Syrian opposition unites in exile

June 1, 2011

For nearly three months, protesters in Syria have repeatedly braved bullets to take to the streets, first demanding reforms and then the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad.

On Wednesday, the movement to transform Syria appeared to take a critical step forward in an unlikely spot: With this sunny beach resort town as a backdrop, about 300 Assad opponents gathered at a hotel to try to give structure and voice to a movement that has been leaderless and disparate.

Because most activists in Syria were prevented from attending the conference by security concerns, and given the history of squabbling within the exiled Syrian community, it was unclear whether the effort would succeed.

But it was significant that the government’s opponents were finally coming together to try to present a united front to a world that remains skeptical about the Syrian protest movement.

“These are people who could never have met in 100 years without pulling guns and knives,” said Amr Al-Azm, a Middle Eastern history professor and Syrian exile who was among the attendees. “That they are sitting in the same room talking in a civilized way is huge. If nothing else comes of this conference, that’s an important thing.”

For several days, the staging of the conference seemed in doubt as several leading figures — including activists in Syria — questioned its goals and motives. But as a consensus emerged over the goals, organizers expressed satisfaction that a diverse array of the forces opposing the government had showed up.

Lending credibility to the proceedings were several young protest organizers — including one still limping from a bullet wound — who managed to sneak into Turkey from Syria. The cyber­activists who distribute videos of the protests to the world were there, hunched over laptops and tweeting furiously. So too were members of the older generation of exiles, an eclectic assortment of academics, businessmen, leftists and liberals who have spent most of their lives abroad.

And finally, the graying veterans of the Muslim Brotherhood — who fled Syria after the last major uprising against the government three decades ago — turned up in force. They made sure their presence was noted by arriving late for the opening ceremony, noisily chanting “God is great.”

A high priority for attendees is the creation of a committee, to be elected Thursday, that can serve as the voice of the opposition in dealings with world powers, especially the United States. Despite more than 1,000 deaths resulting from the government’s campaign to suppress the protests, no world leaders have called for Assad’s departure. Activists say they are aware that fear of the unknown may be holding leaders back in Washington and elsewhere from criticizing Assad.

President Obama has condemned the Syrian government’s use of violence and has called for Assad to embrace reforms or step aside. That stance differs from the one the United States has taken in Libya, where the U.S. military has participated in a NATO-led bombing campaign and provided critical support to rebel forces.

“We have to show the world that the Syrian opposition is organized and is ready to present an alternative,” said Molham al-Drobi, head of the Muslim Brotherhood delegation.

Not on the agenda for the conference is the formation of any kind of structure that will resemble a government in exile.

Nor do the delegates want the committee to assume leadership of the revolt on behalf of those protesting inside Syria. “This uprising is leaderless. No one can speak on behalf of the revolution,” said Radwan Ziadeh, one of the organizers and director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

A road map for change

One top priority for the conference is to formulate a road map for the departure of Assad, a goal everyone can agree on. Most delegates seem to pin their hopes on a split within the army, but they are vague about how to bring that about.

Activists in Syria were suspicious at first that some of the opposition exiles would advocate negotiations with Assad, something protesters long ago rejected. But after delegates jumped on chairs and chanted, “The people want to topple the regime!” during the welcoming reception, those concerns apparently dissipated.

The conference does not aim to offer prescriptions for what a post-Assad Syria would look like.

Many secular activists expressed concerns at the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood, even though Brotherhood leaders said they would not seek a prominent role on the committee.

Some Kurdish groups boycotted, and a scuffle in the hallway between an Arab and a Kurdish delegate highlighted the tensions that could erupt among Syria’s diverse religious and ethnic constituencies if the minority Allawite-led government falls. Some delegates pointed fingers and whispered that others were beholden to the government, or perhaps affiliated with the loathed former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam, who fell out with Assad in 2005 but was not invited to attend.

With expectations set low, some were declaring the event a success. Osama al-Samman, 25, a cyberactivist who runs an operation set up to disseminate protest videos, said he originally attended only to send reports on the conference back to the activist network inside Syria. But he ultimately decided to join as a delegate.

“My two criteria for success are that the conference supports the revolutionaries inside Syria and that it calls for the fall of Assad,” he said. “That has been achieved. Anything else is a bonus.”

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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