Meeting of Syrian Intellectuals a Facade

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by Tik Root
On Monday roughly 200 dissidents and independents met in Damascus, for what is being dubbed the first public meeting of opposition figures inside Syria. The goal of the meeting was not political (technically), but rather, as Abdel Karim Rihawi, president of the Syrian League for Human Rights, told AFP: “We will talk so that we can formulate a national strategy on how to end Syria’s current crisis,” stressing that the meeting was not intended to take the place of the “protesters in the street.”

The WSJ reported on the final communiqué from the conference: ‘In a closing statement, participants said they supported the popular uprising and identified themselves as independents with no intent to act as substitutes for other opposition members. “The meeting calls on coordinating the opposition with the popular street movement for national, democratic, peaceful change in Syria.”’

One of the main meeting organizers and spokesmen was Luay Hussein, has been a member of the opposition for decades and spent a significant amount of time in prison as a result. A number of others involved in the conference fit this mold, and I’ll refer to them as the “old guard.” Aljazeera published a list of key participants, although it is not entirely accurate.  For example, Aref Dalila decided not to participate because the number of participants has been “limited to certain people” and “it isn’t clear who determined who was invited.”

It is interesting to note that although this old guard tends to be associated with the 2005 Damascus Declaration, a main opposition group called “The Damascus Declaration coalition” has actually come out against this meeting, according to Malik al-Abdeh, an editor of Barada TV. He added that “…there are three or four opposition figures who spent time in jail, who are actually attending this meeting. But apart from that, all the other people I have seen on the list, they are not known to be opposition figures… [so] this certainly is not an opposition conference, this is just a meeting of intellectuals all discussing the future of Syria under, I have to stress this, the close watchful eye of the Syrian security.”

To add to the confusion, prominent conference attendee Michel Kilo was quoted saying that “The solution to this crisis has to address its root causes. This regime must be toppled and replaced with a democratic system.” He is the main author of the Damascus Declaration, and up until this point leaned toward reform rather than regime change, at least publicly.  I should say that I have not seen the Arabic version of this quote, and I am told that the translation could be off. Kilo might still be in favor of reform.

The conference is coming under fire from opposition figures that believe the window for reform and a national dialogue has closed. On the mild side of the criticism are those who say that people have every right to meet in Damascus, and that everyone in the opposition have the same general goals, but the various groups are taking different paths to get there. A middle of the road view comes from dissident Walid al-Bunni (to the AP): “This meeting will be exploited as a cover-up for the arrests, brutal killings and torture that is taking place on a daily basis.” On the more extreme end, the Local Coordination Committees (umbrella group of Syrian activists) released a statement saying “As a matter of principle, the Coordination Committees of the Syrian Revolution condemn any meeting or congress held under the banner of the regime.” In private conversations others have told me that the group organizing this conference has little support within the country.

The impact of the Damascus conference is still unclear, but it does show that there are still divisions among the opposition that need to be worked out. That said, these groups are much more organized than they were only a few months ago. The start of “national dialogue”, set for July 10th , could be a catalyst that either unites the opposition against the regime or further divides the reformers from the revolutionaries. But that certainly doesn’t meant protestors will be sitting on the sidelines waiting. They continue to come out in full force.

US Sanctions Syrian, Iranian Police for Syria Crackdown [June 29]

The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions against a Syrian police unit and key Iranian security officials in connection with Syria’s lethal crackdown on protestors. U.S. officials accuse Iran of providing material support for Syrian repression.

The sanctions announced by the Treasury Department add to a growing list of Syrian and Iranian individuals and entities targeted by the United States, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and members of his inner circle.

Those cited Wednesday for engaging in human rights abuses include the Syrian Political Security Directorate – one of four branches of the Syrian security forces – and the head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence, Major General Jamil Hassan.

Also designated, for providing support for human rights abuses, were the chief of Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces, Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam, and his deputy, Ahmad-Reza Radan – who is said to have traveled to Damascus in April to aid the Syrian crackdown.

The Treasury Department said agents of the Syrian political security unit opened fire and killed demonstrators in specific incidents in March in the town of Dar’a and in April in Nawa.

The U.S. sanctions freeze any assets those designated might have in the United States and forbid any dealings with them by U.S. citizens or firms. 

Syria tank assault kills 11 near Turkey border [June 29]

Syrian troops shot dead 11 villagers on Wednesday, residents said, as authorities pressed on with a tank-led assault that has driven thousands of refugees across the northwest border with Turkey.

The assault on Jabal al-Zawya, a region 35 km (22 miles) south of Turkey that has seen spreading protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, was launched overnight, a day after authorities said they would invite opponents to talks on July 10 to set up a dialogue offered by Assad.

Opposition leaders have dismissed the offer, saying it is not credible while mass killings and arrests continue. The Local Coordination Committees, a main activists’ group, said in a statement on Wednesday that 1,000 people have been arrested arbitrarily across Syria over the last week alone.

A resident of Jabal al-Zawya, a teacher who gave his name as Ziad, told Reuters by phone that among the dead were two youths in the village of Sarja.

“An eleven-year-old child is also badly wounded by random gunfire. We cannot get him out of the village for treatment because the tanks blocked all roads and troops are firing non-stop,” he said.

