Syrian activists say as many as 94,000 people have died in the two-year conflict
SNC plagued by resignations, tepid international backing, the involvement of rebels in atrocities
Analyst: SNC leader just a figurehead for the true powers running the agenda
(PhatzNewsRoom / USA Today) — The leader of the Syrian opposition says the conflict engulfing the country will draw in neighboring states before international players such as the U.S. move in to help bring about its end.
In his first sit-down interview since being named interim president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC) last month, George Sabra said only when the wider region is pulled into the war will the U.S. government change its stance on arming rebels and establishing a “no fly” zone. And, he says, it’s looking increasingly likely that the conflict will widen.
“Now there is one country with 23 million people involved,” he said. “In time, if the situation continues, there will be five countries and 80 million people involved in this conflict. When this happens, and when Israel is involved, then America will act.”
Syrian activists say as many as 94,000 people have died in the two-year conflict, which has turned increasingly violent and sectarian in recent months.
Hilal Khashan, a professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut, blames the lack of a response from Western governments for allowing the conflict to deteriorate.
“It was the nonchalant approach of the West to the Syrian conflict that, among other factors, has contributed to the radicalization of the conflict and the spread of gruesome practices,” he said. “After all, the regime got away with its own brutality.”
Despite attempts by figures in the CIA and State Department to get the U.S. more actively involved in supporting rebel groups, the White House remains wary of becoming embroiled in another Middle East conflict.
The conflict has already destabilized fragile political activities in neighboring Lebanon, and last week 51 people were killed in two car bombs in Turkey that officials blamed on supporters of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
Sunni-Shia divisions in the region have been exacerbated by the role played by the Shia-Lebanese group Hezbollah, which experts say is currently fighting on the side of the Syrian regime in the western part of the country.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two Sunni monarchies, have been instrumental in providing cash and weapons to the mostly Sunni rebel groups fighting the Syrian government. With Assad backed by Iran and Hezbollah, and rebels by Gulf states, Sabra says he believes a long, sectarian war involving all sides may be imminent.
The SNC itself has been plagued by resignations, tepid international backing and, recently, the involvement of rebels in atrocities against government soldiers.
This week, footage emerged of a rebel fighter in Homs province cutting out and eating the body parts of a dead government soldier. In the audio accompanying the video clip and obtained by Time magazine, the rebel spoke with a vicious sectarian hatred directed at Assad and Syria’s Alawite community.
Sabra admitted he hadn’t seen the video but said the SNC has given direction to rebel groups to help combat extremist activities and will provide instruction to mid-level fighters on the laws of war.
Sabra was named interim chief of the SNC following the resignation of Sheikh Moaz al-Khateeb in March. Al-Khateeb cited outside forces seeking to control the activities of the opposition — a veiled reference to Saudi Arabia and Qatar — as a main reason for stepping down. Sabra said he doesn’t see al-Khateeb — a charismatic figure popular among many Syrians — returning to the SNC.
“Sheikh al-Khateeb didn’t come from politics — he thinks with his heart and has little time for politics.”
Sabra, who fled Syria in December 2011 after spending time in prison for his activities during the revolt, is skeptical of a peace initiative drawn up by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this month.
Sabra said opposition figures won’t attend a U.N. meeting in Geneva in June, where the initiative is expected to be set in place, without first seeing an agenda and the names of those invited.
Damascus — also invited to send representatives even as a U.N. resolution passed Wednesday condemning its use of heavy weapons in the conflict — has similarly asked for more details about the conference before committing.
On Thursday, Syrian opposition leaders will gather in Istanbul to elect a new president of the council, and Sabra is one of several front-runners.
David Butter, analyst and former fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said
“(Sabra’s) advantage internally for opposition figures is that he’s much more reliable — al-Khateeb went off message,” Butter said. “But whoever’s going to lead the opposition is always going to be just a frontman.”