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.
“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.
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.
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
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
“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
“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
“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.