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Goal of united Syrian opposition still elusive
AZAZ, Syria -- In the foreign halls of power, the strategy is clear: Syria's opposition should unite to present an alternative to Bashar Assad's rule -- a step France's president says would lead to diplomatic recognition.
As a move toward unity, Syrian exiles from the main opposition Syrian National Council and other groups unveiled a blueprint Tuesday in the German capital of Berlin for transition to a democratic, transparent society free of religious and ethnic favoritism.
But rebels and civilians in the bomb-shattered Syrian town of Azaz near the Turkish border view such talk as hollow. They are deeply skeptical of all exiled leaders and believe what really matters is their fight on the ground to overthrow the regime.
"They have never come up with a united position that will save the people," said Fadi Hajji, 25, who had been camped out along the Syrian border with Turkey with his wife and two infant daughters for five days. "All they are good at is arguing. They don't represent anyone here and they don't help."
There was more bloodshed Tuesday as a car bomb ripped through a Damascus suburb, killing 12 people, according to the state news agency. Activists also said an airstrike in the town of Kfar Nabl killed at least 13 people as fighting raged nationwide.
With no end to the carnage in sight, French President Francois Hollande called on the Syrian opposition Monday to form a provisional government, saying France would recognize and support it.
Hollande's statement, believed to be the first of its kind, was quickly shot down by U.S. officials who said talk of a provisional government was premature given the deep divisions within the opposition movement.
The head of the main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, criticized the U.S. stand, saying that efforts were underway to forge a united front but that the process takes time -- especially in the midst of a raging civil war.
"It seems to me as if the international community is not prepared to take decisive decisions and blames the Syrian opposition for its own shortcomings," Abdelbaset Sieda said by telephone Tuesday from Switzerland.
"Yes, there are differences within the Syrian opposition, and this is normal in any country. But as long as we are agreed on a common vision, these differences can be overcome," he added. "The international community must make a move before it's too late."
Those comments were echoed in Berlin by opposition exiles who drafted the 122-page transition blueprint during six months of consultations funded by governments of the United States, Germany, Switzerland and private groups in Norway and the Netherlands.
"It is quite easy to say the opposition is fragmented and the opposition has not done enough," said Murhaf Jouejati, a U.S.-based professor and SNC member. "But we really should start facing realities ... to get the international community behind this national uprising against a totalitarian, authoritarian, brutal regime."
Although neither expressed a concrete demand, many in the SNC have been hoping the world community would impose a safe zone along the Turkish border, possibly extending to a no-fly zone over at least some areas, and would more openly supply weapons and ammunition to rebels. The disparate groups are also each hoping for support in any power struggle that might follow a collapse of the Assad regime.
Since the uprising began in March last year, Syria's opposition has been plagued by divisions and infighting. In addition to the SNC, several other opposition groups are known to be making similar plans for a provisional government, including a new alliance headed by veteran opposition figure Haitham Maleh.
The strains within the opposition were also evident on Tuesday when the Paris-based SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani, a founding member of the group, resigned. She said the SNC had veered off course.
"The project has not achieved its goals and the council has not earned the required credibility and did not safeguard the trust placed in it by the Syrian people when it was first created. It steered away from the course that we wanted for it when we created it. "
She said she would continue to work for the opposition, just from outside the council.
"I see more space than inside it."
Sieda said his group has been contacting other opposition figures and the Free Syrian Army rebels to consult over a transitional government, but admits they have not started discussing names yet.
Even if the opposition were to unite, there are serious questions whether the disparate groups have enough popular legitimacy to take control of a revolution and rebuild the nation. The men with guns inside Syria have little use for the political figures or even for Free Syria Army commanders who live in the safety and comfort of Paris and Istanbul.
"The SNC is a naive group of people who consider themselves politicians," said Ahmed al-Ghazali, commander of rebels who control Azaz, the town in northern Syria. "To this day, the SNC hasn't done anything ... Count how many people you see here from the SNC. People here are taking their rights for themselves."
Abu Hassan, a bus driver who fled the nearly deserted town of Anadan in northern Syria because of frequent government shelling and airstrikes, complained that "we hear promises" from exiled leaders "but we're not seeing anything on the ground."
"The only people who do anything are the people inside, the officers and the fighters who are in the front lines. The SNC and the Free Army who are abroad, we've never seen anything from them, not aid, not weapons, not ammunition."
As the war inside Syria appears to be grinding to a stalemate, so too is the political struggle. Most foreign powers want to see unity before giving support but the opposition is unable or unwilling to put aside their differences and unite.
Absent a united opposition, the dilemma facing the United States and its Western allies is uncertainty over who inside Syria might emerge with real power after Assad.
Their fear is that the collapse of the four-decade regime ruled by the Assads -- Bashar succeeded his father Hafez 12 years ago -- could unleash a fierce power struggle in which al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists could gain a foothold. With Syria bordering NATO member Turkey, combustible Lebanon with its powerful Hezbollah militia, unstable Iraq, and a nervous Israel with which it has a territorial dispute over the Golan Heights, that is a daunting prospect.
Repeated efforts to unite the opposition have fallen short.
An opposition conference in Cairo last month broke down in shouting and shoving matches over such key questions as whether to ask for foreign military intervention and what role religion would play in a post-Assad Syria.
Some activists complain that SNC is little more than a front for the Muslim Brotherhood, seeking a comeback after the Islamist movement was largely crushed by Hafez Assad in the 1980s.
News reports of bearded fighters inside Syria demanding an Islamist state and the increasing number of car bombs have led to fears in the West that the new Syria would follow the model of Iran or Taliban-run Afghanistan.
At the Berlin news conference, activists took pains to minimize the Islamist character of the revolt. Amr al-Azm, a professor who lives in the U.S., said fears of Islamist influence were widespread during the Libyan uprising but most voters gave their support to secularist leaders in the July election.
Afra Jalabi, a political scientist who lives in Montreal, said the increase in religious symbolism in Syria was "actually a silent protest against a regime that presented itself through its own propaganda as a secular system when it was a macho military system."
Reid reported from Berlin. Associated Press correspondent Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut, Lebanon.