New Syrian opposition demands freedom and unity

Glimmer of hope: Syria’s opposition leader Ahmad Moaz al Khatib and the his enemy the dictator Assad.

As carnage rages in Syria, a group of major opposition figures have gathered to form a broad new coalition. Is this the birth of a new, democratic nation?

In a luxury hotel in the tiny, oil-rich state of Qatar, a group of Syrians gathered this weekend to discuss the fate of their nation. Some were Sunni Muslims, others minorities like Shia and Alawite, still others Christians and Kurds. But all came with one goal: to form a united resistance to the tyranny of Bashar al Assad.

Today, Syria has a new opposition, broader and stronger than its predecessors. At its head is the moderate Muslim cleric Ahmad Moaz al Khatib, respected by religious and secular leaders alike. His deputies include a female activist and a prominent businessman, and the cabinet represents every social group from an extremely diverse society.

In his first statement as Syria’s new hope, al Khatib was forceful: ‘we demand freedom,’ he said, calling for troops to abandon Assad. Could this be the beginning of life after the Assad regime?

Inside Syria, the carnage shows no sign of abating. And in a worrying development, Israel has opened fire on Syrian targets after a shell struck an Israeli army base near the border.

On a single day last week, thousands of Syrian refugees are thought to have fled over the border to Turkey. The United Nations estimates that by January up to 4 million Syrians could be in need of humanitarian aid. In the face of all this chaos, what can a group of exiled activists possibly expect to achieve?

Nothing immediately – and one rival opposition group has already expressed its resistance to the new coalition. But other rebel voices have praised its breadth, claiming that it speaks for ‘90% of the Syrian opposition’. This could be the rump of the next Syrian leadership.

What is more, the coalition was formed with the approval of the USA and its allies. This gives foreign powers a point on which they can focus financial and military aid: already there are rumours that the British government is pushing for more assertive intervention.

Enemy state

This is a scandal, say rival groups in the Syrian opposition. This so-called ‘National Coalition’ is nothing but a self-selected group of politicians and businessmen. Worse, they are slaves to the opinion of foreign powers. What gives these people the right, they ask, to claim to speak for Syria? And without real legitimacy, how can they ever heal the country’s gaping wounds?

This coalition may be makeshift, admit its supporters. But with the country in flames and help urgently needed, it is the best that can be done. In Libya, they point out, one of the first steps towards democracy was to form a transitional government that represented the people. The coalition could be just as important for Syria – if it is given a chance.

You Decide

  1. Can a government chosen in a luxury hotel in Qatar really bring peace to Syria?
  2. Is it time for foreign powers to send troops into Syria?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have just been elected to lead a rebellion against a dictator who is terrorising your country. Write a speech aiming to unify the national opposition.
  2. Research the transitional governments that were introduced to Iraq and Libya when they were struggling against dictators. Write a paragraph on each: was it successful? Why / why not?

Some People Say...

“It doesn’t matter who takes over – ending the war is the only thing that matters now.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is everybody so obsessed with Syria?
Disturbances in the Middle East are watched anxiously by governments all over the world: it is a complex region riven with tension and rich in oil. Instability in Syria means a less safe world for all of us.
For instance?
Just yesterday, Israel opened fire on Syrian targets for the first time since 1973. This raises the much-feared spectre of an Israeli-Arab war that could pull in many foreign forces, including possibly the USA. Middle Eastern leaders could react with attacks abroad.
Sounds pretty scary. Will it happen?
Not just yet. But preventing it is the reason why ending the Syrian Civil War is so important. Even more vital, though, is stopping the tragic bloodshed that claims hundreds of Syrian lives every day.

Word Watch

Bashar al Assad
When Arab Spring protests spread to Syria in March 2011 the country’s Western-educated dictator Bashar al Assad responded with merciless force. Now the country is officially mired in a bloody civil war, and Assad has sworn never to leave the country while he lives.
New opposition
There is still some confusion over the name of this new body, but it is mostly being referred to by the not particularly catchy name: ‘National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’.
Carnage
At least 27,000 Syrians have been killed in 2012, and the real number is probably far higher. There have also been reports of torture and mass killing from both sides, and Assad has ordered horrific massacres of civilian populations.
Rival opposition group
There are several important opposition groups in Syria that did not attend the meeting in Qatar. Some of them support negotiation with Assad; others are dominated by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, who have been granted only a small representation in the new cabinet.

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