Disagreements and power disputes arose Sunday as opponents of the Syrian regime gathered in Qatar for the first day of an opposition conference seeking to create a new government-in-exile.
The meeting in the country's capital Doha, has been promoted by the US and its allies as they try to forge a more cohesive opposition leadership which would be easier to work with, rather than an array of differing factions.
The main opposition group, the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council, was incensed by a Washington-backed plan to seek to remove it from a leading role, giving way to a new leadership that includes those who actually fight the regime of Bashar Assad inside Syria.
Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged a re-shaping of the Syrian opposition's leadership and slammed the Syrian National Council as ineffective and unrepresentative. “This cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes but have in many instances not been inside Syria for 20, 30 or 40 years,” she told reporters. The new body is set to include fewer Syrian exiles and more representatives of the Free Syrian Army, as well as local political groups and councils.
The SNC, after lashing out at Washington’s criticism and accusing them of “unacceptable dictates”, now says it will be demanding a 40 percent representation in any new leadership body.
"This new initiative seems to be promoted by international parties, mainly the United States," former SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun said as quoted by AFP.
The four-day meeting in Doha is expected to end up in the creation of a new government-in-exile dubbed, the Syrian National Initiative. "Maybe 100 countries will recognize this new leadership as the legitimate and only representative of the Syrians for the coming months," says Riad Seif, a prominent Syrian political dissident.
Some have expected him to head the new umbrella group, however he was quick to rule out such a scenario. "I shall not be a candidate to lead a government in exile… I am 66 and have health problems," he told reporters ahead of the Doha gathering.
The Syrian National Initiative is expected to include only 15 SNC members.
Riad Seif says that if a new leadership is approved, a date for an international conference on Syria could be set. The meeting in Marrakesh would be "different from the previous 'Friends of Syria' meetings', because the "situation inside Syria can no longer wait," he said.
The Syrian opposition is composed of a variety of rebel groups, some of which have reportedly been infiltrated by radical Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stressed that efforts to stop violence in Syria have been less affective due to various international powers solely dealing with and encouraging Syria's opposition forces.
“In Geneva four months ago we all agreed that world powers will say the same to the warring sides in Syria: stop fighting! This is exactly what Russia's doing – saying this to both the government and all opposition groups. Some other nations – both Western and regional – are telling the opposition ‘Go on fighting! Your cause is right – you will win.’ It's up to you to decide whose position is creating the danger of more and more deaths," Foreign Minister Lavrov said at a media briefing.
"Unfortunately the other participants from the western and regional countries are only talking to the opposition groups and not dealing with the Syrian government, and they are even encouraging them to continue fighting until victory," he said during his meeting with UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, in Cairo.
He also spoke against a UN Security Council resolution on Syria as a tool to resolve the crisis, warning that it could only aggravate it. He added that the resolution is not needed to implement earlier reached agreements in Geneva.
“If the priority is the change of the regime, then there will be more blood, but if the priority is to save lives, then there is no need for any type of resolutions. We have not yet tried to implement Geneva accords,” Lavrov said.
A meeting involving the UN Security Council's permanent members and Syria’s immediate neighbors, that took place in June in Geneva, proposed to establish a transitional Syrian government that would comprise of both Syrian authorities and the opposition forces. However so far the ongoing fighting between the sides has made it impossible to launch any such dialogue.
The Syrian opposition conference in Qatar will last till November 8 and comes as the first intensive effort to bring opposition groups based abroad close to rebels fighting in Syria. The civil conflict in the Arab country has been raging for 19 months, claiming over 32,000 lives and made over 420,000 people refugees. The Syrian government says they are fighting “terrorists” sponsored from abroad.