In Syria the power of the so-called street will have the last word
Louay Hussein, president and co-founder of a new opposition group Building the Syrian State, argues that by reducing the opposition to two groups, the Syrian National Council (SNC, led by Burhan Ghalioun and consisting mostly of exiled figures who call for a "no fly-zone" by NATO as was implemented in Iraq and Libya) and the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC, led by Hassan Abdul-Azim which calls for a gradual, scheduled transfer of power towards a less dictatorial regime), foreign media ignore the active role of other groups and independent opposition figures on the ground. "Since the beginning of the uprising, different media outlets have created this picture at the behest of those who run or fund these outlets," Louay Hussein said. "There are thousands of opposition figures in the Syrian uprising who are not members of any political party or movement or any public gathering."
While some independent opposition figures such as Michel Kilo or economist Aref Dalila recently left the country, others stayed to continue the work from inside, although their groups and currents attract less media focus.
Such groups include the new group Building the Syrian State, the Popular Front for Change and Liberation (PFCL), the National Democratic Initiative, headed by former information minister Muhammad Salman, and the National Initiative for Syria, led by MP Muhammad Habash. This last group claims to represent Syria's silent majority and to mediate between the opposition and the regime.
Qadri Jamil, member of the PFCL and leader of the Syrian Communist Party, told Lebanese Al-Jadeed TV station on October 23, 2011 that there are two kinds of Syrian opposition. The first one, which is patriotic and rejects foreign intervention, has its weight on the street, and opposes the government's security crackdown. The second, such as the SNC, is "non- patriotic…has no roots inside Syria and is dependent on foreign powers to change the leadership and to come to Syria later aboard US tanks."
A way out
The idea of the dialogue between the regime and its opponents is supported by the Arab League, which included it as a requirement in its proposal for Syria on November 2. While the Syrian government initially accepted the plan, it subsequently rejected parts of its protocol, and announced on November 20 that it would hold a second dialogue conference in the coming months.
Qadri Jamil insisted: "The slogan 'the overthrow of the regime' is unpractical, unrealistic and useless." However, he argued that the regime should not use the dialogue "as a decorative and cosmetic tool but rather as a tool for radical change," and that it should "help the moderate opposition preserve Syria."
Rime Allaf, Syrian writer and associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House was more critical of such a dialogue's chances of success, arguing that the regime tries to "manufacture" an opposition in order to represent itself as "open". However, she insisted, "the power of the so-called street will have the last word. So long as anyone is not addressing the core of their problems, he cannot bring them back home."
Allaf believes "the future lies with smaller groups coming together and coordinating with each other".
... the SNC still has major problems in its leadership and does not represent the country’s grassroots opposition movement. Haitham al-Maleh and Kamal al-Labwani are two of the country’s most ardent and widely known dissidents who recently left the SNC. "The group is not a council; it is run like the Baath party,” Maleh told Sunday’s Zaman. The similarly frustrated Kamal al-Labwani voiced similar reasons for his defection to the press last week, and repeated the oft heard call that the moderate Islamist Syrian Muslim Brotherhood dominates the SNC to the detriment of opposition groups, which are fearful of the group’s plans for a post-Assad Syria. The prominent defections and the subsequent fear that the political opposition may be crumbling earned a statement from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last week in which he said that the Friends of Syria group could continue to look towards the council as the main opposition group and would work to “strengthen the [SNC] social base.”
Yet according to Chatham House’s Rime Allaf, the future of the Syrian opposition may not be in a single coalition but in a group of diverse parties who coordinate with each other. “There has been a major push to create an opposition group which is the ‘only real representative’ of the opposition in Syria. When major opposition personalities like al-Labwani and al-Maleh joined the group, it looked like that could be done. But after their defection, there’s less likelihood that a single opposition group will emerge to represent all opinions. But the misconception is that this is somehow a problem which the SNC must solve by getting all members back into its fold. The SNC will continue to exist, but the way forward is through smaller bodies that are going to coordinate with each other and the SNC,” Allaf said. Indeed, Allaf’s prediction is supported by the case of prominent member of the Syrian opposition and National Organization for Human Rights head Ammar al-Qurabi, who left the SNC in late February. Qurabi announced upon his resignation that he was creating a new coalition of smaller opposition groups that had hesitated to join the SNC. Qurabi instead announced a new coalition of his own party, the liberal National Movement for Change, which has partnered with the Liberation and Construction Block, led by influential tribal leader Nawaf al-Bashir; the Islamist Movement for the Fatherland; the Turkmen National Bloc and the Kurdish Movement for a New Life. The groups, Qurabi said at the time, had agreed on the necessity of a united political front against Assad and pledged to support the SNC in its aims of building international support to isolate Assad and provide desperately needed foreign assistance.
“The SNC was largely coordinated by the Muslim Brotherhood when it was created, and it strove to get voices on board, but key opposition members joined as individuals and weren’t able to exercise their own views in the council. We will see more groups and parties forming and then coordinating with, rather than being absorbed into, the Syrian National Council,” said Allaf. “It represents the diverse reality of all the people seeking change in Syria. It will give people a voice, rather than the SNC, where people feared the power of the top leadership.” It remains unclear how a more dispersed political opposition might develop and function, but the opposition may be limited to such a state as the country’s long-repressed opposition voices work to forge parties to protect their specific interests. If the future of Syria’s political opposition does indeed lie in smaller groups, they will nonetheless need to learn how to voice their common interests soon, lest they be swept away in the growing violence between the regime and an increasingly independent armed opposition.