Syrian opposition in Turkey to map post-Assad future

Disparate groups need to forge common front, dissident tells ‘Post’; experts pen letter to Obama outlining steps to assist opposition.

By OREN KESSLER
August 21, 2011 04:43
Anti-Assad protesters in Deir al-Zour, June 17.

Syrians at anti-Assad protest in Deir al-Zour_311 reuters . (photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)

Syrian opposition leaders – emboldened by calls last week from the US and European states for the Damascus regime to step down – convened in Istanbul on Saturday in a bid to form a transitional “national council” to govern their country in a post-Bashar Assad era.

Organizers said the council hopes to aid anti-government protesters to bring down the Assad regime and to help fill the power vacuum if and when the government falls. The council, they said, would include representatives of all relevant ethnic, geographical, religious and ideological groups involved in the Syrian revolution – namely, the Sunni business community, leaders of Assad’s Alawite sect, grassroots organizers, youth activists and military officers.

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“We have to make sure the internal and external opposition are all together on this, otherwise it won’t work,” opposition figure Amr al- Azm told The Jerusalem Post on Friday from his home in Ohio, shortly before boarding a flight to Istanbul.

Opposition figures from within Syria and abroad met three times in June – twice in Turkey, and once in Brussels – but struggled to forge a united front against the regime. Azm said he hopes this time the various groups will succeed in forming a consensus, and doing so as quickly as possible.

“The Turks are pushing hard for this to come out as soon as possible, with an eye toward putting out a declaration on Sunday,” he said.

On Friday, dozens of Middle East experts signed a joint letter to US President Barack Obama praising him for his administration’s statement last week calling for Assad to step aside.

Nonetheless, they wrote, much remains to be done to help push out the Syrian ruler, including tighter sanctions focusing on the banking and energy sector, engaging Syrian opposition in the country and abroad and, finally, recalling US Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus.

Signatories included such leading experts as Fouad Ajami of Stanford University, the Council on Foreign Relation’s Elliott Abrams and Max Boot, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Chairman and ex-CIA director James Woolsey and Azm himself.

Azm – raised in Beirut to a Syrian father and Palestinian mother – lived from 1998 to 2006 in Syria, serving as director of conservation in its Department of Antiquities, and teaching at the University of Damascus and the Arab European University.

Today he is an anthropologist at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

Last year he was contacted by the office of Syrian First Lady Asma Assad to assist the government in drafting a reform project related to cultural heritage and development.

Soon after returning to Damascus, however, the anthropologist began regretting accepting the position.

“I had my reservations because I knew the minute we’d try to push in certain areas, we’d meet a lot of resistance,” he said. “Sure enough, that started to happen by September or October, and then in March the uprising started and everything went to the toilet.

“There’s this split-personality going on in Syria, where they think they can make society better – provide jobs and income through cultural heritage and tourism, and create a new image for Syria – while at the same time making no political reforms,” Azm added. “The minute you start to touch certain areas that are political, you’re in trouble.

“How do you reform a museum if you can’t hire private staff? Hiring and firing staff is political. How do you hire people and pay them decent salaries when there’s no provision in the legal system to pay their salaries in dollars? “What happened to me is what happened to other people. We reached a point where we could see no change, no future – nothing. So we started to think maybe we should work with [the opposition],” he continued.

In June, Azm attended an opposition conference in the Turkish resort of Antalya.

“My contract with the government ran out March 31, and they were trying to get me to come back and run a project for them,” he said.

“I kept making excuses, and finally I said, ‘Actually, I’m at the big opposition conference in Antalya. You don’t really want to talk to me.’” Reports surfaced last week that Syria has taken its war against dissidents far beyond the country’s borders, using diplomats in Washington, London and elsewhere to track down and threaten expatriates against speaking out.

The Wall Street Journal reported Syrian diplomats, including the ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, have fanned out to Arab diaspora communities to brand dissidents “traitors” and warn them against conspiring with “Zionists.”

Azm was one of the dissidents named in the Journal report.

“It’s very hard to actually prove it,” he told the Post. He said Syria’s mukhabarat intelligence agents visited his wife’s family’s home in Syria.

“They told them: ‘Your daughter is married to this evil man – she should divorce him,’” Azm recalled. “How do I know that was prompted by something Imad Moustapha ordered? It’s hard to know.”

“He’s one of the reasonable guys,” he said of the ambassador, laughing.

“Can you imagine what the unreasonable guys are like?” Azm said the ambassador subsequently sent him threatening emails for daring to attend the opposition conference.

“You have single-handedly changed the ugly fundamentalist face of those convening there to that of a secular, enlightened and progressive opposition led by a former presidential adviser,” the ambassador wrote in an e-mail quoted by the Journal.

Concerned for his security, the FBI reportedly sent agents twice to visit Azm at his Ohio home. Azm said he believes the FBI had seen intercepted communications suggesting Syrian activists could be targeted inside the US.

Moustapha, who dismissed allegations of intimidating expatriates as “slander and sheer lies,” dismissed the notion that any Syrian-Americans are under FBI protection.

“They should be protected from the FBI,” he said.

Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East


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