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Rifts Appear as Syrian Opposition Struggles to Maintain Momentum

Inter Press Service

Two months into the uprisings that have shaken the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, the outcome remains largely unclear. The Syrian government's repressive measures, complete with mass arrests, torture, and sizable military deployments, have severely dampen the movement but failed to extinguish the protests altogether.

Meanwhile, while a large-scale opposition meeting takes place in Istanbul, many analysts have noted worrying rifts in the anti-regime movement.

As the opposition tries to muster its support, the Syrian regime has continued its month-long crackdown on protestors.

The originating city of Dara'a remains under tight military control, with little or no access to food, water, electricity, and basic medical supplies. Troops remain posted in a variety of other protest areas.

Despite the government brutality, protestors have continued to demonstrate in the streets. As time has dragged on, though, growing rifts have emerged in the opposition movement, both between local Syrians and their international counterparts, and within the domestic opposition itself.

Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria and the proprietor of the blog Syria Comment, claims that "the opposition is divided over the proper role foreign governments should play in bringing down the Syrian regime. Many Syrians abroad believe that only foreign action – primarily sanctions as presently articulated – will destroy the Syrian government" while others favour an internal domestic solution instead.

Other divisions abound inside Syria itself, where different factions argue over timing, strategy, and the practicality of negotiating with the regime.

Many of these points of contention were present at a recent forum hosted by the Middle East Institute, which featured three figures with vastly different interpretations of the Syrian situation.

Ammar Abdulhamid, a prominent Syrian dissident based in Washington D.C., argued that the protestors in Syria "Don't want us to piggyback on their success, or style ourselves as the leaders of the revolution, but they want us to assume a leadership role… to formulate an alternative that can be endorsed by the protest movement inside and endorsed by the international community."

Abdulhamid called for greater U.S. involvement and international recognition for a Syrian transitional government, presumably guided by the expat Syrians coordinating with the protest movement.

Steven Heydemann, another panelist and an expert on Syria at the United States Institute of Peace, warned that greater involvement in the Syria situation would not suit U.S. interests at this time, arguing that "some fairly serious trigger" would be required to get Washington off the fence.

The greatest divisions, however, appear to centre around the means by which the opposition movement could end the Assad's regime grip on power. Heydemann opined that only cooperation and dialogue with the regime could move the country forward, cautioning that the "trial of Mubarak serves as significant disincentive for other dictators to accept an exit," in reference to the recent decision by Egyptian officials to bring ex-president Hosni Mubarak to stand trial for his crimes.

Abdulhamid vehemently disagreed, stating that "the idea that Assad can stay is… a destructive one." Abdulhamid compared the Assad regime to a "woolly mammoth", suffocating the state with its "dead weight".

The upcoming Istanbul meeting, relocated after Egypt denied the Syrian opposition permission to meet in Cairo, is meant to consolidate the disparate strains and produce a common narrative, and more importantly, to create a viable alternative to the status quo.

All parties agree that the creation of a shared set of guidelines, ideology, and strategy is imperative both to strengthen the Syrian resistance, and to win international backing, but the meeting itself is fraught with dissention.

Burhan Ghalioun, another prominent Syrian intellectual who has insisted that leadership of the resistance must come from the domestic Syrian youth, has boycotted the Istanbul meeting.

In a statement produced earlier this week, Ghalioun claimed that the meeting would be "a collection of many of those who want to benefit from and exploit the revolution to serve private agendas, including, unfortunately, foreign agendas."

At the other end of the spectrum, Farid Ghadry of the Reform Party of Syria openly hoped that "this is an opportunity for Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, to do something."

Ghadry has called for greater regional intervention in the Syrian situation, particularly from Israel, an idea with little popularity on the ground.

Though the U.S. has so far been unwilling to move beyond sanctions and warnings, the European Union on Wednesday voted to withdraw all aid to the Syrian state, and has suspended a number of ongoing and infrastructure projects, while calling for a U.N. Security Council resolution to condemn the Syrian crackdown.

Meanwhile, support for the Syrian regime continues to hold strong in some circles.

Hasan Nasrallah, secretary general of the pro-Syrian Lebanese party Hizballah, gave a televised address in which he urged "the Syrian people to maintain their regime of resistance, as well as to give way to the Syrian leadership to implement the required reforms and to choose the course of dialogue," calling on Lebanon to "reject any sanctions led by U.S. and the West asking Lebanon to abide by them against Syria, which is the most important goal of [Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey] Feltman's recent visit to Lebanon."

In the latest significant turn, video footage of deceased 13 year-old Hamzah Ali Alkhateeb elicited a furious response both internally and throughout the international community.

Alkhateeb was brought by his parents to an Apr. 29 demonstration, where he was detained with hundreds of other protestors. Video footage shows the boy's corpse – released to his parents last week – with several gunshot wounds, mutilated genitals, and other clear signs of torture.

Protests have increased significantly since the footage of the body was made public, as have reported casualties. The total body count has climbed well over 900 by the most conservative estimates, earning Syria the second highest death-per-capita ratio in Arab uprisings, coming a distant second to Libya.

Whether this event will be a sufficient "trigger" remains to be seen, but for all their differences, the many voices of Syria's opposition movement seem to agree on one thing: without some sense of a collectively agreed-upon political alternative to the current regime, the protests stand little chance of success.

Samer Araabi is a contributor to Right Web, Foreign Policy in Focus, and the Inter Press Service.

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