Syrian Opposition Demands Harden
Rejecting calls by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad this week for a “national dialogue”, opposition figures say that after three months of violent repression, the only possible goal of the uprising can be the fall of the regime.
The president’s words come following an apparent hardening in the attitude of the international community towards the Syrian authorities, as European demands grow for United Nations action against Damascus.
Speaking on June 20 for the third time since protests began in March, Assad reiterated his previous claims that the nationwide unrest was the work of foreign elements, “vandals” and “radical and blasphemous intellectuals”.
However, the president acknowledged the legitimate demands of what he described as a small group of peaceful protesters, promising a “new political reality” of wide-ranging reforms – a move which was dismissed as bogus by opposition activists in Syria and abroad.
“How can there be dialogue with someone who’s pointing a gun at your head?” said Ausama Monajed, a London-based Syrian politician and a prominent opposition figure.
“Any offer of dialogue is a mechanism to co-opt the uprising, and not a real share in power. Assad is just trying to appease the international community by [pretending] that he is a moderate reformer and open-minded. But it is just the same routine and by now no-one is foolish enough to believe anything he says.”
The speech was followed by rallies across Syria's major towns and cities, including suburbs of Damascus, with witness reports suggesting hundreds of protesters turned out chanting “no dialogue with murderers”.
As the UN Security Council this week discussed action against Damascus, the departure of Assad is becoming a defining theme of the uprising, which human rights groups claim has seen more than 1,300 people killed and thousands fleeing to neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon.
Yet calls for an end to the Ba'athist government have raised questions about which political forces could replace the regime in the event of a change of power.
Syria’s broad-based opposition in exile met in Antalya and Brussels this month to agree upon a unified set of demands, and called on the Arab League and the international community to support them.
Foremost on the list of opposition demands was a call for both an end of the Ba’athist regime and the rule of a leader once seen as a reformist by many in Syria and international community.
“It's too late for Assad,” said Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Washington-based Syrian Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a fellow at George Washington University.
“A leader who engages in that kind of bloodshed and mass killing loses all legitimacy and we have absolutely ruled out any compromise with the president.”
Ziadeh, who was key in negotiating the joint statement from the opposition alliance, is now engaged in talks with members of the International Criminal Court, ICC, and the United States state department to press for support for his coalition's agenda.
“Our main priorities are to impose UN sanctions on Assad and to refer the regime to the ICC,” he said. “The international community needs to come out with a firm statement that the regime's actions are illegal and Assad must stand down and lead a transition to democracy.”
Syria's opposition-in-exile is composed of disparate voices from across the ethnic, religious and political spectrum, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Its representatives are dispersed across the world and many have long been at odds with each other.
Moreover, many opposition members left the country a decade or more ago and questions have been raised about their ability to represent a new generation of political activists.
“There have always been struggles within the Syrian opposition-in-exile,” Andrew Tabler, author and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said. “There are some members who have strong and legitimate connections with the opposition on the ground in Syria, and those who have none.”
The conferences in Antalya and Brussels reflected a painstaking attempt to overcome ideological disagreements, with attendance by long-standing secular exiles like Ziadeh and Monajed, alongside Shia, Sunni, Alawi and Christian groups, as well as tribal leaders, businessmen and activists from key towns like Dara'a.
Tabler, who was banned from entering Syria in 2009 after the publication of a report on the country’s opposition movement, suggested that the intensification of the uprising has lent this coalition greater unity, momentum and increased traction with the international community.
“The Antalya conference was a positive step,” he said. “Assad has very little international credibility left and as more reports of his abuses come out, we'll see greater lateral pressure from the opposition-in-exile and more cooperation from Washington and the UN.”
But amid growing calls for the removal of Assad, members of the exiled coalition are emphatic that they have no plans to take up a share in political power in the event that the regime falls.
“Everything must come from within Syria,” Ziadeh said. “The only role people living outside the country can play is to support activists on the ground by representing their goals to the international community.”
However, enlisting the support of the international community for opposition demands remains a difficult and uncertain task.
Britain, France, Germany and Portugal are this month leading the push for a UN resolution condemning human rights abuses by the regime and calling for an immediate end to violence, in the face of opposition from Syrian allies Russia and China.
“Our immediate aim now is to lobby the US to use its weight on the Security Council to persuade Russia and China not to veto a resolution,” Ziadeh noted.
US support is crucial, but the Obama administration appears more cautious than its European counterparts about translating its hard words into firm action.
“There is not a person left in Washington who believes in the possibility of amnesty for Assad,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, “but the Obama administration is in a very difficult position.
“The price of regime-change in Syria will be huge. There are very real fears about the possibility of a civil war, and committing to a situation like Iraq or Libya where we've already expended trillions of dollars.”
Some analysts, European Union leaders and opposition members had expressed hope that diplomatic pressure or the defection of the Syrian military might spur Assad to step down and hand over power to the vice-president.
However, the president's latest speech, coupled with the violent record of recent months, has done little to suggest he will go easily.
“This will be a battle until the end,” Landis said. “The regime is determined to kill [protesters] and there has been so much bloodshed now that the opposition on the ground will not be happy now until they see Assad hanging. There is no third way.”
Zoe Holman is an IWPR contributor.