Meet the Syrian Opposition

It’s the most liberal and Western-friendly of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Syrian protesters

There are plenty of geopolitical justifications on offer for the West’s reluctance to confront Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, who has so far killed an estimated 1,100 people and detained and tortured 10,000 more. Assad may still prove to be a “reformer”—after he’s done massacring his people. A London-trained ophthalmologist whose snipers shoot little girls through the eye is somehow still thought to be the sole peacemaker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Besides, the country has an economy the size of Pittsburgh’s.

Shifting from delusion to realpolitik, another reason for the reluctance to confront Assad’s barbarism is ignorance about the people opposed to him. Now that the brooms of Tahrir Square in Egypt have been replaced with burned churches and destroyed Sufi shrines, Washington is understandably wary of demanding that another Middle Eastern tyrant step aside before verifying who stands to take his place. What are the politics of the Syrian opposition? Are they secular or Islamist? Do they have a plan of action, assuming we offered to help?

The Henry Jackson Society, the London-based foreign-policy think tank where I work, has spent the last several weeks investigating the Syrian opposition and talking to key figures in six major cities in upheaval. The evidence suggests that this revolution is the most liberal and Western-friendly of any of the Arab Spring uprisings. That it’s also the least supported by the West is a tragedy.

The Syrian protests began March 15, when about 40 people, galvanized by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, gathered in Damascus’ old city and chanted, “God, Syria, Freedom—that’s enough.” Initially, the protesters just wanted reforms. But Assad responded to the first spontaneous civic demonstration in 30 years by unleashing hell. (He predictably blamed everyone from Israel’s Mossad to “Salafists” for engineering the rebellion and, like all rattled tyrants, he has offered meaningless “reforms”). The demonstrations then swelled to tens of thousands in major cities such as Deraa, Homs, Baniyas, and Lattakia. The agents of repression were, and are, the mukhabarat and a ragtag militia of regime loyalists known as shabbiha who have conducted the kind of house-to-house raids that Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi only threatened.

Ambulances carrying wounded civilians have been stopped on their way to hospitals, patients have been dragged from stretchers and further tortured and then locked up. On June 1, Human Rights Watch released a new report titled “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror.” It documents the Grand Guignol nature of Baathist repression: “prolonged beatings with sticks, twisted wires, and other devices; electric shocks administered with tasers and electric batons; use of improvised metal and wooden ‘racks,’ ” as well as male rape with a baton.

Last week, a new and powerful symbol emerged for the revolution in the “child martyr” Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy who was abducted on April 29 at a demonstration in Jiza, a village near Deraa. He had been burned, skinned, shot, and his penis was cut off. Hamza’s corpse was returned to his parents on the condition that they keep quiet about what had happened to him. They didn’t. Hamza’s father was subsequently arrested after he went public with a gruesome post-mortem video of his boy, but the popular outcry has been so fierce, it’s even gotten Assad nervous.

Protesters have had to operate without Internet or phone access for the last several weeks, thanks to a state-implemented ban on communications. Nonetheless, there is a remarkable level of coordination and shared sense of purpose among the protesters. “If I give you names of who the West can back,” a Damascus-based oppositionist told us in late May, “then I have to give you all the Syrian people’s names, because this is a people’s revolution.” It also remains relatively spontaneous; a spokesman in Douma said that the only centralized decision is who will be responsible for filming and uploading video of demonstrations. “We have people who also work for the biggest IT companies who also provide us with ideas and solutions on how to bypass security measures by the regime.”

Such grass-roots efforts are fast evolving into a coherent platform. The first signs of this became visible after the “Great Friday” massacre of April 22, when 112 people were killed in the space of a few hours. So-called “local coordinating committees” formed in major cities and towns and released a statement of demands following the crackdown.

These demands were:

  • An end to torture, violence, and extrajudicial killings
  • A free and transparent media to replace the state-controlled system
  • State assumption of responsibility for violence
  • The release of all political prisoners
  • Free and fair elections to both national parliament (the People’s Assembly) and municipal councils
  • An independent judiciary
  • Compensation for political exiles
  • Amendments to the Syrian constitution that would refashion the country into a “multi-national, multi-ethnic, and religiously tolerant society”

The six oppositionists we spoke to in Syria all regarded the revolution as a confessionally and tribally unified endeavor. The sectarianism, they said, was wholly on Assad’s side. Even Kurds have marched under the Syrian flag, something unthinkable in years past. Indeed, May 27 was nicknamed “Azadi Friday” for a Kurdish word meaning freedom, underscoring the solidarity that exists between Syrian Arabs and a long-oppressed tribal minority. The oppositionist in Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city, assured us that Christians had joined in Friday prayers at the Great Mosque in that city. “Druze, Sunni, Alawite and Kurd—we will never stop,” echoed our source in Homs, in western Syria.

A week after the coordinating committees’ statement was issued, an umbrella group known as the National Initiative for Change was founded by three Syrian exiles: Radwan Ziadeh, founding director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, based in Washington, D.C.; Ausama Monajed, head of PR at the Movement for Justice and Development, based in London; and Najib Ghadbian, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas. The NIC statement, “Towards a Peaceful Transition to Democracy,” was written by Ziadeh, who sent me a copy of the English translation.

