination Committee discredited itself by agreeing to negotiate with the current regime"
The protesters expressed their choice in a very explicit manner on Friday, October 7, 2011 by staging a demonstration dubbed ‘The Syrian National Council represents me’. By protesting with this slogan, they expressed their rejection of the National Coordination Committee.
The National Coordination Committee had discredited itself early on by agreeing to negotiate with the current regime and by positioning themselves in favour of reform over radical change. They’re far removed from protesters demands, which calls for the regime’s downfall [the National Coordination Committee has since changed its position. It now seeks a regime change and has called for Assad to quit power].
“The Syrian National Council represents me” protest on October 7, 2011 in Damascus. Video posted on YouTube by fnnsyria.
I think that the SNC made a mistake when it agreed to talks with the National Coordination Committee last year. The protesters took it badly, a fact they vocalised in demonstrations, which ultimately forced members of the SNC to back down.Anti-government protesters see the National Coordination Committee as a puppet”.
"Only one point continues to divide the two camps: the question of foreign intervention in Syria"
Personally, I am reluctant to work with either of these organisations, both of which have postive qualities and flaws. The Syrian National Council is struggling to establish itself as the sole, legitimate voice of the Syrian opposition because it was created later.
What’s more, the SNC acts as though the major issue at hand is how to reconstruct the country when in reality we’re still trying to get rid of dictator. At this stage we don’t need a council of 190 members. Today, our only goal is the regime’s downfall, and a team of 15 would be enough to convey this message. Lastly, the more members there are, the more risk there is of discord.
"To make matters worse, the Syrian authorities recognised the National Coordination Committee as a legitimate opposition group with the goal of dividing the opposition"
To make matters worse, the Syrian authorities recognised the National Coordination Committee as a legitimate opposition group with the goal of dividing the opposition. This move discredited the organisation in the eyes of protesters [the Syrian regime offered to hold ‘national talks’ with the opposition in July, 2011]. National Coordination Committee leader Haytham al-Manna has also contributed to the fratricidal struggle within the opposition by accusing the SNC of being financed by ‘American companies’. This echoes allegations made by Assad’s regime, which claims the opposition has been manipulated by foreign agenda.
"The National Coordination Committee’s message has been well received by those who want reform"
On the other hand, presenting itself – even if it’s not really the case – as a moderate opposition organisation gives the National Coordination Committee a certain degree of popular support. Its message has been well received by those who want reforms but fear the chaos that could be brought about by radical change. However, those in favour of a ‘moderate’ approach are not necessarily going out to protest, which explains why we see so many signs supporting the SNC during demonstrations.
Today, however, the National Coordination Committee is calling for the regime to end. Only one point continues to divide the two organisations: the question of foreign intervention in Syria. The SNC does not exclude the possibility whereas the National Coordination Committee firmly rejects it. By doing so, the National Coordination Committee has distanced itself even further from protesters as a number of them support the idea”.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Sarra Grira.