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Syrian Opposition Leaders Break Up, No Chance of Make-Up

Syrian activists paint old Syrian flags for use in a demonstration in Qusayr in western Syria on March 1. Photo by Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images.

Breaking up may be hard to do, but the folks who run the Syrian National Council appear to be getting better with practice.

For the second time this month, the same group of top opposition leaders is walking out on the fraught political group to start their own organization. This time, they say it’s for good.

The Syrian National Council formed after the 2011 uprising and is the largest political opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In statements, the splinter group’s founders called the SNC leadership “autocratic” and complained that most of the council’s members were beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Haithem Maleh, who many consider the godfather of the Syrian opposition, said that he felt “no respect” and “alienation” from SNC president Burhan Ghalioun. He also complained that the 270-member council was not being sufficiently aggressive in trying to arm rebels inside Syria.

“My father was constantly faced with dead ends in the council,” said Maleh’s son Iyas in a phone conversation from Belgium where his father has lived since being released from a Syrian prison last year. “They kept him out of meetings and didn’t want him to know what was going on.”

Maleh, a jurist who has spent most of the last 50 years in and out of Syrian prisons for defending dissidents and protesting a lack of legal due process, will now help lead the Syrian Patriotic Front. That group was originally formed as part of the SNC, in response to the council’s reluctance to arm the rebels.

“We have the right to help the opposition inside Syria by buying weapons and everything to support the defense for the Syrian people,” the elder Maleh told the NewsHour earlier this month, shortly after announcing the Patriotic Front’s founding.

In the March 1 NewsHour broadcast Maleh told Ray Suarez, “A lot of people need to send weapons to Free Syrian Army.”

Kamal al-Labwani, another deeply respected opposition figure who helped found the Patriotic Front, also left the SNC this week.

The tension between SNC leaders — like Ghalioun, who has lived in France since the 1970s — and opposition figures who have been struggling face-to-face with the Assad regime, has been one of many fissures keeping the Syrian political opposition from unifying.

“For a long time, the opposition leaders wanted to take the ‘peaceful, peaceful’ approach with street protests and marches,” said Joshua Landis, who spent 2005 as a senior Fulbright Scholar in Syria and now runs SyriaComment, a blog about Syrian issues and news.

Landis said that much of the SNC leadership lives abroad, while men like Maleh and Labwani have been “fighting against Assad from inside Syria and paying the price for it.”

A fractured opposition makes it difficult for the international community to support the revolution, potentially dragging out the conflict and leading to even more bloodshed.

“We need a coherent opposition with a good message,” said Theodore Kattouf, a former U.S. ambassador to Damascus. “When you have a splintered group and credible oppositionists (like Maleh and Labwani) who have paid a high price for advocating for democracy saying that the SNC is dominated by Muslim brothers, that’s not an attractive message for the international community or for those in the minority Alawite sect who might be thinking of abandoning Assad.”

Haithem Maleh is hoping that his new, outsider status will actually improve the situation on the ground by helping to push the SNC to more actively arm the rebels.

“He still sees the SNC as legitimate and representative,” Maleh’s son said. “But he was unable to get them to listen to him. He hopes that now he can exert pressure from the outside and they will have no choice but to hear.”

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