Syrian opposition: united, peaceful, and not Islamist.

Syrian opposition: united, peaceful, and not Islamist.

Syrian opposition: united, peaceful, and not Islamist.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 7 2011 9:48 AM

Meet the Syrian Opposition

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

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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.