Sunday, May 1, 2011

Who's Who In The Syrian Opposition

Meet the brave souls who dare to stand up to the guns of Bashar al-Assad.
By David Kenner
This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 29/04/2011
Bashar al-Assad never saw it coming. In a Jan. 31 interview with the Wall Street Journal, the Syrian autocrat boasted that his regime was immune from the revolutionary wave spreading across the Middle East because it "very closely linked to the beliefs of the people."

Over the past month and a half, Syrians have made a liar out of their president. Small protests broke out in Damascus on March 15 and have slowly spread to towns and cities throughout the country. And as the movement has gained strength, Assad's crackdown has increased in brutality. The Syrian regime has killed at least 450 people since the uprising began, according to human rights groups, and this week sent tanks into the mutinous southern town of Daraa to quell the protests.
So far, the regime's attempts to quash the demonstrations have only caused them to increase in size. Tens of thousands of Syrians came out to the protests this Friday, with crowds demonstrating in more than 50 towns throughout the country. The protests' growing strength has produced a reaction in Washington: Following days of escalating statements, President Barack Obama issued new sanctions today against three of the regime's most notorious officials, including Bashar's brother, Maher al-Assad. The U.N. Human Rights Council also denounced Assad's use of violence against peaceful protesters on Friday, calling for a team to visit Syria in order to "ensur[e] full accountability" for those who perpetrated the attacks.

So who's leading the charge against Assad? The president has accumulated no shortage of enemies over his decade-long rule, many of whom have little in common besides their enmity toward the Syrian president. If he continues his ruthless crackdown, however, it just may be enough to unite them.
With most foreign journalists banned from Syria, a small group of Internet activists are playing an outsized role in spreading information about the nascent revolt inside the country.

One of the most prolific is Ausama Monajed, who, from his home in Britain, tracks the death toll across Syria, connects eyewitnesses on the ground to international media organizations, and links to the most recent gruesome YouTube videos from inside the country. Monajed uses the Syrian Revolution News Round-Up group on Facebook, as well as an active Twitter feed, to distribute information across the globe.

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. "#Daraa streets isolated. City cut into slices. Information coming out from specific few streets. rest in Dark for 4th night," reads one representative tweet from his frenetic feed.
But neither Tarif nor Monajed are a one-man operation. Both depend on brave witnesses of events on the ground and a coalition of volunteers that translate material and confirm its accuracy. Shortly after the first protests broke out on March 15, Monajed held a conference call with the administrators of the largest Facebook groups, YouTube channels, and activists on the ground to pool their efforts. This coalition, he said, has only expanded his reach. "As anyone who has studied business would tell you, when you merge two groups with 20 percent of the market, you don't end up with 40 percent -- you end up with 60 or 70 percent of the market," he told FP.

Monajed, a professed devotee of non-violent protest guru Gene Sharp, said that he is thankful that Syria's uprising occurred after the revolts elsewhere in the Arab world. It has given Syrians a chance "to learn from these past experiences," he said. "From Libya, for example, we have learned never, ever to use violence."
Twitter accounts to follow on Syria: @MalathAumran, @RulaAmin, @RazanSpeaks, @calperryAJ, @BSyria, @SyrianJasmine, @Razaniyat.

"Damascus Spring" Veterans
Following the death of Bashar's tough-minded father Hafez in 2000, a brief window of political debate appeared to open in Damascus -- before being slammed shut as the younger Assad consolidated power. But in this abortive moment of political liberalization, a number of regime critics continue to play a prominent role to this day.

Among the best known is Michel Kilo, who defines himself as "a democrat, an Arab, and a leftist, in that order" in Dreams and Shadows, journalist Robin Wright's book about reform in the Arab world. It's not an ideological combination that has endeared him to the Assad regime. Kilo was one of the organizing forces behind the 2005 Damascus Declaration, which called for political liberalization in Syria and denounced the Assad regime as "authoritarian, totalitarian, and cliquish." He was then jailed in 2006 for three years for signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration calling for a normalization of relations between Lebanon and Syria, which then occupied Lebanon.
Kilo has treaded more carefully during the current round of protests. In an article published in the Lebanese daily As-Safir earlier this month, he called for a negotiated solution to the Syrian unrest rather than a revolution. As the protests gained strength and the government crackdown has grown more brutal, however, Kilo's rhetoric has sharpened. If the Assad regime attempts to quell the protests solely through force, "they will be turning Syria into a breeding ground for all kinds of extremist movements," he warned on April 20.

