Syrian Opposition Remains Divided on Engagement

Despite countless attempts by the Bashar al-Assad regime to subdue the sporadic protests that have appeared across Syria since February, the demonstrations have consistently grown in both size and intensity.

Last week, a march in the town of Hama may have attracted over 100,000 protesters, quite likely the largest anti-Assad demonstration in Syria thus far.

While the opposition grows, however, its leadership remains bitterly divided, geographically disparate, and unable to agree on tactics to oust the Assad regime or a collective political vision for a post-Assad future.

As another round of crackdowns broke out this week, opposition figures in Syria and abroad have continued to battle one another on the central question of how to engage with the regime.

At a meeting last week in Washington hosted by the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the New American Foundation, policy analysts and international advocates met with Syrian American figures involved in the opposition movement to discuss the role of the international community in resolving the Syrian crisis.

A particularly passionate debate raged around the role of the United States in assisting the Syrian opposition movement. Some, such as international human rights lawyer Yaser Tabbara, argued that Washington was purposely pulling its punches and could be doing much more to help.

Over the course of the morning, Tabbara called for tighter sanctions, stronger condemnations of government heavy-handedness, more international political leverage, and a direct appeal from President Barack Obama for a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government.

Others, including author and historian Mark Perry, gave words of support for the Syrian people but asked the audience, “What should we do? Nothing. This is a revolution in the hands of the Syrian people.”

Perry was confident in the “inevitability” of the revolution, but maintained that “a revolution is very difficult to stop, to influence, or to make succeed. They have their own internal dynamic.”

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a professor at the College of William & Mary and the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, agreed that the U.S. had very limited leverage and a very low willingness to use it.

He reminded attendees that all policy decisions “have to be considered in a bigger tapestry than just Syria,” adding that “the U.S. strategic interests in the region are significant in other countries where there’s turmoil going on. We have to handle this with finesse, in the scope of U.S. national interests, against a fiscal backdrop that’s absolutely frightening. To ask [the Assad regime] for some kind of deadline without backing it up with the threat of force, or to ask for any more adamant position of the United States, is not useful.”

Many others took a middle road, recognizing that U.S. leverage was minimal at best, but certain small steps could be taken to assist the Syrian resistance without overextending Washington’s reach.

Nuh Yilmaz, director of the Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research, tried to demonstrate Turkey’s inclination to take a middle path by refusing to “have a civil war on its border” while trying to maintain relationships with both the Assad regime and the protest movement.

Yilmaz argued that it was in Turkey’s strategic interest — and consequently, regional strategic interest — to ensure that Assad produces real reforms and that the opposition moderates their demands.

He emphasized the “need to be strategic” and make better use of the international community’s limited leverage, but others were less willing to recognize any legitimacy for the Assad regime.

“The regime is inflexible, and therefore irredeemable,” said Louay Safi, a member of the Syrian American Council. He urged the international community to “choke the security apparatus in Syria, make sure they’re not getting any outside funding … and take legal action.”

The disagreement on the fundamental question of foreign intervention comes as U.S. diplomats have struggled to chart a strategic course in Syria, often deciding on a middle ground that neither side finds particularly satisfying.

Last week, the State Department was rumored to have put forward a “road map” for Syrian reforms that would allow Assad to remain in power while overseeing a number of democratic reforms in the country. The road map calls for the Syrian government to appoint a “transitional assembly” to oversee the institution of open elections, the legalization of political parties, and the loosening of media restrictions.

Though Washington has denied pushing for the road map, a number of Syrian opposition members have claimed that official sources, including U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, have been encouraging the opposition to seek common ground with Assad.

Many figures, however, have openly condemned the road map, reiterating the idea that such reforms are “too little, too late” and calling for nothing less than the downfall of the regime and its Ba’ath Party supporters.

These overtures for compromise, emanating from Turkey, and to a lesser extent, the U.S., may be beginning to have an effect on Assad. A large opposition meeting held in Damascus, with the permission of state authorities, was held last week at the Semiramis hotel, the first of its kind in decades.

More recently, government figures have openly invited representatives of the opposition for talks, another first.

The reaction to these developments has underscored the tension between those willing to work with the regime and those who have rejected it categorically.

Though many elements of the opposition blasted the Damascus meeting as a “government sanctioned-ruse,” others hailed the gathering as deeply significant.

The divisions within the opposition have shown few signs of easing. Though many signs point to a significant weakening of the Assad regime, no movement as yet appears ready to replace it.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Samer Araabi

Samer Araabi writes for Inter Press Service.