Can the Syrian opposition win? The anti-Assad movement could be too divided to remain standing – By Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand
BEIRUT, Lebanon — In the early weeks of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the young activists who helped drive the street protests celebrated their leaderless movement.
Up against the security apparatus of one of the world’s most tightly controlled police states, the young activists established some core operational procedures: they broke into small cells, known as local committees, to organize protests and document the regime’s crackdown.
The committees kept largely separate to avoid mass arrests. They communicated through social-networking sites online, and in secret.
Now, five-and-a-half months into the uprising, the very character that has made Syria’s opposition so durable in the face of military and secret police has become a weakness. The international community — and even many Syrians — struggle to envision leadership in a post-Assad Syria.
At a meeting with anti-Assad Syrian activists in Washington last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton encouraged them to work toward a « unified vision » for Syria.
The need for a resolution becomes more urgent as the crisis drags on. Syrians first took to the streets in March against President Bashar al-Assad. So far, 2,200 people have been killed, according to the United Nations. Of those, 350 were killed in August alone.
On Sept. 1, the attorney general of Hama province resigned publicly over the government’s brutal crackdown, citing cases of torture and mass killings. He is the highest-ranking official in Syria to do so since the protests began.
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“We know this is a critical moment in the history of the Syrian uprising,” said Radwan Ziadeh, an opposition figure outside the country. “We know the international community cannot deal with the opposition as individuals.”
But a closer look at the disparate elements of the opposition underscores just how complicated unification might be.
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Inside Syria, the domestic opposition is split between the youth-led local committees; and the established older generation political opposition.
The younger generation say that, despite decades of trying, their elders failed to deliver significant democratic change. They also accuse the old guard of being too slow to endorse the early protests. Now that the opposition has gained momentum, the youth believe these older members want to take over.
Outside Syria, by some counts, there are at least seven distinct opposition networks. At least five major public meetings of the opposition have taken place outside Syria, and none has produced a unified opposition council.
“Yet the target is same for all of us: We all want to change the regime, we all want a civil state that respects dignity and human rights for everyone,” said Iyas al-Maleh, who helped organize an opposition conference in Brussels in June. “But everybody is not joining forces, just monitoring each conference. It’s still fragmented. Everyone thinks they can do it on their own. There’s a lot of ego, unfortunately.”
On Aug. 29, frustrated by all the dithering, a small group of activists took a bold step: They announced the formation of a national transitional council in Syria, fashioned on the model of the Libyran opposition, made up of 94 members inside and outside Syria.
The problem: none of those on the list had agreed to be chosen, or even informed of their selection until the news broke.
“It was an effort to kick start the opposition,” said a Syrian activist involved in the initiative, which was announced on Al Jazeera Arabic from the Turkish capital Ankara.
“If their name is on the list and they say, ‘No, we will not participate,’ then we say, ‘So, tell us what you’re up to then,’” he said.
Inside Syria, opposition factions said the initiative ultimately hurt their cause.
“This initiative was rushed and not done in a professional way,” said Omar al-Idlibi, the spokesman for the local coordination committees. “The 94 members are not even in agreement with each other.”
The activists on the ground say that coordination should be left to them.
They have endured waves of arrests and targeted detentions of their families, as well as assassination attempts. The crackdown has forced them into hiding, and many move regularly between safe houses as they struggle to maintain their movement.
Their plan now, according to one opposition figure in Syria who requested anonymity, is to unite the committees on the ground. “As soon as we get that done we’ll elect a transitional council, but we don’t want it to happen outside the country,” the man said. “People outside don’t know what’s going on inside. We’re the ones with experience.”
Part of why it’s taken so long for them to organize into a political structure is that Syrians lived for nearly a half-century under a repressive police state, whose ruling Baath Party is constitutionally guaranteed to rule. There simply weren’t any politics to discuss, and young people largely hoped to keep away from political organization in their demonstrations.
Now that no one else has stepped forward, these opposition groups are starting to fill the void but they are just now formulating their agendas and not necessarily in tandem.
Rather than touting their freedom from politics, many are now actively engaged in political debate. They favor real-time discussion over the endless anonymous sharing of social media.
Some are even in talks to join forces.
“You can’t start a political program on Facebook,” said one member, who said his group has now merged with what some activists hope will be the unifying body for all protest networks inside Syria, the recently launched Syrian Revolution General Commission. Check out its Facebook page here.
The commission now boasts nearly 120 local committees, out of the several hundreds believed to be scattered across the country.
And meanwhile, help may be coming from the outside.
The man selected from the list of 94 to lead the opposition has risen to the occasion. Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based professor of political sociology at the Sorbonne, has been working to set up an advisory board of older opposition members.
The board, a group of 40 experienced opposition figures, would be available to advise the young activists in Syria, when and if they ask for it.