Fractious, farcical gathering sees Syrian opposition squabble to a standstill

It is the Assad regime’s genius that many of the opposition leaders arguing in Istanbul have no experience or background in politics

Former leader of the Syrian National Coalition Moaz al-Khatib arrives for a meeting in Istanbul . Photograph: Bulent Kilic/Pool/Reuters

Former leader of the Syrian National Coalition Moaz al-Khatib arrives for a meeting in Istanbul . Photograph: Bulent Kilic/Pool/Reuters


On the opening day of the conference in Istanbul of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the group’s former president, Moaz al-Khatib, dropped a bombshell. Opposition figures had gathered to expand the organisation and to discuss a proposed peace conference slated for Geneva next month.

But within hours, Khatib announced his own plan for the transition of power in Syria. No one knew or expected the move but Khatib’s single-mindedness set the scene for what would be a fractious and sometimes farcical week in Istanbul.

On Saturday, one opposition bloc threatened to walk out of the meeting and tell reporters outside that another grouping backed by certain countries – Qatar, Saudi Arabia and France – were attempting to influence who the new members should be. And on Monday night the entire entourage was dumped from their hotel, having overstayed their booking by two days.

The following evening, Qatar, a major supporter of the Syrian revolt, decided it had seen enough of the squabbling and sent in minister of state for foreign affairs, Khalid al-Attiyah, to whip the Syrians into shape. Diplomats from the US, France and Saudi Arabia followed yesterday .

Secular opposition leader Michel Kilo didn’t turn up when the conference began a week ago today, but when he did appear he promptly announced to reporters that if he didn’t get what he wanted he would leave.

‘Disgrace to the coalition
The conference, said former leader Burhan Ghalioun, was “a tragedy in the literal sense of the word, a disgrace to the coalition and a crime against the revolution”.

Other figures even blamed the individuals carrying messages between different factions for not articulating correctly representatives’ points of view. For Syrians supposedly united in their opposition to Assad, they couldn’t even sit together in the same room.

As the days passed, it became clear that the root cause of the divisions was not about whether the SNC should attend the Geneva conference or who should be elected president of the coalition. The real disagreement was about who would control the SNC and, perhaps, a future Syrian state – secular elements or the Islamists. The latter is the established faction in the SNC, dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and backed by Qatar.

Syria’s disparate opposition reflects the country’s broad ethic and religious mix. Seculars, Islamists, leftists, Kurds, Christians and a host of other religious minorities make up Syria’s 23 million people.

Of course, the system of governance built by former president Hafez al-Assad, father of the current ruler, from the 1970s destroyed all civil and political autonomy inside the country. Many of the opposition leaders arguing in Istanbul today have no experience or background in politics, let alone how to effectively govern a country as complex as Syria.

This is the Assad regime’s genius, and a chief reason that over the past two years the uprising has largely failed and been replaced with a war that has killed over 80,000 people, as well as leaving millions of Syrians displaced and shaken the wider Middle East.

Little influence
The conference is due to end later today, though it may run into a second weekend with the election of a new president and a presidential committee yet to be thrashed out.

The truth is, however, that whoever is voted in will have little influence over rebel forces on the ground. Having already condemned the opposition’s intransigence, rebels care only about when and how they get their hands on weapons.

Opposition figures say they won’t attend the proposed Geneva talks next month without a guarantee that a discussion on the ousting of Assad is on the table. Yet four days after the Istanbul conference was expected to end the first order of business had not been settled.

The longer the opposition argues, the more insignificant it will find itself.

Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lived in Syria, from 2007 to 2012