Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Rebels make gains despite division

A dual picture of Syria's rebellion is emerging: fighters on the ground make advances, seizing territory in the south and even firing one of the heaviest mortar volleys yet into the heart of Damascus.

But at the same time, the would-be opposition leadership is falling deeper into disarray.

The dichotomy underlines the difficulties as the US and its allies try to shape the course of the fight to oust President Bashar Assad - and, more importantly, avert chaos in the event the regime is toppled.

As the Syrian civil war enters its third year, hopes that the perpetually fragmented opposition would coalesce to form a real leadership for the fighters on the ground seem more elusive than ever.

Instead, divisions broke out this week in the main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition.

Its head announced he was stepping down, complaining of restrictions on his work. Amid infighting, 10 other members said they were suspending their membership.

The resignation by Mouaz al-Khatib, a respected Muslim preacher seen as a uniting figure and a moderate against the rising influence of Islamic extremists among Syria's rebels, came only days after the SNC narrowly elected a little-known information technology professional from Texas to head a planned interim government as its prime minister.

In another blow, the head of the SNC's military branch, General Salim Idris, said his group refused to recognise the new prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, because he lacked broad support among the opposition.

Mr Hitto was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Gulf nation of Qatar; many prominent opposition figures boycotted the vote that installed him.

Amid the disarray, the Coalition, largely comprised of exiles, has made little mark among the hundreds of independent rebel brigades that are doing the fighting against Mr Assad's forces. Most rebel groups still cobble together their own funding and arms and give little more than lip-service to the authority of Mr Idris' Office of the Chiefs of Staff.

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