World Bulletin / News Desk
Opposition groups on the ground in Syria slammed their counterparts in exile for undermining the rebellion and lacking legitimacy, laying bare chronic divisions among the foes of President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a planned peace conference.
A meeting of the exiled National Coalition members in Turkey has so far failed to agree to attend the Geneva conference, provisionally planned for June, or who should represent them, and is deadlocked over Western-backed proposals to widen its membership.
Dismayed by the "ongoing discord", a statement by four leading opposition groups in Syria dismissed the meeting in Istanbul as a "feeble attempt to add persons ... that have no real impact on the revolution" and said at least half the coalition's leadership bodies should be made of "revolutionary forces".
In what it called a "final warning" to the Islamist-dominated coalition, the statement, issued in the name of the Revolutionary Movement in Syria, said it could not "bestow legitimacy upon any political body that subverts the revolution".
The coalition failure to agree even the basic structure of its membership bodes ill for a unified stance on the peace talks, which aim to agree a transitional government and an end to a two-year conflict that has killed 80,000 people.
"There is a daunting realisation that the opposition has to get its act together before Geneva, otherwise the Assad team will run rings around us," a senior opposition coalition source at the talks in Istanbul said.
Diplomats say the Geneva talks, which Assad's government has agreed in principle to attend, could be held in mid-June, but the opposition has yet to commit to showing up, and officials in the Middle East say it will be pushed back to July.
"Turkey is not expecting the conference to take place before the end of June as the opposition groups have to decide on whether they want to attend. This may take some time," Turkey's Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Gumrukcu said.
While the 60-member coalition has bickered over Western-backed proposals to dilute its Islamist domination with the addition of a liberal bloc, Assad's forces have been pressing a fierce counter-offensive on the ground.
His troops have already pushed back rebels in the southern province of Deraa and retaken some outlying areas east of Damascus, consolidating their hold from the capital up to the coastal heartlands of his minority Alawite sect.
Russia, which has shielded Assad diplomatically since the Syrian uprising erupted in March 2011, says it will deliver an advanced S-300 air defence system despite U.S. and French objections, saying it would deter "hotheads" intent on foreign intervention.
Assad's opponents have suffered from deep-seated rifts since the start of the uprising. The opposition in exile has little influence over activists on the ground, while the only authority that Syrian army defectors in neighbouring Turkey and Jordan have over the hundreds of rebel brigades scattered across Syria stems from their ability to channel weapons from abroad.
Ideological differences between Islamists and nationalists are exacerbated by the barely overlapping ambitions of backers as diverse as the Gulf Arab monarchies, the United States and Europe.
At the heart of the stalemate in Istanbul is a rivalry between regional backers of the rebels centred around Qatar, which supports the coalition members, and Saudi Arabia, which is wary of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
The addition of a liberal bloc of more than 20 seats, led by Christian opposition campaigner Michel Kilo, had been intended to ease the grip over the coalition. Kilo has so far been offered just five seats.
The statement from the opposition in Syria said the failure of the coalition had opened the door to "blatant interference" by outside powers and demanded at least half the coalition seats for its own representatives.
"There is no doubt that the Syrian Coalition's leadership has failed to fulfil its responsibility to represent the great Syrian people's revolution at the organisational, political and humanitarian level," the statement said.
International envoys sought to break the impasse in Istanbul, with Saudi Prince Salman bin Sultan meeting Kilo to discuss his demands for representation.
Kamal al-Labwani, an ally of Kilo and a senior member of the coalition, had already left Istanbul in protest at what he regarded as the domination of Qatari-backed coalition Secretary-General Mustafa al-Sabbagh.
If a deal is not struck, coalition insiders say the liberal wing will not participate in peace talks, further threatening the ability of the coalition to speak for the opposition.
Salman was due to meet other international envoys from the United States, France, Jordan and Qatar who flew to Istanbul to add to the pressure to solve the crisis.
"If you take the opposition of Syria, including the minorities, and the moderate Sunnis, they are the ones who formed the majority," a member of Kilo's bloc said. "If this is not represented in the coalition it will remain a deeply flawed party," the source said.
The coalition had meant to discuss a new leadership in Istanbul, including the fate of provisional Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto, who has not been able to form a provisional government in exile since being appointed on March 19.
George Sabra, the acting head of the coalition, appeared intent on dropping the membership issue and proceeding to electing a new leadership. But other senior opposition officials said such a move would only deepen divisions.
"If they go ahead with choosing a new leadership, they are setting the stage for a war between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and nobody wants this," one of the officials said.Last Mod: 29 Mayıs 2013, 17:33