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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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?

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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.

Michael Weiss is the director of communications at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank that promotes democratic geopolitics. He is also the spokesman for Just Journalism, which examines how Israel and the Middle East are portrayed in the U.K. media.

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