AMMAN - Syria's President Bashar al-Assad faces the most serious challenge of his 11-year rule from a wave of protests calling for public freedoms and an end to corruption.
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Opposition parties are banned in Syrian under emergency law introduced when the Baath Party seized power in 1963.
Although dozens of parties exist, including leftist, secularist, Islamist and Arab nationalist parties, decades of repression have forced them underground or into exile, leaving formal opposition weakened and fragmented.
The most influential opposition groups are the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, Kurdish nationalists, and an alliance of liberal, leftist, Islamist and Kurdish figures who produced the 2005 Damascus Declaration calling for peaceful reform in Syria.
Here is a summary of Syrian opposition groups and figures, in Syria and in exile:
- Membership of the Muslim Brotherhood was made a capital offense in Syria in 1980. Two years later, the late President Hafez al-Assad put down an armed uprising by the Brotherhood in the city of Hama. Human rights groups said at least 20,000 people were killed.
The group's leader, Mohammad Riad Shaqfa, operating from exile, says the Brotherhood seeks non-violent democratic change to replace autocratic rule with a plural system where it can present an Islam-based manifesto to a free vote. It says it does not want an Islamic state in Syria.
- Kurdish groups have sought civic rights for Kurds in Syria, and won a pledge from Assad last week that tens of thousands of stateless Kurds would be granted citizenship.
But authorities have countered efforts to organize Syria's minority Kurds into an effective political force by jailing Kurdish leaders and trying to appease Kurdish tribes. Charismatic Kurdish leader Mishaal al-Tammo was jailed for three and half years in 2009 for "weakening national morale". Habib Ibrahim, a former political prisoner, is taking a more active role as protests against Assad's rule intensify.
OPPOSITION FIGURES (in Syria)
- RIAD TURK is the leading opponent of the Baath Party's monopoly on Syria's political system.
Turk has spent 25 years in jail, including 17 in solitary confinement. During the Damascus Spring, a period dominated by calls for democratic reform that lasted almost a year after Bashar succeeded his father in 2000, Turk warned that Assad would not hesitate to use repression to crush Syria's democrats.
- AREF DALILA is a former dean of economics at Damascus University who has campaigned for decades for a democratic alternative to the Baath Party. He was jailed from 2001 to 2008 after he criticized a cellphone concession granted to Assad's cousin, tycoon Rami Makhlouf, who in the eyes of protesters is a symbol of corruption in Syria.
- ANWAR BUNNI is scion of a political family known for unflinching opposition to the Baath Party's monopoly of power. Bunni, a human rights lawyer from the city of Hama, championed the cause of Syria's political prisoners before being sentenced to five years in jail 2005 for "weakening national morale".
- HAITHAM MALEH is a former judge who challenged the Baath Party takeover of the judiciary and professional unions. Jailed for six years in the 1980s, Maleh was sentenced again last year but released last month under an amnesty for prisoners over 70.
- AHMAD TUMEH is a physician and respected civic figure from the province of Raqqa, one of the areas hardest hit by a water crisis over the last six years that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Tumeh was one of a group of 12 who were arrested in 2007 and jailed for two and a half years after they tried to revive the Damascus Declaration.
- FAWAZ TELLO was jailed five years for his role in the Damascus Spring. An engineer by training, Tello has been working quietly since his release in 2006 to further the cause of human rights in Syria and strengthen the democratic movement.
OPPOSITION FIGURES (in exile)
ABDELHALIM KHADDAM, a former vice president who resigned and defected from the Baath Party in 2005, has said Assad's promises of reform do not go far enough and called for the creation of a new constitution based on a parliamentary democracy.
But opposition figures distrust Khaddam because of his decades of service in the Baath Party, and massive wealth he accumulated while he was in office.
RIFAAT AL-ASSAD turned against his brother, President Hafez al-Assad and lives in exile in Spain. Rifaat, now a wealthy businessman, has loyalists among Syria's Alawite minority but his role in crushing the 1982 Hama uprising, where forces under his command killed thousands, means he has limited influence among majority Sunnis.
MAAMOUN AL-HOMSI, a former member of parliament and businessman now based in Canada, was jailed for five years in 2001 for taking part in the Damascus Spring. He has said he expects Assad to replace Syria's emergency law with equally draconian anti-terrorism legislation.
EMERGING FIGURES IN CURRENT PROTESTS
MOUAZ AL-KHATIB is head of the independent Islamic Civilization society. Seen as an enlightened religious figure, Khatib has moved to assure Syria's minorities that the diversity of the country would be respected if Assad falls.
"We call for freedom for every person. For every Sunni, Alawite, Ismaili
and Christian, whether Arab or a member of the great Kurdish nation,"
Khatib told protesters this month.
MONTAHA AL-ATRASH is a leading member of the human rights organization
Sawasiah. Her stature as daughter of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, who led a
revolt against French colonial rule, helped elevate her as a
spokesperson for non-violent democratic change. She has publicly
questioned official assertions that Assad was the only person qualified
to rule Syria.
SUHAIR AL-ATASSI played a key role in a March 16 protest in Damascus
seeking the release of political prisoners and 15 children arrested in
the city of Deraa for writing slogans on walls inspired by the Egyptian
and Tunisian revolutions.
She was arrested by secret police at the protest, two days before the
eruption of the Deraa uprising, which later spread across the country.
She was released earlier this month.