'Resignation' exposes rifts in Syrian opposition

SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun. Photo: April 2012 Mr Ghalioun has been accused of being out of touch with the suffering of activists inside Syria

From the moment he was first elected president of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun has faced criticism from other opposition figures that he is not up to the job.

As the Syrian uprising has developed into a full-scale armed conflict in some areas, that criticism has increased. Now it has reached a point where the Paris-based professor has offered to resign.

He was not doing the job for any personal gain, he said, and did not want to be a divisive figure.

His offer has been greeted with relief by some activists.

But not all. Even some of his staunchest critics have condemned his offer, saying that for all his faults, the SNC does not have an alternative, and that doing this right after he was re-elected for another three-month term only adds to the impression of chaos and disunity that has long plagued the movement.

Mr Ghalioun's statement seems to acknowledge this dilemma. He said he will go once an alternative candidate has been found - and that will be difficult.

Bitter infighting

His decision follows a threat by the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), the only faction within the SNC to have a large grassroots network inside Syria, to withdraw.

In a statement posted on the internet, the LCC accused the SNC's governing secretariat and executive boards, which re-elected Mr Ghalioun on Tuesday, of ignoring other members of the movement and failing to respond to the needs of people fighting the Syrian government on the ground.

This is nothing new. At meeting after meeting of the SNC this year, I have heard the same lament from members of the council. That the leadership is out of touch with the suffering of activists inside Syria, and that it makes decisions in isolation from the rest of the members.

Part of the problem is the structure of the council.

Free Syrian Army fighters in Homs province. Photo: May 2012 The Free Syrian Army is refusing to accept the SNC's authority

It was established last September in Istanbul - after several false starts - as an umbrella movement, to include all the disparate groups campaigning against President Bashar al-Assad. They range from Marxist intellectuals to conservative Islamists, who have nothing else in common aside from their desire to see Mr Assad ousted.

Some of the groups are more powerful than others.

The Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, has been able to take most of the 350 or so seats in the council, because of its organisational strength. It is one of the oldest political forces in Syria, with a history of resisting the Baathist government.

But its dominance is resented by other SNC members, who remember the violent extremism of the Sunni group before it was crushed in the early 1980s, and fear its future attitude to non-Sunni minorities in Syria.

Mr Ghalioun has often been criticised for giving the Muslim Brotherhood too much leeway, and being swayed too much by the SNC's biggest donors, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both staunchly Sunni states.

'Unity meetings'

The SNC is also hamstrung by its isolation from events inside Syria.

As the armed conflict has escalated and opposition forces have been caught up in brutal battles with the Syrian army, the exiled SNC leadership has been left as a largely helpless bystander.

Its efforts to win greater international support for the armed insurgents have been disappointing, and the Free Syrian Army has refused to accept its authority.

Critics of Burhan Ghalioun say he should have thrown his full support behind the insurgents much sooner, although it is not clear how much this would have helped.

The states that back the SNC - like Turkey, the Gulf states and the US - have tried to mould it into a more coherent movement, something more like a government-in-waiting.

But even at so-called "unity meetings", the council's different components have spent more time squabbling than agreeing.

With the Assad government looking less likely to collapse, and Syria sliding into a civil war, the idea of an exiled government-in-waiting seems less and less relevant.

Until now the SNC, for all its inherent weaknesses, has been the only opposition movement with which the outside world has felt comfortable.

Mr Ghalioun has until now been the only leader the SNC's different factions have been able to accept.

He may well be persuaded to stay on.

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