In A New Setback, Syrian Opposition Splits

Feb 27, 2012
Originally published on February 27, 2012 7:59 pm

Monday was a rough day for the opposition in Syria. Senior officials in the main opposition group announced that they're forming a new organization. The development was the latest sign of the divisions within the Syrian opposition that's trying to oust the government of President Bashar Assad.

At the same time, Assad's government said that nearly 90 percent of voters endorsed constitutional reforms in a referendum a day earlier, even though the Syrian opposition and international critics called the balloting a farce.

The most urgent news from Syria continues to come from the central city of Homs. One video posted online appears to show an assault on the besieged neighborhood of Baba Amr.

With no progress reported on a humanitarian cease-fire, Syrian opposition fighters, wounded civilians and Western journalists remained trapped for another day. Another video showed a young boy apparently killed by deep shrapnel wounds.

Away from the battle zone, the news was of more disunion and frustration. A group of well-respected opposition figures announced a split from the main Syrian National Council to form a new organization called the Syrian Patriotic Group.

Led by attorney Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani and others, they said the new group would try to help defend Syrians against what Labwani called "this killing regime."

Unable To Unify

Analyst and author Andrew Tabler, with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the exiled opposition leaders in SNC have never felt the same pressure to unify as the activists inside Syria who are facing a daily artillery barrage.

"People are forced to work together. You are forced to choose a leadership structure. You are forced to consolidate the position of elites in different communities," Tabler says. "And unfortunately, the SNC was not able to do that. There was a lot of infighting."

Reached by phone in Jordan, Labwani told NPR that although the new group isn't necessarily opposing the SNC, the internal bickering has to stop. He also believes the Muslim Brotherhood has too strong a role within the council.

Also Monday, the Red Cross reported that for the first time in a month an aid mission got into the central city of Hama, delivering food and supplies for 12,000 people for a month. Geneva-based spokesman Hicham Hassan told NPR that talks on access to Homs are continuing.

In the Baba Amr neighborhood of that city, an activist using the name Abu Bakr said he hopes that the new opposition group forces everyone to get together before it's too late to save the revolution.

"This Syrian Patriotic Group was formed because the National Council is far from the pulse of the street," he says. "But we hope they will learn to work together to lead the revolution, not walk behind it the way they do now."

The government, meanwhile, announced an 89 percent approval for constitutional reforms put to a referendum Sunday. The interior minister was quoted as saying turnout was good, despite what he called "armed terrorist groups" in some areas.

Member of the opposition, however, dismissed the referendum as a sham.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Syria says nearly 90 percent of voters endorsed constitutional reforms in a referendum Sunday. That's even as the Syrian army continued to pound rebel-held areas in several parts of the country.

It was a difficult day for the main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council. Senior figures announced they were forming a new group criticizing in-fighting within the council.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Beirut on the split.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The most urgent news from Syria continues to come from the central city of Homs. This video appears to show an assault on the besieged neighborhood of Baba Amr.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

KENYON: With no progress reported on a humanitarian ceasefire, Syrian opposition fighters, wounded civilians and Western journalists remain trapped for another day. One video showed a young boy apparently killed by deep and gruesome shrapnel wounds.

Away from the battle zone, the news was of more disunion and frustration. A group of veteran, well-respected opposition figures announced a split from the main Syrian National Council to form a new organization called the Syrian Patriotic Group. Led by attorney Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani and others, they said the new group would more urgently help defend Syrians against what Labwani called this killing regime.

Analyst and author Andrew Tabler, with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the exiled opposition leaders in the SNC have never felt the same pressure to unify as the activists inside Syria, who are facing a daily artillery barrage.

ANDREW TABLER: People are forced to work together. You're forced to choose a leadership structure. You are forced to consolidate the position of elites in different communities, and unfortunately, the SNC was unable to do that. There was a lot of in-fighting.

KENYON: Reached by phone in Jordan, Kamal Labwani told NPR that the new group isn't opposing the SNC, per se, but the internal bickering has to stop. He also believes the Muslim Brotherhood has too strong and too opaque a role within the council.

As the opposition fractured, international disunity also flared again. Russia and China hit back at Western criticism of their veto of a UN Security Council resolution on Syria while the EU tightens sanctions on Damascus.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: Meanwhile, video apparently from another Homs neighborhood, Haldia, showed more intense shelling and gunfire. The Red Cross reported that, for the first time in a month, an aid mission got into another central city, Hama, bringing food and supplies for 12,000 people for a month. Geneva-based spokesman Hicham Hassan told NPR that talks on access to Homs are continuing.

In Baba Amr itself, an activist using the name Abu Bakr said he hopes the new opposition group forces everyone to get together before it's too late to save the revolution.

ABU BAKR: (Through Translator) This Syrian Patriotic Group was formed because the national council is far from the pulse of the street, but we hope they will learn to work together to lead the revolution, not walk behind it the way they do now.

KENYON: The government, meanwhile, announced an 89 percent approval for constitutional reforms put to a referendum yesterday. The interior minister was quoted as saying turnout was good, despite what he called armed terrorist groups in some areas. Opposition figures dismissed the referendum as a sham.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.