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Middle East

No unity among Syria's opposition groups

A Cairo-organized conference of Syria's opposition has excluded major players. Rebels question Egypt's motives, as some say exclusionary politics risk further dividing a fractured opposition. Kristen McTighe reports.

In the past few months, Syrian rebels fighting against the government of Bashar al-Assad have reportedly gained ground. Strategic cities like Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur have fallen to rebel forces and opposition members say there are increasing signs the regime is weakening and could be on its way out. For members of Syria's opposition, now more than ever is the time to unite to put the Assad regime on the back foot.

"With the progress made by the Syrian opposition, the regime finds itself finally realizing that they should come to the negotiation table," Hisham Marwah, vice president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, also called the Syrian Opposition Coalition, told DW.

A selective guest list

But as members of Syria's opposition prepare to meet in Cairo on Monday and Tuesday to discuss a roadmap to end Syria's four-year war that has left hundreds of thousands dead, Marwah's key opposition group, which is internationally recognized, will not attend.

"We are not invited to come," he said.

Islamischer Staat Kämpfer

"Islamic State" militants have taken some key areas, such as Palmyra, in recent weeks

Rebel gains inside Syria have ignited a sense of urgency to unite the country's innumerable opposition groups and tie them to a framework that will bring political gain. But some say an effort by Egypt to play a more influential role risks pushing an already-fractured opposition further apart.

"This conference is different from all the previous ones held by the Syrian opposition. It will put together a comprehensive national charter and a joint roadmap for a negotiated settlement based on the Geneva Declaration and UN resolutions," Haytham Manna, a leading Syrian opposition figure and one of the organizers of the conference, told Egypt's "Al-Ahram Weekly."

The conference, named the "National Opposition Conference for a Political Solution in Syria," is the second meeting in Cairo this year and is hosted by the Egyptian government.

"The main objective for Egypt is to invite all the opposition leaders and independent personalities who believe in a political solution and who can bring Syria out of the current crisis," Badr Abdelatty, a spokesman for Egypt's Foreign Ministry, told DW. "We are providing help. We can intervene, but only on the request of the Syrian representatives."

Egypt's ulterior motives

But while Abdelatty says Egypt only seeks to bring Syrian opposition figures together, the country's staunch opposition to Islamist groups has sowed distrust and left critics questioning Cairo's motives.

Syrischer Präsident Bashar al Assad

Egypt is determined that Assad should have a role after any end to the conflict

"We need to differentiate between the negative role of the al-Sissi government and its attempt to manipulate the scene, and the Syrian activists who are involved in this initiative and do not all agree with Egypt's controversial actions," Hassan Hachimi, a member of the political bureau of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, told DW. "I think that Cairo's initiative is an attempt to rehabilitate Assad, and more particularly trying to preserve the regime, which is even worse as far as revolution and opposition are concerned."

Egypt's current government, which came to power following the 2013 military ouster of its first democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, has undertaken a harsh crackdown on Islamists and remains deeply distrustful of religiously political movements throughout the region.

Cairo has said Assad should be a part of a negotiated settlement. With the majority of opposition groups opposed to a role for Assad, however, the country's ability to play a role in ending the conflict has come into question.

"Obviously by being selective in their invitation and refusing to be inclusive, Cairo is attempting to push opposition groups apart and trying to cause further disturbance to the opposition image," Hachimi said. "Really, the opposition is united on a vision for Syria with no Assad and no security forces."

Organizers of the meeting have denied that the gathering was sowing division. Syrian opposition member Manna told "Al-Ahram Weekly" the aim of the meeting was not "to divide the Syrian opposition or replace any of the opposition groups."

Low expectations

Still, the challenge of bringing together opposition forces has highlighted the long-splintered nature of Syria's opposition groups.

Syrien Al Nusra Kämpfer

Al Qaeda's Nusra Front has made some key gains of its own in the country's northeast

"The political opposition is as scattered, drifting, and fragmented as ever, there's nothing new there," said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, whose work focuses on the Syrian crisis. "No new structures have emerged. As for Cairo, it doesn't seem like anything was done to bring in rebel groups that are not represented by anyone attending."

Many critics expect little progress to be made in Cairo this week.

"This seems to have a little bit more to do with the Egyptian government's attempt to present themselves as relevant and doing something useful on Syria," said Sayigh. "We've seen for the past four years that political opposition structures have failed, and I don't understand why we keep expecting something new to emerge."

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