Conflict & Justice

Syrian opposition forms leadership council in Istanbul


Members of the Syrian community in Bucharest protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sept. 2, 2011.


Andrei Pungovschi

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The Syrian opposition took a step toward greater unity Thursday with the founding in Istanbul of the Syrian National Council, an organization that aims to better coordinate what has so far been a grassroots effort by local communities on the ground in Syria to topple the country's authoritarian leader.

The Syrian National Council is comprised of roughly 140 delegates, both from inside and outside the country. The names of 72 members were released at a press conference on Thursday and represent members who have either left Syria recently or have who have taken residence in countries other than Syria. Names of delegates still inside Syria will not be released because of security concerns.

"There is always conferences and they never get anywhere. There are so many factions but they never go anywhere. We thought that there should be one point of contact so as to make organizing easier," said Abdulbaset Sieda, a delegate for the SNC.

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The council has been careful in constructing a delegate list that is representative of Syria. Members of the SNC claim widespread support from all factions within the opposition movement and are open to expanding their ranks.

"We are leaving the door open for everyone in the future," said Osama Kadi, an economic consultant and delegate with the SNC. The council paid special attention to ethnicity and religion as well as political orientation in delegate selection to ensure fair representation, Kadi said.

The declaration of the SNC comes at the 6-month anniversary of the Syrian uprising. UN estimates put the number killed at 2,600 and daily communications from inside of Syria indicate that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been using brutal force and torture to suppress the uprising.

The council will direct its efforts at "toppling the regime," while "maintaining the peaceful character of the revolution," and "preserving national unity." The final aim of the council will be to work toward establishing a democratic and pluralistic system of government for Syria.

The SNC has been especially careful to highlight the role of young revolutionaries and the role of activists still inside Syria. "Our main goal is to support the Syrian revolution inside, to support the people on the ground and to represent as much of the opposition as we can by combining the people inside and outside," Kadi said.

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But not everyone is convinced. Omar Moktad, an activist who came to Turkey in April, said he had doubts that the SNC would be either representative or effective.

"We do not need a government-like thing outside the country. It will kill the revolution on the inside," he said. "They get to make the rules, and I am sensitive about this because I do not want to be controlled again."

Moktad is especially furious about the reaction of the council to the disappearance of Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush, the first high-ranking military defector to speak out against the Assad regime.

Harmoush disappeared on Aug. 29 from Antakya, a county in southern Turkey that is now host to roughly 8,000 Syrian refugees. Moktad and others believe that the Turkish government is complicit in Harmoush's disappearance.

"The Syrian National Council has been avoiding the Hussein Harmoush story because they do not want to anger the Turks. What kind of support is that for the people on the ground?" Moktad said.

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Wary of how the rebellion in Libya unfolded, the SNC said that it would not rule out supporting a foreign intervention in Syria. But the council representatives said they favor more subtle action and are asking countries like the United States to isolate the Assad regime diplomatically and economically.

"We do not want a foreign intervention. But they could pull their ambassadors or expel the Syrian ambassadors," Sieda said.

Economic isolation is not likely to impact much of the population inside Syria, according to Kadi. But it would drain resources from the regime, he said, estimating that the Assad government can sustain itself economically for another 3 to 5 months.

So far international pressure calling on the regime to reform and stop the violent suppression of protests have gone unrecognized by Assad, who maintains that the demonstrations are organized by thugs, terrorists and foreigners.

"There have been calls from countries like Turkey for Assad to reform. But he cannot reform because that means elections. If there are elections then Assad will no longer be in power," said Sieda, who was also careful to point out that the SNC will not continue its efforts in perpetuity.

"We are not an administration. We're done when the current regime is gone," he said.