LONDON — From the perspective of many outsiders, it appears the Syrian regime has been bent on self-destruction for 10 months.
More than 5,000 people are now thought to have been killed since the uprising began last year. Western leaders, most of the Arab League, and even one-time ally Turkey have turned against President Bashar Al-Assad, imposing sanctions and calling for him to step down. But in a defiant speech Tuesday, he insisted he would not be going anywhere.
On Wednesday, he made another rare public appearance. He addressed a rally in Damascus' Umayad Square, thanking the crowd for its support and pledging to defeat the opposition.
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His position seems strong. There have been no major political or diplomatic defections, and despite some well-publicized army rebellions, the military is largely intact.
But despite almost a year of repression, the protest movement refuses to die down. So who are the men (and they are almost all men) who would replace Bashar Al-Assad?
When cities across Syria rose up against the regime, the protest movement’s leaders could not be arrested or killed. That was because it had no leaders. It was a spontaneous uprising. While that made the revolution appear unstoppable, it presented the international community with a problem. They had no idea who they should be talking to.
With support from Turkey, the Syrian National Council finally emerged last August after protracted negotiations between grassroots groups of young revolutionaries, long-time dissidents, the Muslim Brotherhood and Kurdish leaders.
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They picked an academic, Burhan Ghalioun, as their first leader. Although he is based in Paris, Ghalioun was seen as an uncontroversial technocrat who could bring together secular and religious groups, and present a unified front to the world. And for a while, he succeeded.
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton held a meeting with Ghalioun and his allies in Geneva last month. The UK appointed an envoy to the Syrian opposition. And the Arab League entered into talks with the Syrian National Council. The SNC seemed to be in the ascendent, until Ghalioun announced that he wanted the group to merge with a rival body led by Haytham Manna.
Unlike many of the SNC’s members, Manaa’s group, the National Coordination Body, is based largely inside Syria, rejects foreign military intervention and has held talks with the regime.
So when these two very different groups announced the possibility of a tie-up, their allies were furious. The Muslim Brotherhood reportedly called Ghalioun a "dictator," and there have been moves to oust him ever since.
One of the men who could replace Ghalioun is George Sabra, a long-time dissident who was only released from a Syrian jail in September. He escaped across the border weeks ago and is thought to have a large support-base inside Syria and within the expat opposition movement.
But it is Riad Al-Assad (no relation to the president) who is the most divisive figure in the Syrian opposition movement. The former air force colonel leads the Free Syrian Army, a militant group of army defectors and civilians who have taken up arms. He claims to command 20,000 men, but analysts say the figure is likely to be much lower.
Riad Al-Assad has held talks with Ghalioun but they can not even agree on the most fundamental points. Ghalioun wants defectors to use their weapons only to protect civilians while Al-Assad insists on carrying out headline-grabbing attacks on the army.
Last month, some of Ghalioun’s allies reportedly cast doubt on the size of the rebel army. “Riad Al-Assad is in charge of maybe five guys,” a dissident told Time
magazine. “The [Free Syrian Army] is an empty cardboard box,” said another.
The Libyan opposition succeeded in getting international support within weeks of their first protests. A year later, the Syrians have not had the same success, mainly because they cannot agree what they want. Do they talk to the regime, or not? Do they want international intervention, or not? Should the revolution take up arms, or not?
The groups seem to be spending more time arguing among themselves — comparing membership sizes, who has more support inside Syria, and who is the legitimate representative of the Syrian people — than fighting the regime. Until they can agree on some answers, none of them will be replacing Bashar Al-Assad.