Syrian opposition groups resist consolidation effort

Reluctance may stymie aid from foreign backers

A boy fetched water at a refugee camp in the village of Atma in Syria. Thousands have been displaced since 2011.
A boy fetched water at a refugee camp in the village of Atma in Syria. Thousands have been displaced since 2011.

DOHA, Qatar — The Syrian National Council, the largest antigovernment coalition, resisted an initiative Saturday that would place all opponents of the government under one umbrella — a streamlining sought by foreign backers who fear that the bickering exile movements are being eclipsed by events on the battlegrounds in Syria.

‘‘Nobody should be subsumed under anybody,’’ said George Sabra, the newly elected president of the council, opening his inaugural news conference here in a combative mood before heading into negotiations over the unification proposal.

“The SNC is older than this initiative or any other initiative, and it has a deep political and regional structure,’’ said Sabra, 65, a Christian and a veteran leftist dissident.


But a group of more than 50 activists of various stripes — backed by the United States, Qatar, and other foreign supporters of the uprising — have proposed creating a larger body that would include the council. It would effectively end the SNC’s failed efforts of more than a year to be recognized as the government in exile for all Syrians.

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Called the Syrian National Initiative, the new group is aimed at incorporating virtually all opposition parties, internal councils, and notable figures. Perhaps its two most important goals are creating a unified military command and a group of technocrats who could guide aid and other support from outside Syria to those fighting against President Bashar Assad.

Foreign governments have sought this unification so that they too can better coordinate their aid efforts, rather than having every country picking its own favorites inside Syria, and allowing the overall effort to remain confused and diffuse.

Some diplomats and other analysts suggested that the reorganization effort had been too hastily prepared, leaving the outcome dependent on endless bartering among the Syrians.

Ultimately, all the talks could well come down to haggling over the number of seats the council would receive on the new body. It would most likely get about 20 out of 60, but its members have suggested that they would not settle for less than 40 percent.


The SNC negotiators’ opening gambit was to offer a series of counterproposals that would basically keep the council as a first among equals while also moving toward greater unity.

The council envisions a kind of ‘‘coordinating committee’’ underneath it that other groups would join to supervise the military, as well as a special fund that all foreign donors would finance to help distribute aid inside Syria.

‘‘Let us not create a new body that will take time to be established — ours is already there,’’ said Louay Safi, a member of the SNC’s 41-member General Secretariat, an elected body that advises the executive committee. The main criticism of the SNC has been that it is riven by internal bickering and has failed to attract a wide variety of groups. It lacks a significant presence of Alawites, the minority sect of Assad that controls Syria, as well as other minorities, tribal and religious elders and business leaders.

Safi rejected that criticism, saying people like businessmen should join some of the political groups within the council, not be incorporated as separate blocs.

On Saturday, double suicide bombings aimed at government outposts in the southern Syrian city of Daraa killed at least 20 soldiers, according to an activist group.


After the explosions rocked the city, new clashes broke out between government and rebel forces, said the group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the fighting from Britain with the help of contacts in Syria.

The official news agency, SANA, which for months has avoided reporting specific death tolls for soldiers, said the blasts caused numerous casualties.

In recent weeks, a number of suicide attacks have hit military targets or neighborhoods where soldiers live. The uprising started in Daraa in March 2011 after several children were arrested and tortured for writing antigovernment graffiti on walls in the town.