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Syrian Resistance Increases Along With Efforts To Unite It

Antigovernment activists gesticulate as they gather on the streets of Deraa, Syria.

Antigovernment activists gesticulate as they gather on the streets of Deraa, Syria.

ISTANBUL -- Efforts to unite the Syrian opposition in their struggle against President Bashar al-Assad's regime are intensifying. But for that to happen a number of political and ideological differences must be overcome.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will get a firsthand view of the status of the Syrian opposition on December 6 in Geneva, where she will meet with a group of seven Syrian exiles to discuss the situation in their homeland.

Among those assembled will be representatives of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella organization of Syrian opposition groups -- most of them based outside Syria -- that calls for direct international intervention and the creation of safe havens for the opposition.

Noticeably absent will be representatives of the Damascus-based National Coordinating Committee (NCC), made up of opposition groups inside Syria itself and staunchly opposed to outside intervention or the use of violence against the Assad regime.

Abdul Aziz al-Khair, a spokesman for the National Coordinating Committee, told RFE/RL that the group was approached by a British Foreign Office intermediary and invited to attend the meeting with Clinton, but declined the offer. Khair, who claimed he was "disappointed," said only a formal invitation from the secretary of state would be acceptable.

A Developing Relationship

The meeting comes a week after the SNC held formal talks in Turkey with the Syrian Free Army, an armed rebel group that is taking on Assad's forces on Syrian soil.

Both sides have agreed to coordinate their efforts, says SNC spokeswoman Basma Kodmani, adding that the "relationship is developing."

Syrian National Council spokeswoman Basma Kodmani

Syrian National Council spokeswoman Basma Kodmani

The Syrian Free Army (SFA) is made up of defectors from the Syrian security forces and claims around 20,000 members.

Increasingly better-armed, it has intensified its attacks on the Syrian military, although this approach has not endeared it to some outside observers. Last month's assault on the headquarters of the Syrian Air Force in Damascus, for example, prompted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to warn that the country was heading toward civil war.

Kodmani defended the Syrian Free Army, however, saying it is ultimately committed to peaceful resistance.

"They [the SFA] have adhered to the political program of the council, which is to protect the peaceful nature of the revolution," he said. "And those who are defecting [from the Syrian military] are taking up, so far, a role in protecting civilians. In many cities we see it; it is allowing people to continue to demonstrate, whereas without such protection the killings and victims are much higher."

'Skype Revolution'

The SNC is developing ties with those carrying out daily protests against the Assad regime in the country. The Internet has been cited as being of crucial importance in maintaining communications, with one SNC member quipping that this is the first "Skype revolution."

Several prominent activists have also recently left Syria to join the SNC leadership. But Mughbir Al Sharif, who represents a Syrian opposition group based in Istanbul, has noted that the opposition in Syria is made of local coordination committees which still lack cohesion.

"There are different coordinations, in Syria, in every city," he said. "And everybody has their own opinion and point of view. This is a real problem; they are not getting to the point of having the same opinion."

One challenge facing the SNC, formed in October in Istanbul, is the perception that it is a Sunni-dominated organization overly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood has for decades opposed the Assad regime and is accused of wanting to create an Islamic state, a charge it denies.

Convincing The Kurds

Kodmani of the SNC maintains that the group represents all sections of Syrian society.

"We have the liberals, the Islamists, the leftists and nationalists, all these different political groups," he said. "So it's a broad coalition and includes many groups and trends including a lot of independent figures."

But Kodmani accepts they still have more work to do, particularly when it comes to winning over the country's Kurdish minority, which, she says, still remains divided, not only over supporting the SNC but whether to oppose the Assad regime.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague

British Foreign Secretary William Hague

The SNC is also struggling to persuade the National Coordinating Committee to join its ranks. The two groups have been engaged in talks in Cairo for the last month, but NCC spokesman Khair said recently that, while progress has been made, more work needs to be done.

An upcoming Syrian congress, organized by the Arab League and set to take place later this month, offers an opportunity to bridge differences. But disputes have already arisen over how the groups will be represented.

As British Foreign Secretary William Hague made clear after meeting the leaders of the two groups last month in London, it is imperative that the two camps settle their differences:

"I've also emphasized the importance to them of achieving a united platform and a unified body among the opposition," he said. "At an extreme moment in their nation's history it is important for opposition groups to be able to put aside their own differences and come to a united view of the way forward."

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