Our guest author is Kinda Kanbar, a journalist, media expert and political analyst with over 15 years of experience in the Middle East-North Africa region. Kanbar has worked on media development projects throughout the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. She has also participated in media law reform, and is the co-founder of Syria Today, Syria’s first magazine published in English.
A little more than five months ago, peaceful protesters took to the Syrian streets, chanting for freedom. What they received in return was gunfire, false imprisonment, torture, and indiscriminant killing. After enduring months of these abuses, protesters rejoiced when they heard President Obama speak the words, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Now, several weeks after president Obama’s statement, anti-regime activists are struggling with providing the vision and leadership that will be needed if Assad falls.
Several months since the onset of the protests, five conferences – four in Turkey and one in Brussels, and a meeting for internal opposition figures in Damascus — we still have many unanswered questions. For one, we still have not heard any plans on what life after Assad holds for Syria’s citizens. We still do not know what political parties will emerge, who their leaders will be, and what their major policy initiatives will be. This vision is imperative, since the Assad family has controlled Syria for over 40 years, and its fall will leave a huge void in governance.
Last week, another conference was held, in Istanbul, Turkey, to form the so-called “Syrian National Council.” Obaida al-Nahas, director of the London-based Levant Institute, in an interview with AFP said that the National council will consist of seven to eight committees meant to provide leadership on issues such as foreign affairs, political planning, economic matters and media. Comprised of approximately 115 to 150 members, representing most ethnic and religious backgrounds, from both inside Syria and exiled citizens, the council’s members were chosen to represent Syrians across the globe. The intent of this conference was to help concert the voice of all the fragmented opposition groups. Following two days of dialogue, however, the Council’s press statement announced no names and asked for a period of two weeks for more deliberation.
Recent reports note that many parties, including the “Conference for Change in Syria (Antalya Gathering)”, “The National Coalition to support the Syrian Revolution”, and others have withdrawn from the conference. There were also clashes inside the Muslim Brotherhood concerning the announcement of national council. Hyatham Rahma, a participant in the Brussels Conference, said in an interview to Elaph that he was shocked by the news of the formation of such a council. He added that in the preconference planning meeting, he found a pre-formulated agenda with a list of names prescribed to implement a different vision and initiative. In an interview with another attendee, I was told that a week prior to the meeting, a small group was formed, without the knowledge of the invitees, to pre-plan everything without consulting representatives from the other opposition groups. Furthermore, select groups of the opposition were intentionally not invited, such as key Kurdish parties. Many believe that this core group belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, and that this conference was an attempt to place them at the helm of the Syrian opposition movement.
While the Muslim Brotherhood has been part of Syria’s traditional opposition, it has been banned from Syria, and party members identified inside Syria face the death penalty. Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, this group has called for the withdrawal of Syrian army forces from cities, the release of political prisoners, the elimination of unjust laws, and the drafting of a new constitution and the law limiting the formation of political parties. Former Syrian Muslim Brotherhood controller Ali Sadruddin Bayanouni has commented regularly on the uprising, and explained that although the Muslim Brotherhood has no “direct role” in anti-government protests, the group continues to be "an integral part of the structure in Syrian society due to its peaceful approach." Many questions still remain regarding the extent of their influence on the Syrian street.
Even with all its internal divisions, the Muslim Brotherhood eagerly participated in every conference and even funded some of them, either directly or indirectly, such as the Muslim Scholars Association in support of Syrian People Conference held in Istanbul, the Brussels Conference held in Brussels on June 4, and Syrian Salvation Congress held in Istanbul on June 16. The intent is to market themselves as an organized group with a vision, one that would have a huge impact inside Syria.
In an interview, a local committee member, who goes by the name Kris Doly, stated that there is a huge gap between the street and the emerging opposition parties. When I asked him about the Istanbul conference and the idea of establishing a national council, he replied, “They are a joke, those who are inside (Syria) will decide.”
The disappointing reports coming from the National Council Meeting and my interview with Kris Doly left me asking, “Who are these kids in the sandbox? Will they ever learn to play nicely together?” In the end what parties will emerge from this opposition movement. I had to pose my questions to Yasin Al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian dissident and writer that spent sixteen years in prison during the rule of Hafez al-Assad. In an online interview, I asked Al-Haj Saleh who he thought were the influential leaders within the Syrian opposition movement.
His answer was, unsurprisingly, sketchy and vague. Al-Haj Saleh said that the Syrian street movement is comprised of members from tradition Syrian oppositions, mostly from the leftists and Arab nationalists, parties who have historically opposed the Assad regime. He mentioned two political parties, The Democratic Populist Party and The Arab Socialist Union. He also stated that there are many smaller groups with similar ideologies. He added that these groups don’t have a strong political existence but they have an effective moral role in the Syrian society. Their vision is to have a democratic civil state, a strong rule of law, and devolution of power through free election, in addition to allowing political parties.
However, Al-Haj Saleh mentioned that these groups vary in their position regarding the revolution and regime, because historically they have had differences and disputes. For that reason, new forces started to appear spontaneously. For example, the Syrian youth are organizing themselves into local committees.
The Local Coordination Committees are the grassroots movements behind the protests. They are also the ones documenting everything we see in the press since the Syrian regime banned all independent media from covering the protests within Syria. Those committees were formed in many cities and villages, and although they share same common demand in wanting “the downfall of the regime”, there is actually limited coordination and collaboration among them.
In light of fast-changing environment both inside Syria and internationally, it is time for those local committees to join efforts and provide the action plan needed for Syria’s next steps.
Kris Doly, a member of one of the Local Committees, criticized the internally based opposition groups. He stated that their messages of peaceful demonstration, no international interference, and hope for the army to split are not a solution to tomorrow’s challenges. He went on to say that most activists have slowed down, some of them are leaving the country, and ten activists that he knows have already left Syria. According to him, The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to score points internationally because they are failing domestically.
Currently, Syrian opposition lacks the leadership needed to provide a plan to move Syria forward following Assad’s fall. The National council should consider including all Syrian voices, especially, those who are inside Syria, the voices that are taking to the streets and risking their lives, rather than those in Europe or even in the US. Local committees urgently need to unify their efforts and provide leadership in negotiations within the international community. Any voice coming from inside Syria will naturally have more credibility with the international society than those who have no existence in the Syrian street.
The U.S has limited influence in Syria due to the recent historical tensions between the two countries, but it is imperative that the U.S finds a way to reach out to those local committees inside Syria. They are the legitimate representation of the Syrian society.