Assad opponents engage in ‘power’ struggle: Resignations hit SNC
DAMASCUS - The opposition, which is heavily outgunned by the regime and has called for its fighters to be armed in the defence of civilians, suffered on Wednesday a setback on the political front with resignations from the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella movement of anti-regime groups.
Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani and Catherine al-Talli announced on their Facebook pages they were quitting due to "differences" and the "inefficiency" of the SNC, an opposition coalition of Islamists, liberals and nationalists.
"I have resigned from the SNC because there is a lot of chaos in the group and not a lot of clarity over what they can accomplish right now. We have not gotten very far in working to arm the rebels," Maleh said.
Maleh said he was frustrated by a lack of transparency and organisation in the SNC, a group led mostly by opposition figures abroad who have been negotiating with foreign powers to support the revolt. Maleh was a member of its executive board.
Labwani, another prominent dissident who formed a group within the SNC called the Syrian Patriotic Group, called for wider resignations to clear the way for talks to re-unify the opposition.
"We are calling for a group resignation from the Syrian Patriotic Group," he said by telephone from Amman, but declined to give a number of potential defections.
The 81-year-old Maleh, who was arrested several times in Syria for his work as a dissident in the past, said he had not called for fellow SNC members to resign but expected many would.
"You will see many more resignations soon. I would tell other members that they need to look at the situation themselves and decide if they want to stay or go," he said.
He echoed activists’ complaints that the SNC has been too slow to push for arming the rebels.
But his resignation may be part of a political struggle between prominent figures over leadership roles in the opposition.
"I have heard a lot of complaints about transparency in the work done by the SNC and I felt it would be more effective if I continued my work outside the group," he said.
Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad's forces have overrun the rebel bastion of Idlib in northwest Syria, activists said, as the regime stepped up a drive to crush a revolt backed by outgunned rebels.
"Since last night there has been no more fighting," said Noureddin al-Abdo, an activist in Idlib, confirming earlier reports by a government newspaper that the city had fallen after a four-day assault by regime forces.
"The (rebel) Free Syrian Army (FSA) has withdrawn and regime forces have stormed the entire city and are carrying out house-to-house searches," said Abdo, reached by telephone from Beirut.
The army launched its assault on the rebellious province of Idlib near the Turkish border on Saturday, bombarding the city of the same name and outlying regions in a bid to root out armed insurgents.
"The FSA preferred to withdraw because everyone knows it cannot resist the army," Abdo said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fierce clashes between regime forces and rebel troops were ongoing in the Jabal al-Zawiya district of the province and at least four people had died on Wednesday.
"Seventeen soldiers were killed late Tuesday after armed rebels attacked checkpoints in the village of Al-Barra, in Jabal al-Zawiya," said the Britain-based group.
The capture of Idlib comes two weeks after regime forces stormed the Baba Amr rebel stronghold in the central city of Homs following a month-long blitz that left hundreds dead.
It also comes as Assad's regime responded to UN-Arab League proposals to end a 12-month crisis that has killed more than 8,500 people, mostly civilians, according to activists.
A spokesman for UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who met with Assad in Damascus over the weekend and made "concrete" proposals to halt the bloodshed, said the unspecified Syrian response was being considered.
Russia, which has been accused of weakening the international response to the crisis by blocking UN Security Council action, insisted on Wednesday that it was defending "fairness" rather than its allies in the regime in Damascus.
"We are not defending the regime but fairness, the sovereign right of the Syrian people themselves to have a democratic choice," Interfax quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as telling a parliamentary hearing.
Foreign intervention or outright support for the rebels could lead to a "ruinous civil war with unpredictable regional consequences," Lavrov stressed.
Russia on Tuesday said it would press Assad to accept foreign monitors who could observe the implementation of a simultaneous ceasefire between government troops and rebels.
On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the revolt, which kicked off with peaceful protests that were brutally crushed, Amnesty International warned on Wednesday of the "nightmarish world of systematic torture" faced by detainees in Syria.
"The scale of torture and other ill-treatment in Syria has risen to a level not witnessed for years," Amnesty said in a report based on testimony from survivors who fled to Jordan.
The UN human rights office is to send observers to Syria's neighbouring countries to collect evidence and document atrocities, the deputy rights commissioner said.
"We will be sending monitors for information collection and documentation of the violations and atrocities in the border areas in the neighbouring countries later this week," said Kang Kyung-wha.
Assad on Tuesday issued a decree setting May 7 as the date for parliamentary elections under a new constitution adopted in February. But Washington immediately dismissed the planned vote as "ridiculous."
"Parliamentary elections for a rubber-stamp parliament in the middle of the kind of violence that we're seeing across the country -- it's ridiculous," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
They would be the third such polls since Assad came to power in 2000, but the first under a multi-party system as authorised under the new charter.