Foreign Policy Blogs

Opposition Speaks

On Friday I mentioned the now completed “Conference for Change” held by the Syrian opposition in Antalya, Turkey. The conference was very important for a variety of reasons. Today I want to expand a bit on why that conference was so important, who exactly was there, dissect the final statement issued by the conference, and evaluate how successful the conference was in real terms.

Since the outset of the Syrian uprising, going into it’s third month now, many questions have surrounded the protests. Who is behind them? What are their motives? Do they have a realistic alternative to the status quo, and if so what is it? These questions have largely gone unanswered. International analysts and pundits have been left scratching their heads, but the most important audience for the opposition is the Syrian public and they have been left largely in the dark. Unsure of what to believe and who to trust, the majority has proven unwilling to risk their lives and livelihoods for some amorphous and distant “opposition”.

The Antalya Conference was an attempt to speak to that all important Syrian majority. The people who dislike all the nasty bits of the status quo, but also have much to lose in any transition. The people who just might decide Syria’s future.

Before we evaluate the success of the conference first we should turn to who all was there. As I’ve mentioned before the Syrian opposition is a diverse bunch. There are several groups with seemingly competing ideologies and interests all trying to get under the same tent here. It remains unclear whether or not they can all fit, but they’re trying.

Who is the Syrian Opposition?

For profiles of the individuals involved I would suggest going here, here, and here. I’m going to try to do broad strokes.

So, there are several important cleavages within the opposition (religion, class, ethnicity, tribe, politics…sadly, not gender) that run every which way, but you can kind of lump most of the smaller groups into a few major blocs.

The most vocal of these blocs–at least online and in the international media–are the Liberals. Generally speaking these are young, western educated, mostly exiled, figures who are advocating western-style democracy. Elections, rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, etc. This group is also fairly closely tied to the twitter generation, and the social media outlets that have done so much to spread the word throughout the protests. For the most part, when you read a NY Times article these days you are getting an earful of this group’s thoughts. Many live and work in the US and Europe, and are often accused of being disconnected from the goals and aspirations of Syrians living in Syria.

Another formidable bloc within the opposition are the Islamists, largely represented by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. These guys are for the most part local, and do not have much exposure to the west. They also scare the bejeezus out of many, both inside and outside Syria. No one is really sure exactly how Islamic this group is. There has been a lot of money and effort put into religious schools, and the more conservative religious agenda they foster, within Syria over the past few years. The Hama massacre of 1982 was directed at an explicitly conservative Islamic movement that has been driven under ground since, but not completely eliminated. It will be very interesting to see how this bloc interacts with the MUCH more secular Liberals. More on this in a minute.

Perhaps the most vital bloc of all are the Kurds. No one was sure until the last minute that Kurdish representatives would even attend the conference and then, according to some, they made up as much as one quarter of all participants. The Kurds could really swing this thing tremendously. Having opposed the policies of the Syrian state for some time, the Kurds are a bit more battle tested than some others in attendance. There is also a large, clearly defined constituency behind these leaders, one that is highly unified. Would they remain connected to a post-Assad Syria? Or, would they chose to split off to unite with Turkish and Iraqi groups in order to form a long sought Kurdish homeland? For now they are toeing the unity line suggesting that they are Syrian first, it remains to be seen if that will continue.

Lastly, you have the Old Guard. Sharing much in ideological terms with the younger Liberals, the conflict here is more in terms of tactics than strategy. For example, this group has shown a willingness to engage in dialogue with the Assad regime, something the younger crowd has been much less inclined to accept. They also more willing to move incrementally, and interested in dominating the structure of the movement going forward, as there was conflict over the creation and function of a support committee before the conference even convened. These are the guys who have been responsible for keeping the flame of resistance going all these years, and I expect they are looking to get a hardy chunk of recognition for that.

So, What Was Accomplished?

You can find the full text of the Final Declaration below, but I have a few things to say first.

The main goals of this conference should have been three-fold.

  1. Establish a Face of the Opposition. This can either be one person or a small group, but those sitting on the fence need someone to support and rally behind.
  2. Provide a Clear Alternative. Syrians need to know what the opposition wants Syria to look like in the future, no one is going to risk their life and livelihood for nothing.
  3. Highlight Secular Character & Goals. If the opposition ever expects to peel off moderate Alawites, Christians, and the Urban Business Elite–something it absolutely must do– it had better put fears of Islamic conservatism to bed.

As I read the final statement released at the close of the conference I have to say that I cannot give the opposition passing marks. First of all, we still don’t really know who any of these people are. The statement keeps both the activities of the conference and the participants largely in the shadows. No names or leaders are established(?!?!)–especially true of the less internet savvy  blocs. This doesn’t even appear to have been on the agenda! I could be wrong, lord knows I’ve been wrong before, but this seems like a HUGE blunder. Syrians don’t even to do business with someone they don’t know fairly well, you think they’re going to take to the streets and support some shadowy group to overthrow Habibna?

