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Hillary Clinton must insist on a united Syrian opposition

When Hillary Clinton meets with Syrian opposition figures in Turkey this weekend, she must impress on them the need to unite their ranks and tolerate different views. Disunity in the opposition is perhaps the biggest reason why Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

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Of course, the SNC is not the first political entity throughout history to suppress freedom of thought and speech for the sake of achieving more immediate goals. History is replete with examples of political movements, parties, and individuals quashing diversity in their pursuit of freedom and independence.

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It famously happened during and after the 1789 French revolution to the moderate Girondins in their disagreement with the radical Jacobins, although they were both in the pro-revolution camp. Eventually, Robespierre and the Jacobins took control of the Girondin-led National Assembly. Then came the “Reign of Terror” from late 1793-1794 when Robespierre had more than 15,000 people executed at the guillotine because of increasing paranoia about counter-revolutionary influences.

More recently in the Middle East, the March 14 political coalition in Lebanon – whose supporters led an uprising of a million people against Syria in 2005 – ostracized all those independent Lebanese who did not unconditionally endorse its political tactics as conspirators or followers of the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis. No wonder that coalition, which claimed monopoly over the slogans of freedom, sovereignty, and independence, has lost so many supporters and has failed to lead the country to democracy after Syria exited Lebanon.

Political tolerance is not a luxury, it is essential to the democratic experiment. Thomas Jefferson could not have said it more eloquently in his first inaugural address: Those who might wish to dissolve the newly established union should be left “undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated” in a country “where reason is left free to combat it.”

It would do the SNC good to head this advice. Consensus with all the other major Syrian opposition groups that have credibility in the eyes of the Syrian people, while difficult, will serve the fight against Assad as well as the overall march against tyranny. And it will speed up the transition toward democracy when Damascus falls.

Saying the right things regarding the inclusion and respect of minorities in Syria – Christians, Kurds, and others – is important but not enough. Until the SNC makes a serious effort to exercise tolerance toward other ethno-religious groups and pro-democracy opposition bodies and better coordinate with the rebels on the ground, Washington should not recognize any transitional government it may form in the near future. It sounds harsh but America’s reputation and interests are at stake here.

Bilal Y. Saab is visiting fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.


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