Fist fits, heated disagreements, deep divisions and widespread mistrust and this is before a new government even gets to work in Syria. “They are so different, chaotic and hate each other,” was a statement from an unnamed official of the Arab League that just about summed current plight of the Syrian opposition.
Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, has lasted by far the longest out of all of the leaders that have been submerged by the Arab Spring. Assad has held onto power for over 16 months, in spite of fierce international pressure, growing regional anger and a vicious rebellion, through a combination of hard-handed tactics but above all else, a fragmented Syrian opposition front and a lack of a true leadership.
Last week, hundreds of participants and dozens of different movements, gathered in Cairo with hope of forming a unified front against Assad.
The sheer number of parties and voices that were represented across the Syrian spectrum paints its own story. The session resulted in anger, physical fighting and chaos, with a delegate from the Kurdish National Council of Syria storming out of the meeting for failure to recognise the Kurds as a distinct group in a future Syria.
The aim was to unify the Syrian National Council with view to making it a viable and legitimate front in Syria, much in the same as the Libyan Transitional Council was able to successfully maneuverer international intervention and provided a credible representation of the Libyan people.
The failure to entice the Kurds en-masse into the anti-Assad fold, despite numerous overtures from the Syrian opposition, continues to undermine the strength and true cross-national appeal of the council.
All the while, in the midst of Syrian opposition bickering, international powers continued to strive to gather momentum in the quest to oust Assad. The Syrian transitional plan agreed in Geneva fell short of expectations, under the now typical obstacle provided by Russia and China.
The Syrian National Council itself was largely disappointed in the outcome and framework of the Geneva plan.
The 100-member Friends of Syria conference this week spoke volumes about the international stance. However, for all the rhetoric and growing international uproar, this has not led to substantial change on the ground.
Assad continues to employ all measures under his arsenal and massacres and reprisal attacks continue unabated.
The defection of a top general this week, provided hope that cracks may start to appear at the top of Assad’s empire, but such false dawns have not been uncommon.
The Kurdish swing
The Kurds have by far the greatest influence to sway momentum in Syria, but are stuck between an Assad dynasty that has provided them with decades of repression and an Arab dominated Sunni opposition, largely backed by Ankara, that they don’t trust.
The Syrian opposition has failed to sufficiently persuade the Kurds, and the Kurdish viewpoint is largely understandable.
If the Arab nationalists that form a part of today’s opposition do not give Kurds the sufficient reassurance they seek over their recognition and rights at a time when they desperately need Kurdish support and are not yet in power, then how will they react in the future once they assume power?
Syrian Kurds only need to look across the border to Turkey to lose hope. Turkey is a major regional power, a Western style democracy and part of the European framework, and yet their Kurds have hardly had a glut of hope and freedom.
This makes it all the worse, as Turkey is the biggest sponsor and host to the Syrian National Council.
The Syrian Kurds, until sufficiently swayed, will keep their feet on both sides of the equation, both in a future Syria without Baathist rule and also in a Syria that continues under Assad rule.
Realising the power that the Kurds have, Assad has largely refrained from attacks in Kurdish dominated areas, provided some freedoms and concessions to Kurds, afforded growing support to the PKK and has at the same time attempted to divide Kurdish sentiment.
The Kurds themselves are divided further between a pro-Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) stance and an anti-Turkish camp.
The Kurds must remain firm on their demands for recognition and autonomy. If they fail to achieve their nationalist goals at this juncture, who’s to say when the next history opportunity knocks on the door?
Kurds have waited for decades to be rid of the shackles of tyranny and repression and dare not lose this opportunity. As the largest minority in Syria and a major partner in Syria, they must continue to press for autonomy and a status deserving of their numbers and ethnic distinction.
If the Arabs complain of harsh treatment under Assad, just imagine how the Kurds feel after decades of neglect and for thousands, not even basic citizenship rights or outright citizenship for that matter.
However, unless the Kurds get their own house in order, they will fail to achieve their goals. The Kurdish National Council and the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) People’s Council must in one form or another agree on a common stance.
The PYD, with an affiliation to the PKK, have steadily grown in influence and power, and their presence can be felt across a number of towns and villages in Kurdish dominated areas of Syria.
The more that the divide between the Kurds become visible, the more that Assad, regional powers and the Syrian opposition will use this as a cane to reign in Kurdish demands and diminish their influence.
What now for Syria?
For several months, international powers have talked about Assad’s days been numbered and how Assad has lost credibility, yet if the international response does not become more concrete and more affective at directly cutting the arteries that support Assad or if efforts to unify the Syrian opposition do not gather pace, Assad could find himself still clinging onto power in another 16 months.
Ironically, the real bastions of hope on the ground, the Free Syrian Army, are hardly the greatest supporters of the Syrian National Council and had boycotted the Cairo talks.
Tip-toeing by the international community, especially to appease Russia and China will bear no fruit. Through international military intervention in the same was as Libya or through a full blown civil war, Assad’s empire will only crumble under sheer force. The idea that Assad will simply give up power through a democratic transitional process is a fantasy.
Regional and foreign powers are already supplying Syrian rebels with weaponry and logistics support, but a violent conflict with a divided Syrian opposition risks drawing out the war for years.
A brighter future for Syria?
The common conception that ousting Assad will lead to instant harmony and peace in Syria is delusional. International and regional powers must act now to do all they can to strike agreement and unity amongst the Syrian opposition.
Owed to its disparate factions, great animosity, sectarian divides and ethnic imbalance, Syria has all the hallmarks of an Iraq.
Much like Iraq, the real problem for Syria is its artificial creation as a result of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Just like Iraq, the divide has been effectively stitched through barbaric regimes and use of force.
As the aftermath of the Arab Spring has proved, regime change is one thing and practical measures for a better future in those countries is another.
Foreign powers must brace themselves for a long-term hand in Syria. While the Kurds, must persevere with a hard-line negotiation stance and written guarantees and not fall for mere promises that can be backtracked at any time in the future.