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The Syrian Opposition: Who Are They?

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Last week, Dennis Kucinich seized headlines by traveling to Syria and expressing some degree of sympathy for the Assad regime. What Kucinich actually said to the Syrian media is now under some dispute, but there can be no doubt that the congressman’s views on the recent violence in Syria lack moral clarity, to put it mildly: Back in May, he told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, “There’s very serious questions raised about the conduct of the Syrian police, but we also know the Syrian police were fired upon and that many police were murdered.” In other words, the Syrian regime might be doing bad things, but so is the opposition.

Kucinich is not the only observer to have implied that we ought to be skeptical about the Syrian protesters. Some experts have hinted that the protesters are motivated by Sunni supremacism, since Syria is 74 percent Sunni and 14 percent Alawite, the Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs. In light of these assessments, it’s worth pausing to ask: Who are the Syrian protesters? And are they actually as dangerous as the Assad regime itself? 

The first sign of something resembling a platform for the opposition emerged on April 22, when the so-called Local Coordination Committeesappointed groups of activists in key cities caught up in the protestsoffered a joint statement of demands. The LCCs called for an end to violence and torture, the release of political prisoners, the immediate resignation of Assad, and a constitutional reform that would legalize Syria’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, with a “multi-national, multi-ethnic, and religiously tolerant society.”

That last clause was calculated. At the start of the Syrian protests, Assad tried to draw parallels with the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood uprisingbrutally suppressed by his father, Hafez al-Assadand depict the current unrest as a “Salafist” or Sunni terrorist insurgency (when not one coordinated by the Mossad or other “foreign infiltrators,” as he originally maintained). The statement by the LCCs was a direct rebuttal to the claim that the opposition was driven by sectarianism.

There have been indications that the protesters are living up to this ideal. On day three of the uprising, in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, a roaring crowd held aloft one protester brandishing a sign with a crescent and a cross, and Arabic script beneath which read: “Yes to freedom, no to oppression.” Elsewhere, Christian clerics have prevailed upon their congregations to support the revolution. And a Damascene freelance journalist I spoke to recently told me of how Alawites in Lattakia had been sheltering Sunni university students whose dormitories had been raided by the shabbiha, or roving death squads loyal to the regime. Indeed, one protester on the ground in Homs with whom I communicated via a Beirut-based intermediary said: “We will never stop, Druze, Sunni, Alawite, and Kurd, we will never stop.” Protests in Jableh and Hama have seen Sunnis and Alawites marching side by side against the regime.

Between May 31 and June 2, hundreds of Syrians, consisting of exiles and in-country activists, met at a conference in the seaside resort town of Antalya, Turkey. More than 68 different opposition groups were in attendance, a 31-member Consultative Council was elected, and a “final declaration” declared that Assad must go, Syria is an ethnically and religiously diverse society, and the opposition must work for a “democratic future ... which respects human rights and protects freedom for all Syrians, including the freedom of belief, expression and practice of religion.”

While it’s impossible to judge with precision how widely the council’s views are shared among the opposition back in Syria, its declaration was met by approbation from crowds on multiple occasions. YouTube videos show protesters in Homs on June 2 chanting, “We salute the conference,” and two different photos of banners wielded on June 3 read, respectively, “O heroes of the Antalya Conference, you are our pulse and we are with you,” and “The demands of the Antalya Conference are the demands of the Syrian people.” Even more significant was an anti-regime rally that took place in Hama on June 17 and drew about 100,000 people. The event featured a banner that was a hybridization of the Syrian flag and the “independence” flag which had been adopted at the Antalya Conference as a symbol of the revolution. On it was written: “Hama will not kneel.”

To be sure, the information we have about the Syrian protesters is both anecdotal and incomplete. Moreover, opposition movements often devour themselves quickly or abandon their ideals once they become successful. And there are certainly Islamist elements associated with the Syrian uprising. But while the opposition may not be perfect, it would also be absurd to think that it is no better than the Assad regime. With rare exception, the information coming out of Syria confirms that the moral equivalence of Kucinich is not rooted in reality. In Syria, we should not hesitate to side with the opposition.

Michael Weiss is communications director for the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank that promotes democracy and human rights abroad.

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