Syria’s myriad opposition groups are forging a newly unified Syrian National Council (SNC), after more than six months of streets protests have challenged the rule of President Bashar al-Assad and raised the possibility of another successful Arab Spring revolution to follow those in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
European nations backed by the United States on Tuesday are expected to call for a vote on a new UN resolution that would consider further sanctions if Syrian security forces do not stop a military crackdown that has so far left an estimated 2,700 dead.
The UN vote would coincide with the release of a report on Tuesday by Amnesty International, the human rights organization, that the Syrian regime has mounted a “systematic” and sometimes violent campaign of intimidation against Syrian opponents abroad and their families at home.
Documenting the use of tools as diverse as baseball bats for beatings and telephoned death threats, as well as torture and disappearances of family members of activists still in Syria, Amnesty detailed cases in eight countries in Europe and the Americas, from Chile to Canada, which indicate the “long reach of the feared Syrian mukhabaraat, or intelligence services.”
Anti-regime rallies outside Syrian embassies are routinely filmed, and activists “systematically monitored and harassed by embassy officials” and others working for the regime, reports Amnesty.
None of that surprises Adib Shishakly, one of the coordinators of the SNC, who says he has received death threats. He was woken by a strange phone call at 3 a.m. a few weeks back, for example, and told: “Stop. You think you can continue? We can assassinate you.”
“It is very dangerous, many members have been attacked,” Mr. Shishakly told the Monitor, during his visit to Istanbul for opposition talks. Regime opponents do not broadcast their travel plans or flight details, and stay in different hotels, though most are ordinary people with little past cloak-and-dagger experience.
Notes Shishakly: “We are not pros at this.”
A different case than Libya
Syria’s key opposition elements – the long-standing Damascus Declaration group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other ethnic, religious, and grassroots groups, all united under the SNC for the first time – increasingly portray themselves as a government-in-waiting, as the once-rebel National Transitional Council in Libya has taken the lead after toppling Col. Muammar Qaddafi in August.
Syria’s opposition leaders declared the aims of the SNC during their meeting in Istanbul on Sunday. They called on the international community to provide “humanitarian” protection to Syria’s embattled pro-democracy activists while rejecting a Libya-style foreign military intervention, where NATO bombing of forces loyal to Qaddafi tipped the balance in favor of rag-tag rebel units.
The Syrian regime’s continued willingness to use force against the largely unarmed protesters – who are officially dismissed as criminal agents of foreign powers – and the anti-Assad activists’ continued willingness to come onto the streets in the face of lethal force, make Syria a different case.
“The Libya scenario had flat ground, a weak army, and no Arab support [for Qaddafi]; in Syria it is exactly the opposite,” says Hassan Hachimi, a Canada-based architect and SNC member in charge of relations with North America. “Libya took six months and 3,000 casualties, and that’s why we say we don’t want that. We need creative, out-of-the-box thinking.”
That thinking should include a no-fly zone, or perhaps a buffer along Syria’s border with Turkey, where anti-Assad activists can find protection and safety, opposition leaders here say. The SNC is looking for “declarations of legitimacy” from the West, says Mr. Hachimi, and “declarations of illegitimacy of the regime.”
Getting a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Assad from the International Criminal Court in The Hague could also take a psychological toll on the regime, says Monzer Makhous, a Paris-based petroleum geologist who is to handle European affairs for the SNC.
“One must be a big dreamer to think the regime will be over in a few weeks, or even a few months,” says Dr. Makhous. “But also now no one can imagine this regime will stay – it’s only a question of how and when it will fall.”
And there are also host of other questions, says Makhous. He echoes other Syrian opposition leaders when he describes their latest meeting, and its apparent unity, as a “breakthrough.” But it is not yet clear how the opposition will evolve, nor how it can incorporate other opposition groups, meeting publicly inside Syria itself, which are willing to leave paths open to negotiations with the regime.
Leveraging international pressure
All SNC members, by contrast, state unequivocally that the current regime must end and Assad must go. Also uncertain is how willing the international community is to help the Syrian opposition, and how much support can come from Arab nations.
“Qatar is very advanced in this area,” says Makhous, reflecting the tiny Persian Gulf emirate’s out-sized role in Libya, where it contributed 1,000 military “advisors” and supplied everything to the rebel forces from cash, satellite phones, and military hardware and vehicles to blanket television coverage on Al Jazeera.
Still, even Syrians who may wish for a NATO-style military intervention “can’t say it, because people say, ‘You are with the West. You are a traitor,’” notes Makhous.
The official SNC statement agreed to on Sunday rejects any move that “compromises Syrian sovereignty,” but also called for action.
“The Council demands international governments and organizations meet their responsibility to support the Syrian people, protect them and stop the crimes and gross human rights violations being committed by the illegitimate current regime,” the SNC said.
US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford on Tuesday added to American pressure on Syria in a BBC interview in Damascus. He has been active in calling the regime to account for its fierce crackdown; his vehicle was attacked in recent days by pro-regime elements using concrete blocks and iron bars.
The US has “never laid out how, or what, that Syrian transition should be. That’s up to the Syrians to do,” Mr. Ford told the BBC. “It is the government’s incredible repression, the brutality, which is actually raising tensions here. It is the government’s repression which is actually stirring up more violence, and it is the government’s repression which is preventing a political process from moving forward peacefully.”
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, speaking on Monday in Tel Aviv, said Assad’s fall was inevitable and that Washington and European capitals had “made clear Assad should step down.” “While he continues to resist, I think it’s very clear that it’s a matter of time before that [departure] in fact happens,” Mr. Panetta said. “When it does, we don’t know.”
Targeting Syrian ex-patriates
Trying to prevent that outcome have been Syrian agents abroad, according to the Amnesty report.
“Expatriate Syrians have been trying, through peaceful protest, to highlight abuses that we consider amount to crimes against humanity – and that presents a threat to the Syrian regime,” said Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher said in a statement.
“In response the regime appears to have waged a systematic – sometimes violent – campaign to intimidate Syrians overseas into silence,” said Mr. Sammonds. “This is yet more evidence that the Syrian government will not tolerate legitimate dissent and is prepared to go to great length to muzzle those who challenge it publicly.”
“Every day is an unimaginable reality in Syria.…The brutality is unreal,” says SNC member Hachimi. “We don’t want to go down the road of international intervention, but the people are now crying out for help. They are starting to ridicule our demands to keep it peaceful.”
The result inside Syria is that commitment to nonviolence has sometimes flagged.
“We are beginning to see people taking up arms, and they have the right to defend their own homes,” adds Hachimi. “At the same time, the clear vision to keep [protests] peaceful is understood, to avoid a civil war.”