Syria’s rebel fighters — who have long staked claim to the moral high ground for battling dictatorship — are losing crucial support from a public increasingly disgusted by the actions of some rebels, including poorly planned missions, senseless destruction, criminal behavior and the coldblooded killing of prisoners.
The shift in mood presents more than just a public relations problem for the loosely knit militants of the Free Syrian Army, who rely on their supporters to survive the government’s superior firepower. A dampening of that support undermines the rebels’ ability to fight and win what has become a devastating war of attrition, perpetuating the violence that has left nearly 40,000 dead, hundreds of thousands in refugee camps and more than a million forced from their homes.
The rebel shortcomings have been compounded by changes in the opposition, from a force of civilians and defected soldiers who took up arms after the government used lethal force on peaceful protesters to one that is increasingly seeded with extremist jihadis. That radicalization has divided the fighters’ supporters and made Western nations more reluctant to give rebels the arms that might help break the intensifying deadlock. Instead, foreign leaders are struggling to find indirect ways to help oust Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
And now arrogance and missteps are draining enthusiasm from some of the fighters’ core supporters.
“They were supposed to be the people on whom we depend to build a civil society,” lamented a civilian activist in Saraqib, a northern town where rebels were videotaped executing a group of unarmed Syrian soldiers, an act the United Nations has declared a likely war crime.
Syria’s main opposition bloc elected an all-male leadership team early Thursday, undermining its own bid to showcase itself as a more diverse group that can represent all those trying to oust President Bashar Assad.
The Syrian National Council’s general assembly of some 420 members chose a 40-member leadership body after hours of voting at a conference held at a hotel in the Qatari capital of Doha. The 40-member group is to choose an 11-member executive body and an SNC president later Thursday.
The SNC, largely made up of exiles and heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, has been criticized as ineffective and out of touch with those trying to topple Assad. The U.S. wants a more cohesive and representative opposition, suggesting the SNC’s leadership days are over.
When the SNC election results were announced, women delegates jumped up in protest. Some of the male delegates joined their demands that several women be added to the leadership group retroactively.
“This is a big problem,” Rima Fleihan, a Syrian writer and women’s activists, said of the marginal role of women in the political opposition in exile, noting that women in Syria are key activists in anti-regime protests.
Syrian security forces fired the shells that killed French journalist Gilles Jacquier on Wednesday, a Syrian opposition group said, rejecting claims that the France 2 TV journalist was killed by “armed terrorist” fire.
Jacquier, the first Western journalist to die in the 10-month-old uprising in Syria, was killed when a mortar shell struck the pro-government rally he was attending as part of a government-authorized tour of Homs, his network said.
Eight Syrians also died in the attack.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission said security forces fired two shells from an infantry fighting vehicle at a crowd of journalists.
The group said government forces killed at least 24 Syrians Wednesday and injured hundreds more. Another opposition group, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, put the number at 25 dead.
As the violence went on, Syria’s president turned up at a boisterous pro-government rally in Damascus, whipping up his followers and again underscoring his view that the months of popular unrest in his nation are the result of a “conspiracy.”
“We will triumph over this conspiracy,” Bashar al-Assad told a cheering, clapping and flag-waving throng.
“I will not say that the country is confronting a major conspiracy because you are here to stand up against it,” he said. “These are the final phases of the conspiracy, and we will make sure that we will stand up victorious.”
Al-Assad’s appearance at the rally comes a day after he delivered a defiant televised speech, strongly defending his government’s reforms and blaming the unrest on “external conspiracies.”
Wednesday’s rally in Damascus occurred during an Arab League fact-finding mission to see if the Syrian government is adhering to an agreement to end the violence.
Al-Assad made the appearance amid widespread grass-roots and international anger over his government’s crackdown against peaceful protesters. The crackdown has continued despite the presence of Arab League observers and international pressure, with opposition activists estimating the number of dead at 6,000-plus.