Signed by 150 oppositionists both inside Syria and in exile, the statement echoes the demands of the coordinating committees but also addresses how to transition Syria from a totalitarian dictatorship to a pluralist democracy. It’s explicitly based on the Eastern European, Latin American, and South African models.

The first order of business is to convince the Syrian army to defect to the opposition and then form an interim or caretaker government. Many Syrian soldiers have attempted defection after refusing to obey orders to fire on unarmed civilians—a mass grave was recently dug up allegedly containing such soldiers. Others have fled to Lebanon, but they’ve been repatriated to Syria to face torture, detention, and execution.

The NIC places special emphasis on two key figures in the Syrian army: Defense Secretary Ali Habib, who commanded the Syrian contingent in the international military coalition in the First Gulf War, and Chief of Staff Gen. Dawud Rajha. However, Habib was on a list of top Syrian officials recently sanctioned by the White House for his involvement in the regime’s repression, so his viability as a transitional figure may now be impossible. But the Syrian army is a good place to seek out independents—most of the officer class is Sunni, rather than Alawite like Assad and his cabal. One oppositionist in Deraa told us that the army is popularly seen as more a cat’s-paw of the regime rather than an ideological extension of it:

The army has no clue what is going on. They think we are armed people, and they are working under the guidance of shabbiha and the security forces. We have started to notice and hear of splits, and the longer we drag this out, the more apparent it becomes, because you can’t be at war with Salafists in every city in your country and not have contact with your family or the outside world for several months. There will be a point that someone [from the army] will say, “That is it, enough! This has to stop.”

According to the NIC roadmap, whoever mans the caretaker government will oversee the drafting of an interim constitution, monitor presidential and parliamentary elections, and professionalize the state security and intelligence services by “changing its purpose to protect the population not the regime.” The four existing units of these services will be consolidated into two in order to eliminate interagency competitiveness and also to signal that the days of an omnipresent police state are over. Also, there will be trials for any security-force officials involved in torture or extrajudicial killings.

The Baath Party, which possesses sole “revolutionary” power under the old constitution, will be disbanded under the NIC plan, and all party property and funds drawn from the public purse will be returned to state coffers. There may not be much left if and when Assad falls, as many Baathists have already resigned in protest of the regime’s brutality and are now being persecuted as ordinary protesters. For instance, the head of the Deraa Baath Party has been arrested and tortured.

The Islamist quotient in the opposition is by all accounts small. Ammar Abdulhamid, a Maryland-based opposition spokesman, told me, “We all know about politics and bedfellows. One thing Western leaders should understand: Islamists can neither be excluded from, nor can they dominate, the political scene in Syria.”

Remember, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was largely destroyed by Hafez Assad in his scorched-earth campaign in Hama in 1982, which killed at least 10,000 people. Also, the Brotherhood has been outlawed for decades, making membership unofficial and recondite. All the oppositionists on the ground that we spoke with affirmed that Islamists are not directing the protests, nor are they waiting in the wings. Notably, one slogan heard as early as the second week of protests was: “No to Iran, No to Hezbollah. We want Muslims that fear Allah.”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has been accused both by the White House and the Syrian people of helping to orchestrate Assad’s repressive tactics. Two IRGC commanders have been sanctioned by the United States for their role in Syria. Unsurprisingly, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, has publicly supported Assad, his longtime patron, thereby further alienating the Party of God from the Syrian people.

Most of the NIC recommendations were affirmed at the Syria Conference for Change, a meeting of about 300 oppositionists that took place in the resort town of Antalya, Turkey, between May 31 and June 3. Thirty-one delegates were elected to an executive committee of a “consultative council” to represent the Syrian people as a whole. Perhaps recognizing Ali Habib’s nonviability, the council named Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa as a new favorite transitional steward. But of particular interest was how the Muslim Brothers and Islamists in attendance were cowed into accepting the idea of a “secular democracy.” According to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, “they resisted this most of the day but ultimately conceded at the eleventh hour. We do not have the statement or wording on this ‘secular’ statement. But the [Muslim Brothers] accepted to not contest the separation of state and religion in the conference statement.”

This seems significant. It doesn’t mean that Syrian Islamists pose no threat to the opposition or to whatever government might emerge if and when Assad is ousted. But it demonstrates their political weakness relative to their brethren in Egypt and Tunisia. Assurances from non-Islamists as to the makeup of the opposition might be mistaken for special pleading; but clear victories in their wrangles for representative power are more definitive.

Where does all this leave the United States?

Quite apart from a moral obligation to support the Syrian people, Washington has a rare opportunity to get behind the consultative council while it’s still broadly amenable to American interests. Let Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah make the mistake of shirked solidarity. Declaring common cause is all the more urgent because the Syrians aren’t asking for any form of Western military intervention—at least not yet. The White House need only provide unequivocal rhetorical support and material aid in the form of encrypted laptops, satellite phones, and SIM cards to evade Assad’s media blackouts. Hillary Clinton said on June 2 that Assad’s legitimacy has “nearly” run out. One wonders what it will take to drain that legitimacy completely. Meanwhile, a viable alternative to Assad’s death-squad regime is beginning to get its act together and searching for friends who might someday become allies.