Riad Seif, a businessman and a former MP in Syria's rubber-stamp Parliament, was moved to oppose the Assad regime after his attempts to change the system from within failed. Seif would write that his time in the legislature convinced him that the Assad regime was incapable of internal reform, and that "corruption is a natural result of tyranny and its legitimate offspring."
Seif went on to found one of the most important forums of political debate during the short-lived "Damascus Spring." For his efforts, he has spent the last decade in and out of prison. In 2001, the Syrian regime accused him of "attempting to change the constitution by illegal means" and "inciting racial and sectarian strife," jailing him for five years. He was imprisoned again from 2008 to 2010 for his support of the Damascus Declaration. He currently resides in Damascus, though is reportedly in hiding as the regime tightens its grip on its old enemies.

The Ancien Régime
Bashar's ascent to a leadership role in 2000 was not entirely smooth, and he earned himself enemies among former regime stalwarts that persist to this day. Former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, an architect of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in the 1990s and a prominent ally of Rafiq al-Hariri, the late Lebanese prime minister, was the most prominent casualty of this changing of the guard in the House of Assad. After being excluded from any role in Syria's political affairs, and following the 2005 assassination of Hariri, Khaddam abruptly resigned his remaining government positions and fled to Paris.

Khaddam has spent the years since trying to organize an opposition movement from France, to little effect. He forged an alliance with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in 2006, only to see it collapse in 2009.
Khaddam's failure is at least partially due to the fact that regime opponents detest him for the same reasons that they detest the Assads -- and often for the same crimes. Only a particularly naïve observer could believe that Khaddam's true objection to Assad is his failure to liberalize, rather than his anger at being excluded from the political spoils.

Khaddam's widespread unpopularity has made him a useful boogeyman for the Assad regime as it attempts to discredit the protest movement. Wiam Wahhab, a staunch Syrian ally in Lebanon, revealed on Saturday a check for $400,000 allegedly signed by Saudi Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz made out to Khaddam's son, Jamal Khaddam. Syria's government-controlled press has also recently accused Khaddam, a Sunni from the restive village of Banias, of sponsoring armed gangs and trying to foment chaos in the country.
Muslim Brotherhood/Kurdish Opposition
The Assad family relies on support from the Alawite population, an Islamic sect that makes up perhaps 10 percent of Syria's population, to perpetuate its rule. Over the Assads' four decades at the top of Syria's political pyramid, they have curbed the political influence of groups outside their clique and brutally suppressed communities viewed as a threat. Infamously, Hafez al-Assad put down a revolt by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 by massacring tens of thousands of Sunnis in the city of Hama -- a lesson in indiscriminate brutality and collective punishment that came to form the "Hama rules" of Syrian politics.

The Brotherhood, though a shadow of the organization it was before Assad's crackdown, has thrown its weight behind the protests. The organization released a statement Friday accusing the regime of "perpetrating genocide" and urging the Syrian people to "not let the tyrants keep you in slavery." Former Brotherhood leader Ali al-Bayanouni, based in London, also penned an article for the Guardian assailing Assad as a "dictator," while disavowing claims that the Brotherhood organized the protests.
Perhaps more interesting than the Brotherhood's support of the demonstrations is the country from which they've issued their denunciations of Assad: Syria's erstwhile ally, Turkey. The group's Secretary General Riad al-Shaqfa and political chief Mohamed Tayfur held a press conference in Istanbul in early April, pouring cold water on the idea that Assad would ever reform Syria's political system and encouraging the protests.

It's not only the Muslim Brotherhood that would be eager to see the Assad regime go. Syria's Kurds, who make up around 10 percent of the country's population, have long been marginalized by the Syrian regime; one of Assad's first concessions as protests escalated was to grant Syrian nationality to as many as 300,000 long-stateless Kurds on April 7. That doesn't appear to have been enough to assuage Kurdish anger -- protesters have turned out en masse in the city of Qamishli, a Kurdish stronghold in Syria's northeast.
New Enemies
Just as the Damascus Spring inspired the rise of a small cadre of regime critics, the current unrest is bound to elevate new opposition leaders to the forefront. For now, however, many of the organizers remain underground due to Assad's efforts to squash the movement.

There are, however, a few names to watch: Nasser al-Hariri and Khalil al-Rifae, two Syrian members of Parliament representing Daraa, resigned their seats on April 23 to protest the government crackdown. More than 200 members of the ruling Baath Party from the regions around Daraa also resigned during the past week, as well as at least two dozen Baathists from the city of Banias. There are also reports that a Syrian army division made up of conscripts from Daraa defected to the side of the protesters, leading to clashes with a loyalist army unit.
And that's not even counting the thousands of Syrians who have lost a family member or friend during the crackdown. Even if Assad manages to cling to power, these new opponents will be a thorn in his side for years to come -- and a constant reminder that the president's boast of his close relationship with the Syrian people was nothing more than self-delusion.

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