One thing I thought the conference did a fairly good job of doing was articulating the political transition that they envision taking place. I’m not sure how realistic their vision is in terms of timeframe, but it is something that could conceivably happen logistically. Assad stepping aside, VP taking control and elections within a year. Can you see Rami Makhlouf and the rest of the inner circle, with all of their access to military and monetary power, letting that happen? Neither can I.

Lastly, and what might have been the biggest failure of the conference is the complete absence of any mention of secularism. Not a guarantee, not a suggestion, nothing. Apparently it is unbecoming to discuss secularism during conflict.

There is no way Syrian minority groups will be peeled away from the regime if they aren’t 100% sure they will be protected in the future political order. Syria shares borders with Iraq and Lebanon, and Syrians are constantly worried that the sectarian violence that has gripped those two countries will afflict their nation as well. This fear is entirely logical and I can totally understand why Syrian minorities would be VERY hesitant to abandon a regime that has largely protected them. Whoever replaces Assad, if he is indeed removed from power, will have to either embrace secular government, or be capable of defeating the many minorities within Syria unilaterally (highly unlikely).

All in all I continue to be disappointed by the Syrian opposition. It will take bold actions, and stronger words than they have so far been capable of, to unseat the status quo in Syria. As always, we will see.

Here is the official statement from the conference.

Full Text of the Final Declaration of the Conference for Change; Antalya, Turkey

Today, Syria is witnessing the most difficult and painful days; however, it is also witnessing the birth of a new dawn of freedom quenched by the blood and sacrifice of the Syrian youth demonstrating peacefully in the ground. This puts the burden of urgent action on the shoulders of all Syrians, living all over the world, to work along side their brothers and sisters in and outside Syria to build a new future for their country.

Therefore, a number of patriotic Syrians, from all different backgrounds, came together and called for the Syria Conference for Change. Invitations were sent to a wide variety of political and populist Syrian activists with the purpose of stopping the blood shed of our people and to take a decisive stand towards the events in their homeland and towards the insistence of the oppressive regime on using the military and security forces in rejecting the just demands of the people of freedom and democracy.

The Syria Conference for Change took place in Antalya, Turkey, May 31 – June 3, 2011, in solidarity with the Syrian Revolution and to search for solutions that would save Syria from oppression and place it on the road to freedom and dignity. As such, participants agreed to the following:

1- Participants are committed to the demands of the Syrian people in calling on the Syrian president to step down, in demanding the toppling of the regime, and in supporting the great, peaceful revolution of the Syrian people towards freedom and dignity.

2-Participants call on president Bashar al-Assad to resign immediately from all of his duties and positions and to hand over authority to his vice-president in accordance with constitutional procedures until the election of a transitional council which will draft and implement a new Syrian constitution that shall call for free and transparent parliamentary and presidential elections within a period not to exceed one year from the resignation of president Bashar al-Assad.

3- Participants assert their continuous support of the Syrian revolution until it achieves its objectives while emphasizing peace, patriotism, the unity of Syrian soil, the unequivocal rejection of foreign military intervention and national unity of Syrian revolution – one that does not represent any partisan direction nor does it target any particular group of Syrian society.

4- Participants affirm that the Syrian people are of many ethnicities, Arab, Kurd, Caldean, Assyrian, Syriac, Turkmen, Chechen, Armenian and others. The conference establishes the legitimate and equal rights of all under a new Syrian constitution based on national unity, civil state and a pluralistic, parliamentary, and democratic regime.

5- Participants commit to exert all efforts towards achieving a democratic future of Syria which respects human rights and protects freedom for all Syrians, including the freedom of belief, expression and practice of religion, under a civil state based on the separation of legislative, judicial and executive powers, while adopting democracy and the ballot box as the sole medium of governance.

6- Participants are committed to the hard and serious missions of ensuring economic prosperity, scientific and cultural advancements under the umbrella of justice, peace and security.

7- Participants call on all Arabs, the Organization of Islamic Conference, the Arab League and the International Community to take legal and ethical responsibility in order to stop the violation of human rights and crimes against humanity committed against unarmed civilians, and to support the ambition of the Syrian people of freedom and democracy.

The conference concluded with the election of a follow up consultative body through a slate-vote.Voting lists were selected by a group of participants. The consultative body shall appoint an implementation body which, in turn, will establish and implement an action plan to coordinate all activities supporting the Syrian revolution for a peaceful change.

**Text courtesy of Syria Comment



Walter Raubeson

Walter spent the last two years living and working in Damascus, reporting on the Syrian social, political, and cultural scene. Recently returned to the US, Walter continues to monitor Middle Eastern events with verve, and also gusto.

Having graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science- International Relations-in September 2008, Walter's MA thesis analyzed the Lebanese political system; focusing on the impact of foreign intervention within Lebanon, particularly the roles of Iran, Israel, Syria, and the US.