Divisions emerge at Syria opposition conference

Associated Press Modified: November 4, 2012 at 3:00 pm •  Published: November 4, 2012
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DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Sharp disagreements arose Sunday on the first day of a Syrian opposition conference meant to forge a more cohesive leadership that the international community says is necessary before it will boost its support for those trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

The main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, balked at a U.S.-backed plan that would largely sideline it to make room in a new leadership council for fighters and activists inside Syria. However, with international pressure mounting, the SNC also suggested it is willing to negotiate a compromise that would give the SNC more influence in a new leadership team.

The international community has long urged the SNC, widely seen as dysfunctional and out of touch, to broaden its base and include a greater spectrum of Syrian society, especially those fighting inside the country. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was unusually harsh, suggesting the SNC's leadership days are over.

Failure to reach a deal in Doha could further heighten tensions between Syria's political opposition and the international community. Opposition leaders feel abandoned by the U.S. and other foreign backers, saying they are not providing the money and weapons the rebels need to defeat Assad in a stalemated civil war. Washington and others say they can't step up aid unless the opposition stops bickering and establishes a more representative — and unified — leadership.

The conflict erupted nearly 20 months ago as a peaceful uprising that escalated into a civil war and has claimed more than 36,000 lives, according to a tally by activists.

At the conference in Doha, the SNC will have to decide whether to accept a plan proposed by a prominent dissident, Riad Seif, to set up a new leadership group of about 50 members. The SNC would get some 15 seats, meaning its influence would be diluted, while military commanders and local leaders in rebel-held areas would win wider representation.

Seif said his plan has broad international backing and portrayed it as a stepping stone to more robust foreign aid.

SNC chief Abdelbaset Sieda dismissed Seif's optimism, saying he and others in the SNC no longer trust promises of international support that are linked to restructuring of the opposition.

"We faced this situation before, when we formed the SNC (last year)," he told The Associated Press. "There were promises like that, but the international community in fact did not give us the support needed for the SNC to do its job."

The SNC is to decide Wednesday whether to accept Seif's plan. Sieda said the SNC believes it deserves at least 40 percent of the seats, should it decide to join the new group, suggesting the group may have decided it's under too much pressure to reject the plan entirely.

In Cairo, Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, but they differed in their assessments.

Brahimi called the situation "deplorable," adding, "The solution will either be a political one that all sides agree on, or the future of Syria is very bad."

Lavrov blamed the Syrian opposition for not accepting a cease-fire proposal that left the door open for a transitional period with Assad still in power.

The Arab League scheduled a special session of its Syria committee for Nov. 12.

As opposition leaders haggled in Qatar, activists said rebels captured an oilfield in eastern Syria on Sunday after three days of fighting with government troops, and shot down a Syrian warplane in the area. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels overran the Al-Ward oilfield in the province of Deir el-Zour near Iraq.

Oil was a major source of revenue for Assad's regime before the U.S. and the European Union imposed an embargo on Syria's crude exports last year, in response to Assad's brutal crackdown on the uprising against him. Syrian officials have accused rebel units of targeting the country's infrastructure, including blowing up the oil and gas pipelines.

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