This current anti-regime movement is different than the 1982 uprising in Hama, and goes beyond the calls for reform found in the 2005 Damascus Declaration. Not surprisingly, the make up of the opposition is considerably different as well. Many of opposition figures, particularly the younger ones, are still relatively unknown and prone to internal disagreement. However, so far they have achieved a level of success that many did not think possible.
The structure of the Syrian regime on the other hand is fairly well documented. President Assad relies on a tight knit circle of family and friends, many of whom he inherited from his father. The Syrian army (especially forces commanded by Maher Assad) and the state security services (largely controlled by Assef Shawkat) have been violently putting out fires around the country, often preemptively. At the same time, Adnan Mahmoud (Minister of Information) and Bouthaina Shaaban (political and media advisor) have been trying to paint the opposition as “armed gangs” and dictate the dialogue.
Given that much information can be found on the regime, this post will take a look at the efforts of the opposition. It also includes a brief list of Syria activists, commentators, experts and leaders.
Various opposition members have mounted individual efforts in support of the revolution, but those will be detailed in the “people” section. This section focuses on opposition collectively.
Initial efforts, which began months ago, focused on providing dissidents with the tools they need, like satellite phones, training, and consulting. These efforts continue, but as the opposition begins to coalesce, a more comprehensive picture is also emerging.
The first major statement that the Diaspora (with support from inside Syria) released, was the National Initiative for Change. This was followed up more recently by an inclusive conference, called the “Syria Conference for Change”, which was held in Antalya Turkey from May 31-Jun 2.
In simple terms, the opposition appears to be taking a two (or possibly three) pronged approach. They are doing what they can to help people inside Syria continue to pressure the regime, while simultaneously trying to convince the international community to take more decisive action. The other piece of the puzzle that is just starting to take shape is the plan for a potential transition.
The opposition still faces many challenges, particularly when they reach the transition stage. A gap still exists between the older, more established Diaspora, and the youth organizers inside country. There are also those who dismiss efforts from abroad all together. If these internal issues are added to the potentially negative (sometimes exaggerated) effects that the revolution could have on domestic and regional stability, it is far from guaranteed that a transition from the current regime will be smooth. That said, the long-term strength of President Assad’s regime seems even more doubtful.
Conference for Change
This conference is worth looking at in depth because it is so far the most representative opposition gathering that the public has seen.
Below is a list of the major stakeholders and participants:
- Exiled or dissident Western (US and Europe) Diaspora
- Muslim Brotherhood (maybe just a faction?)
- Others inside Syria (through Skype)
This is an overview of who was involved from the Syrian Revolution Digest:
“The Antalya Conference was attended by 350 participants, 50 of whom came from Syria itself, including young protest leaders.
The Antalya Conference was attended by dozens of reporters representing all major global news outlets, including BBC, CNN, France 24, Al-Jazeerah, Al-Arabiya, Al-Hurrah, the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France Presse, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and a dozen Turkish and European outlets, among many others. Members of the press were granted unfettered access to most conference sessions, and were allowed to talk to all conferees.”
Excerpts from a Guardian article titled “Syrian Businessmen back Opposition”:
“[Radwan Ziadeh] said leadership alternatives in Syria had been repressed. “Everyone knows that the Syrian uprising is leaderless. We need to establish some sort of balance to move ahead.
“The intended outcome is for a united opposition established on the principles of greater co-ordination inside and outside Syria.”
“On the eve of the conference, divisions were apparent. Organisers admitted they were rushed. Others, while calling for unity, privately complained of inadequate planning and consultation.”
“Organised by the Egypt-based National Organisation for Human Rights, the Turkey conference is being privately funded by three Syrian businessmen – Ali and Wassim Sanqar, brothers who are luxury car distributors based in Damascus, and Ammar Qurabi, chairman of the national organisation and UAE-based satellite channel Orient TV”
“Key business figures in Syria are aligning themselves with opposition groups before a conference in Turkey on Tuesday in a sign that Syria’s traditionally pro-regime business elite may be beginning to break ranks with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.”
That said, it is important to note this statement from an attendee about the limits of the conference:
“If you want to create a governing body, it has to be done inside Syria,” Hamid said. “We don’t want to create any sense among the protest leaders that we are confiscating their revolution.”
Here are thoughts from Syria Comment, a blog run by Joshua Landis (see people section):
“The young leaders had no patience for the committees and bureaucracy of the older generation. They are getting communication lines in place, developing networks between towns and did not have time for the endless haggling of the older generation.”
“About 70 Kurds showed up which surprised everyone. Also the number of tribal leaders was impressive. They were wearing heir dish dashers and kafiyyas.”
“Another important accomplishment was the establishment of an executive board and an election. They voted on a 31 member executive body, nine of whom will be full time.”
Pro-regime demonstrators also showed up at the conference (from WSJ):
“In Antalya, activists said a handful of pro-regime supporters flown in from Syria harassed people as they arrived at the airport. The pro-regime group tried to enter the conference hotel on Wednesday, activists said, but were held back by Turkish police.”
Here are excerpts from the Final Declaration that the conference released, the full text can be found online.
“… participants agreed to the following:
2-Participants call on president Bashar al-Assad to resign immediately from all of his duties and positions and to hand over authority to his vice-president in accordance with constitutional procedures until the election of a transitional council which will draft and implement a new Syrian constitution that shall call for free and transparent parliamentary and presidential elections within a period not to exceed one year from the resignation of president Bashar al-Assad.
