Syria's divisions: A split opposition prevents a negotiated settlement

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Syria -- with a civil war nearing 20 months, 40,000 dead, thousands fleeing the country and President Bashar Assad fighting on -- has one problem that could see some improvement.

That is the division that has prevailed since the start of the conflict among the opposition to the Assad regime. There are the fighters in the country and the exiles living cushioned lives abroad. Within both groups there are many divisions. The sub-groups range from Islamist extremists who want to turn Syria into a sharia-law, Islamic caliphate to advocates of democracy such as those who prevailed in Egypt and Tunisia. The latter Syrian groups, who might seem more reasonable if they were not so fractious, are more acceptable to the West but have never had any chance of putting a dent in the Assad regime.

The imbroglio is made more complex by the fact that a large number of countries have a dog in the fight. These include France, Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. Each has given money, lethal aid and other support to one or more of the Syrian opposition groups. They have, whether they intended or not, increased the bloodshed in Syria's civil war.

By enhancing rather than reducing the divisions among the opposition, these countries have made a possible negotiated end to the conflict between the Syrian government and its opponents much more difficult to achieve. With whom would the Syrian government negotiate? It may be now that such an end to the conflict is out of the question. The problem with that is it means the deadly warfare, with destruction, displacement of people and more deaths, will continue.

An effort in Doha, Qatar, is under way to try to put some order into the ranks of the Syrian opposition. The world should hope it succeeds, not to make the opposition a more effective fighting machine, but to provide a coordinated group to pursue a negotiated end to the conflict.

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