The Syrian National Council came under increasing pressure on Saturday to accept an opposition unity plan after saying it will put forward its own proposals amid growing frustration among other dissident groups.
Once regarded as the leading opposition representative but increasingly derided in Washington as dominated by out-of-touch exiles, the SNC had already twice asked for a postponement of the talks on plans for a broad-based government-in-waiting.
“We have started an open dialogue with our brothers and looked at their initiative,” newly elected SNC leader George Sabra told a news conference ahead of the resumption of talks in the Qatari capital with other opposition factions.
“But we have our own point of view and our own ideas that we plan to put forward.”
On arrival at the hotel hosting the gathering, SNC members went into talks on the sidelines with officials from Qatar, the United States, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, coalition members said.
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdallah bin Zayed al-Nahayan “gave an assurance that the Gulf states stand by the side of the Syrians, and said that international support will be stronger if the opposition unites,” senior SNC official Ahmad Ramadan told AFP.
“We are being submitted to pressure to accept being part of a new formation, in exchange for international promises but with no guarantees,” he added.
Until recently, the SNC was considered internationally to be the legitimate face of the Syrian opposition, but it has been increasingly criticised — in particular by the United States — for not representing the broad opposition spectrum.
“The SNC is older than… any other initiative” on the table, Sabra told reporters, adding that no opposition group should be forced under the banner of another.
The SNC’s own initiative calls for a general congress to be held, followed by the formation of a “provisional government,” according to a document obtained by AFP.
It also proposes “the creation of a fund to assist the Syrian people,” a “unified direction for the command of the military and of the interior” and a judicial authority.
Ramadan suggested it would be “difficult to reach an agreement today” (Saturday), but added that the meeting may come up with a “declaration of principles” in order not to end in failure.
However, former SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun told reporters he was optimistic of a positive outcome.
“The meeting is still on, but there has been real progress. There will be a political agreement for common action, a political body to supervise military action,” he said.
Salem Muslet of the SNC added: “Inshallah (God willing), we will reach agreement tonight.”
Ramadan earlier told AFP the SNC “is eager to play a leading role in the opposition, and rejects any attempt to marginalise or wind it up,” adding the initiative being debated aims to “create a political authority to substitute for the SNC.”
The SNC has been vying to retain its role in the face of US- and Arab-backed proposals to form a new broad-based government-in-waiting that could win deeper support.
Those proposals, inspired by leading dissident Riad Seif who is reportedly seen by Washington as a potential new opposition leader, envisage the formation of a transitional government, a military council to oversee rebel groups on the ground and a judiciary to operate in rebel-held areas.
The 10-member transitional government would be elected by a new 60-member umbrella group drawn from civilian activists and rebel fighters inside Syria, as well as by the exiles who have dominated the SNC.
The SNC’s repeated postponement of its response to the plan has drawn strong criticism from other opposition groups taking part in the unity talks.
“The SNC’s requests for delays are a bad thing — they want to take over everything and the only thing that matters to them is who forms the leadership while our number one concern ought to be the bloodshed,” dissident Haytham Maleh told AFP.
According to watchdog the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 37,000 people have died since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011, first as a protest movement and then as an armed rebellion.