(The author is a columnist and editor of Reuters Breakingviews. The opinions expressed are his own)
By Hugo Dixon
LONDON, Sept 20 (Reuters) - One of the most important things for Arab revolutionaries aiming to bring down authoritarian regimes is achieving unity within their own ranks. Unity is valuable for developing and executing a strategy for toppling a dictatorship, as well as for providing a single interlocutor with the international community. By contrast, political, ethnic and religious divisions can be exploited by a regime that is clinging to power.
After several false starts, the Syrian opposition to Bashar al-Assad took a big step towards unity in Istanbul last week, forming the Syrian National Council (SNC). It aims to represent the revolution and topple the regime. It was deliberately not called a transitional council because of the echoes with Libya's Transitional Council. If Assad falls, the idea is that the council's role will come to an end rather than becoming a transitional government, says Bassma Kodmani, its spokesperson.
Full unity has not yet been achieved: some opposition activists, including the man originally touted as its president, have so far stayed out of the SNC.
But, for the first time since the protests started six months ago, provoking a bloody crackdown by the regime, it looks like the Syrian revolution has something which could turn into a common front.
The rebel caucus received a huge boost with the backing last night of the LCC, the grassroots activist network that has powered the rolling demonstrations across Syria over the past six months.
"We support the SNC out of our commitment to unify the opposition and to eliminate the opposition's fragmentation," the LCC said in a statement. In addition, our support is in response to the Youth Movement, which has expressed its desire for such an overarching political entity."
It also called on the leadership of the Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change, the Kurdish leadership, and all other political and revolutionary entities to support the SNC initiative.
"Our current situation is extraordinary and we have a national responsibility to overcome the obstacles created by differences in vision and political leanings, and to form a council that represents all segments of society and political factions, and which truly reflects the national voice of the Revolution to topple the Syrian regime and build the future of Syria."
The SNC believes it will have legitimacy to speak and act on behalf of the revolution because of the pain-staking process it went through to choose its 140 members, says Ausama Monajed, an activist outside the country who is playing a leading role in the council's international relations and public relations.
The idea was to get a council which was representative of different religions, ethnic groups, regions and political persuasions - as well as getting people who had a history of opposing Assad.
The criteria for selection and the ultimate names were chosen by a committee of 10-20 people, says Monajed. This committee itself included people from diverse backgrounds: Abdelbasit Sida, a Kurd; Abdulrahman Al-Haj, an independent centrist; Yaser Tabbara, a liberal; Obaida Nahhas, an Islamist; and Kodmani, a leftist.
The committee determined various quotas. One was that 60 percent of the membership was to be for people inside the country and 40 percent outside. Another that 52 percent should be grassroots activists, with the rest more traditional opposition. Yet another was that 28-29 percent should be the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups.
Making Syria's minorities feel included was a particular goal. "Minorities were over-represented to give them a guarantee that their rights and interests would be protected," says Monajed. So the Kurds will get 12-15 percent of the SNC's members. Alawites, the offshoot Shi'ite sect from which Assad comes, and Christians will also be represented. Some people in these groups have been wary of the revolution, fearing that they could be persecuted if Assad falls.
So far, the names of only 71 of the council's members have been revealed. There are two reasons. First, some do not want to be disclosed because they are afraid of reprisals from the regime. Second, some groups -- mainly Kurds, Islamists and the traditional opposition -- haven't filled their quotas yet leaving 20-25 posts empty.
This has had the consequence that the SNC looks half-formed. Only one Alawite name has been revealed, Wajdi Mostafa. The Council has also not been able to gather all the key opposition figures under its umbrella. Several of its members had pleaded with Burhan Ghalioun, a French-based professor, to be their leader but he has so far not joined. Meanwhile, another group of activists met in Damascus last weekend with the aim of forming a National Assembly.
"It takes a bit of time but we are coming together," says Kodmani. "Discussions are still under way with many institutions."
Monajed insists that the council has growing legitimacy: "There is no more time to waste, this is the real deal. We must all rally around it." He says there have been demonstrations in Syria in favour of the council and that the secretariat to the Damascus Declaration, which made a seminal call for an end to authoritarian rule in 2005, was on the point of endorsing it.
The SNC has also been making some progress in getting international recognition. The United States, France and Britain have all welcomed its creation, though they have not yet recognized it as the legitimate voice of the Syrian opposition. Monajed will be in New York later this week with a delegation to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly, aiming to shore up the council's support from foreign governments.
After that, the council is hoping to have its first general meeting on Sept. 24, ideally in Cairo. But, if they can't get the approval of the Egyptian government, they may need to meet again in Istanbul, says Monajed. The general meeting will probably agree to create an executive committee and a president. But so far nobody has put his or her name forward.
Once the council has organized itself, it will then have to decide how best to wage the struggle against Assad. It has already set out certain basic principles -- including rejecting calls for ethnic strife and foreign intervention, while safeguarding the non-violent character of the revolution. But there is still a long way to go before determining what strategy to pursue to "knock down the pillars of the regime", Monajed admits. They are trying to get members of the grassroots coordinating committees together to discuss, develop and agree such a strategy.
One issue that needs to be thrashed out is what sort of help to ask for from abroad. Although the council is against Libyan-style NATO bombing, Kodmani says it "hears the street, which is desperate" and wants international protection of civilians. She says they are looking at other options short of military intervention. Another issue is how the SNC will relate to the Free Syrian Army, a small group of former Syrian soldiers which has defected. All Monajed would say was that there was a channel for discussions but the type of relationship had yet to be determined.
Even if the SNC sorts all this out, it could have a long battle on its hands -- not least because the Assad regime will not be standing still but will be seeking to advance its own goal of staying in power. That said, if the Syrian revolution does succeed, the formation of the SNC may turn out to have been an important milestone.
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)