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Controversy Over Syria Opposition Gathering

Middle East expert Rime Allaf looks at the implications of an unprecedented meeting of activists in Damascus.
By Zoe Holman
  • Demonstrators gather in the Syrian city of Banias last month. (Photo: Syrian Frames of Freedom/Flickr)
    Demonstrators gather in the Syrian city of Banias last month. (Photo: Syrian Frames of Freedom/Flickr)

Almost 200 Syrian opposition members gathered in Damascus on June 27 to call for an end to the violence and a peaceful transition to democracy. But all those who attended the event - which included activists, intellectuals and artists - were approved by the Syrian authorities, prompting criticism that it was merely a publicity stunt by the regime. Chatham House Middle East associate fellow Rime Allaf assesses the significance of the meeting.

Who are the opposition activists who met in Damascus?

There is no such thing as “the opposition” in Syria. It is nothing like in Great Britain where there is some sort of united internal party or movement. Instead, there are many different groups and individuals, both on the ground and abroad which together have now come to be known as the opposition. It is still very much a divided and emerging force and includes a number of activists and local committees who refused to attend the Damascus meeting. What can be said is that those groups and individuals who did attend are looking for a solution to the current crisis that is not continued violence, and this can only be a positive thing.

What is the significance of this meeting for the Syrian uprising?

Despite the fact that it was chaotic and flawed in many ways, this meeting is completely historic. Four months ago, the regime would never even have recognised the notion of an opposition – anyone who even mentioned changing the regime on March 1 would have been imprisoned. But now Assad has been forced to come out publicly and say that yes, there is an opposition in Syria. We suddenly have a meeting in the middle of Damascus and the only reason this event could take place was because of the determination of the Syrian people protesting in the streets for the past four months, not giving up in spite of the very heavy toll; the killings of unarmed demonstrators; the jailings and the torture. This is by no means a measure of goodwill by the Assad regime, but rather a concession that they had no choice but to try and quieten the opposition. Whether or not the event leads to anything more, the regime has still been forced to allow it and the Syrian people can say that they made this happen.

The meeting has been criticised as a ruse by the regime. Can it be seen as just another attempt by the president to show that he is a reformer?

It is a very valid point that the regime is trying to use this for its own benefit. Assad wants to say that he launched the initiative as part of his promise of national dialogue and in many ways it worked, because immediately he was praised by the United States for allowing it. However, I don’t think the Syrian people are buying into this performance, and we still need to acknowledge that the popular pressure on the regime has been effective. Of course, only people approved by the regime were allowed to attend, and the event was full of secret police, but this does not give us a reason to belittle the participants. Many of these opposition figures have been imprisoned by the regime for their dissent and are well-respected activists. Nobody can blame this large opposition movement as being “the bad guys” who are paid by foreign parties or who are working with foreign agendas.

A lot of other well-known figures and local opposition groups chose to boycott the meeting, and I think rightly. But this should not be seen as an attempt to belittle the meeting, but as a strong strategic initiative to avoid sending any positive messages to the regime. It is a way of saying to Assad, “If you think this is going to be enough, you are wrong.” This is an even tougher way of putting pressure on the Syrian authorities, but it is not attacking the opposition, it is attacking the regime.

What effect, if any, can the meeting have on the regime?

The opposition has made it clear that there will be no dialogue with the regime as long as the violence continues. But whether or not this will yield any fruit, it is still far, far too early to even speculate. Nothing is going to bring down this regime quickly. Assad will not give up easily and I cannot see that this meeting will have any automatic effect. But the fact that people have dared to show up and attempt to lead the country to a fairer and more just system is in itself an unprecedented accomplishment, in the hope that continued popular pressure will put a stop to the repression and the killings. Even though international pressure has not forced the regime to change its ways, the Syrian people themselves, be they spontaneous demonstrators or civil society activists, are forcing these changes, for themselves. All the credit goes to them.

Rime Allaf is a Middle East associate fellow at Chatham House in London.

Zoe Holman is an IWPR contributor.

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