November 4, 2012 7:54 pm

Talks begin on unifying Syrian opposition

Syrian regime opponents launched a week of crucial talks on Sunday aimed at unifying their fractious movement, as rebels were reported to have captured an oilfield and fallout continued over an armed group’s alleged execution of government soldiers.

The Syrian National Council opposition umbrella group met in Doha just days after the US called for a new alliance against President Bashar al-Assad to better represent the people “fighting and dying” inside Syria.

Proposals supported by the US to absorb the SNC into a more broad-based body with greater authority over the rebellion will be discussed at another meeting later in the week.

But SNC members in Doha echoed suspicions already voiced by colleagues and other opposition figures over the latest plan for Syria, as the country’s 19-month-old uprising slides deeper into civil war. Abdulbasit Seyda, SNC head, made clear to reporters in Doha that it was far from certain his organisation would back it.

“We did not say we are rejecting it and we did not accept it,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters. “We are talking.”

The drive to unify the opposition could even end up fracturing it further if the SNC positions itself as a “competitor” to a new body backed by the US, said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mr Seyda said the aim of the meeting was to make the SNC more representative, in an apparent bid to reinforce its status in the Syrian opposition. Georges Chachan, an SNC member attending the conference, said the international calls for a new body could be a way of pressuring the SNC to soften its stance of opposing dialogue with the Assad regime.

But he acknowledged that the loose alliance of Gulf and western countries supporting the opposition had “huge power” because of its ability to give or withdraw support. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have said publicly that they support arming the rebels, and there have been increasing reports of their weapons finding their way into northern Syria.

Western countries have – at least in public – been more cautious, apparently because of worries that anti-aircraft missiles and other arms could end up in the hands of jihadi groups operating in some of the battlezones.

The urgency of the task of making the Syrian opposition more organised and accountable was dramatically highlighted last week, when video footage emerged seeming to show rebels summarily executing a group of unarmed soldiers near the northern town of Saraqeb.

The apparent execution video drew widespread condemnation, with suspicion falling on the militant Jabhat al-Nusra group. The UN’s human rights office said it looked “very likely that this is a war crime”, one of many committed by armed rebel groups and – on a much greater scale – by Assad regime forces.

Inside Syria, rebels captured an oilfield in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on Sunday, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group, while government forces once again bombarded different parts of the country from the air.

Oil exports accounted for roughly a third of Syria’s export earnings, but production has declined since the EU, its main customer, slapped sanctions on the sector last year in response to the government’s brutal suppression of dissent.

Also on Sunday a bomb exploded outside the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus, state media said, wounding several.

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