Syria Pulls Armed Forces Back From Some Areas [June 29]

The Syrian military and the government’s security forces have largely withdrawn from one of the country’s largest cities as well as other areas, residents and activists said Wednesday, leaving territory to protesters whose demonstrations have grown larger and whose chants have taunted a leadership that once inspired deep fear.

The military’s move out of Hama, where a government crackdown a generation ago made its name synonymous with the brutality of the ruling Assad family, has surprised even some activists and diplomats. They differ over how to interpret the government’s decision there, asking whether the departure points to a government attempt to avoid casualties and another potentially explosive clash in a restive country, or to an exhausted repressive apparatus stretched too thin.

But residents in Hama, the fourth largest city in Syria, have celebrated the departure as a victory that came after one of the worst bouts of bloodshed there in the nearly four-month uprising.

“Hama is a liberated city,” declared one activist who gave his name as Hainin.

All in for freedom in Syria [June 29]

My older brother, Bashir, 26, is one of the thousands of people who have been detained by Bashar Assad’s regime in recent weeks.

At first, we didn’t know what had happened to him. He and two friends had been missing since they went to the northern city of Jisr Al Shoughur on June 10 to secretly film the protests and the army crackdown there. Then, last week, I was watching Syrian state television when my brother suddenly came on the screen. A caption underneath his image said he had confessed to subversive activities.

Bashir, an economics student at the University of Latakiya, is neither very religious nor very liberal in his views. Like most people in Syria, my brother and I often talked about politics between ourselves, but we were careful to stay away from political activity. The secret police watch everyone, and they can twist the most mundane statements and actions into evidence of subversive activity. Even growing a short beard might prompt the secret police to make a report: “His beard is now one centimeter long.” This would then be presented as evidence of Islamist extremism.

Assad Deserves a Swift Trip to The Hague [June 29]

It is time for the international community to take a stand against Syria’s use of violence against its citizens. On Monday the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued arrest warrants for Muammer Gaddafi and two of his closest lieutenants for alleged crimes against humanity. The United Nations Security Council should now direct the ICC to investigate whether Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is guilty of crimes against humanity. The charge: using lethal violence to repress peaceful demonstrations in support of democratic rule. The Arab League should also assume the same principled position on Syria that it took on Libya.

The international community cannot, nor should it, seek to dictate the fate of any country. We do, however, have a responsibility to support the observation of global norms in every country. Initiating an ICC investigation in Syria now would create a powerful incentive for Mr Assad to choose reform over further repression. Such a choice would be good for the people of Syria, and for the case of democracy and law throughout the region.

Rep. Kucinich Lost in Translation? [June 29]

Ohio Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich is blaming mistranslations for a Syrian news report that quoted him as praising President Bashar Assad.

Kucinich was on what he called a fact-finding mission to Syria.

State-owned media quoted him as saying — quote — “There are some who want to give a wrong picture about what is going on in Syria…President al-Assad is highly loved and appreciated by the Syrians.” Kucinich did go on to reference violence in Syria. Assad’s government has been blamed for at least 1,400 deaths during pro-democracy protests.

Kucinich says the article contained — quote — “…a number of mistranslations and mischaracterized statements.”

It’s unclear how a mistranslation could have occurred since Kucinich speaks English and the article was written in English.

Tweets from Syrian Opposition Conference [June 27]

Luay Hussein: This is the first time we meet in front of our people so we have huge responsibilities.

Munther Khaddam: Peaceful transition to democracy is the way forward.  Anything else is disastrous.

Michel Kilo: The following are my recommendation for a solution.

Michel Kilo: 1- immediate recognition of political parties that are not religious or ethnic in nature

Michel Kilo: 2- clause 8 of the constitution should be “frozen” immediately as trust building measure

Michel Kilo: 3- the opposition should be given immediate license to publish a paper as trust building measure

Michel Kilo: 4- reforming the legal system is a priority

Michel Kilo: These should be immediate trust building measures.

Michel Kilo: Additionally security “solution” should be stopped and army should go back to bases.

Michel Kilo: 80 percent of the Syrian population are under 35.  Where are they in this conference?

Michel Kilo: There is no security solution to the problem of unemployment.

Michel Kilo: Releasing all political prisoners is a prerequisite for national dialogue.

Michel Kilo: Recreating the modern society starts from granting Syrians their freedoms.

Munther Khaddam: There is no middle ground between authoritarianism and democracy.

Munther Khaddam: Trust in the current system is very low.  A transition into a new system is needed.

Shawqi Baghdadi: We don’t claim to represent the street.

Ibrahim Zur (Kurdish opposition): Other Syrians should not look suspiciously at Kurds.

Hasan Al-Ali: Those with Syrian blood on their hands should be brought to justice publicly.

Hasan Al-Ali: Kurds who suffered in the past should be compensated.

Sabah Hallaq: Women should have an integral role in the process of building the new Syria.

Joseph Ibrahim: The conference should also tackle economic issues.

Jaudat Saeed: Arms will solve nothing.  Voting booths will.

Burhan Naseef: The violence and external meddling in Syria are the authorities fault.

Suleiman Yousef: Unacceptable that our constitution has sectarian clause claiming that Islam is the basic source.

Suleiman Yousef: There can be no civil state based on sectarian constitution.

Jalal Naufal: There is a big portion of Syrian society which doesn’t agree with the uprising.

Anwar Mohamad: Syrian opposition should be given space on Syrian state TV and media.

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