4- Participants affirm that the Syrian people are of many ethnicities, Arab, Kurd, Caldean, Assyrian, Syriac, Turkmen, Chechen, Armenian and others. The conference establishes the legitimate and equal rights of all under a new Syrian constitution based on national unity, civil state and a pluralistic, parlemantary, and democratic regime.
5- Participants commit to exert all efforts towards achieving a democratic future of Syria which respects human rights and protects freedom for all Syrians, including the freedom of belief, expression and practice of religion, under a civil state based on the separation of legislative, judicial and executive powers, while adopting democracy and the ballot box as the sole medium of governance.
7- Participants call on all Arabs, the Organization of Islamic Conference, the Arab League and the International Community to take legal and ethical responsibility in order to stop the violation of human rights and crimes against humanity committed against unarmed civilians, and to support the ambition of the Syrian people of freedom and democracy.”
The conference in Turkey was followed by a slightly smaller one in Brussels aimed at putting pressure on the international community. They directed this statement at the UN Security Council (from Al-Jazeera):
“This critical situation requires immediate and unambiguous action by the United Nations Security Council. The al-Assad regime has shown itself to be illegitimate through its carefully planned and implemented policy of relentless violence against the Syrian people. The international community has a moral and legal responsibility to respond to situations where crimes against humanity are being perpetrated.”
This is a very short list of names that are useful to recognize when discussing Syria. These are the people that most commonly appear in the media, but are by no means the only important actors. Feel free to add to the list in the comments section, but please use a similarly concise format. Some excerpts taken from Foreign Policy Who’s who guide:
Radwan Ziadeh: he is the founder of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies. He is currently a visiting scholar at GW, but has spent time at Harvard, Chatam House, USIP and other institutions. Ziadeh often lobbies on behalf of the Syrian opposition at the UN and other international organizations.
Ausama Monajed: is based in Britain, and he connects eyewitnesses on the ground to international media organizations. He runs the facebook group and e-mail list “Syrian Revolution News Round-ups.” He is on the opposition’s Foreign Relations committee.
Wissam Tarif: the Lebanese-born executive director of the international human rights organization Insan, also plays an important role in sifting through the massive stream of videos and firsthand reports coming out of Syria. He can be found on twitter.
Fidaaldin Al-Sayed Issa: the founder of the “Syrian Revolution 2011” Facebook page. He is a Syrian member of the Muslim Brotherhood member who lives in Sweden at the moment. The transcript of an in-depth interview he did can be found here.
Rami Nakhle: having been driven out of Syria, Nakhle now a Beirut based Syrian Internet activist who has was featured in a New York Times article. He is responsible for gathering many of the videos and other media coming out of Syria. Nakhle reportedly picked up many of his tactics from Tunisian and Egyptian activists.
Yaser Tabbara: Tabbara is a Syrian American lawyer based in Chicago. He was the executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Chicago, and is not a leader of the Syrian American Council. His full bio can be found here.
Ahed Hendi: Hendi is the Arabic program coordinator for CyberDissidents.org. He has spent a significant amount of time in prison. Hendi is Syrian and writes for international journals like WSJ, The Beast and Foreign Affairs.
Bouthaina Shaaban: She is one President Assad’s top advisors, and one of its more public faces. Last month the New York Times was granted access to interview her and Rami Makhlouf (top Syrian businessmen and member of Assad family). Shaaban is a former Fulbright Scholar.
Molham Drobi: Canadian based Muslim Brotherhood representative to the Syrian Conference for Change. Appeared as a spokesman in the media.
Imad Moustapha: he is the Syrian Ambassador to the United States. Mr. Moustapha keeps a blog called “Weblog of Syrian Diplomat in America.” He was formerly the Dean of the Faculty of IT at the University of Damascus.
Michel Kilo: Mr. Kilo was a major opposition figure in the first half of the decade. He was a prominent signatory of the Damascus Declaration and spent 3 years in prison as a result. He has been much quieter during the recent uprising, but is at least a proponent of reform. Kilo is one of the few opposition members that have met with the regime.
Maher Assad: He is the younger brother of President Bashar al-Assad. He commands the notoriously loyal Republican Guard and the elite fourth division of the army. He is widely credited with being a main architect of the regime’s crackdown. The Council on Foreign Relations profiles Maher and other Syrian leaders here (produced in 2006).
Andrew Tabler: He is a Syria expert at the Washington Institute, but has spent a significant amount of time in Syria. Tabler was in Syria from 2000-2008 and co-founded Syria Today, the first private sector English language magazine. He also worked for the Syria Trust for Development, which is run by first-lady Asma Assad.
Ammar Abdulhamid: Abdulhamid is one of the more outspoken activists. He is essentially exiled from Syria, and is the founder of the Thawra Foundation. His wife, Khawla Yousef is a human-rights activist, and one of the 31 people elected to the council in Antalya.
Joshua Landis: is the head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is the founder and administrator of Syria Comment, one of the most widely read Syrian blogs. He is also a highly sought after Syrian expert in the western media. See this article for more information on Landis and Abdulhamid (above).
Camille Otrakji: is a Syrian political blogger based in Montreal. He is one of the authors and moderators at Joshua Landis’s Syria Comment, and the founder and Syrian Think Tank (an online debate site hosting many of Syria’s top analysts). Otrakji did a widely read interview with the Qifa Nabki blog and a follow up bloggingheads video with its found Elias Muhanna.