Syrian uprisings inspire exiled anti-Assad opposition to come together

A series of gatherings has been taking place in Western capitals aimed at forging links between the street leaders in Syria and exiled dissidents abroad.
Imaduldeen al Rashid (left) and Fedaa Majzoub of the Syrian National Salvation Congress at a news conference in Istanbul last month. Murad Sezer / Reuters
Imaduldeen al Rashid (left) and Fedaa Majzoub of the Syrian National Salvation Congress at a news conference in Istanbul last month. Murad Sezer / Reuters
ISTANBUL // When the former Syrian diplomat Bassam Bitar was stationed in Paris three decades ago, a secret policeman from the embassy knocked at his apartment door to deliver a thinly veiled death threat if he did not stop criticising the Assad family.

The embassy's operative "was advising me as a 'friend' to shut up or face consequences," said Mr Bitar, 55, recalling the day when the messager arrived at his suburban home just after he was sacked from his embassy job in May 1987.

"I spoke out against the Assads' racket of blackmail and illegal business deals. I lost my job and was deprived of seeing my country. Now Syrians are braving bullets for freedom and paying a much dearer price," Mr Bitar told Reuters.

He was talking in an Istanbul hotel lobby on the sidelines of a meeting last month that brought together opponents of President Bashar Al Assad from outside and inside Syria.

Mr Assad, who succeeded his late father, President Hafez Al Assad, in 2000, is struggling to crush a four-month-old revolt that is galvanising exiles to link up with underground street leaders and lend them organisational and moral support.

From Saudi-based Islamist scholars to savvy businessmen in Western capitals, and jeans-clad women activists living in Canada and the United States, the exiles mirror the diverse cultural, religious and social mix of Syria's population.

Today's protesters have inspired Syria's traditional opposition figures, sometimes seen as fractious, hidebound and cowed by memories of a bloody crackdown in Hama in 1982.

The Istanbul conference was the latest in a series of gatherings in Western capitals aimed at forging links between the street leaders in Syria and exiled dissidents abroad. Mr Bitar, a Christian from Aleppo, now sees an opportunity for real political change for the first time in decades. His hope of returning home has been rekindled as he organises protests in front of the White House.

"It's a very different opposition. The opposition today are all united in their goal of getting rid of this regime," said Mr Bitar, who has also been lobbying the US administration to tighten sanctions on the Assad family.

Efforts to draw exiles and street leaders together have not gone unnoticed by Mr Assad's security apparatus, which cracked down in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun on July 15, where activists had hoped to join the Istanbul conference via video link. They gave up the idea after security forces killed 14 protesters.

The uprising in Syria has helped resurrect a moribund opposition. It has also stimulated exiled dissidents to seek ways of bankrolling the revolt and coordinating with pro-democracy organisers on the ground.

Exiles based in countries as far-flung as Australia, Saudi Arabia, Canada and Kuwait sat around an Istanbul conference table with laptops and iPads, planning meetings and chatting on Skype with coordination committees inside Syria.

Yasser Saadeldine, an independent Islamist-leaning commentator based in Qatar, said exiles could redeem themselves by acting as "servants to the revolution".

The exiles received a boost when a travel ban was lifted this month on Haitham Al Maleh, a former judge who has spent a decade in jail for resisting the Assad family's monopoly on power and the ruling Baath Party's takeover of the judiciary.

Mr Maleh, who appeared at the Istanbul meeting only three months after his release, is playing a leading role in linking Assad's domestic and exiled foes.

"The opposition abroad is raising funds to sustain the rebels and help in broadening the civil disobedience that has already made some cities like Hama and Homs liberated areas," said Mr Maleh.The posh hotel venue showcased the financial and organisational clout of a prosperous younger generation of exiles who run businesses in the Gulf and Europe.

Among the activists is Osama Shorbaji, 32, who interrupted his studies for a doctorate degree in microbiology at Paris University to attend. He was arrested in 2003 with a group of young activists after campaigning to clean the streets of Daraya, a suburb of Damascus -- an initiative viewed as a subversive attempt to disrupt the municipality's work.

"I find the new generation of Syrian exiles much more liberated from the political and dogma the older generation cling to," Mr Shorbaji said.

Expatriate Syrians, who have run anti-Assad websites and supplied smuggled satellite phones to protest organisers, say they are also finding clandestine ways to finance disobedience campaigns.

In another sign of political maturity, debates over the shape of post-Assad Syria have induced the Muslim Brotherhood to embrace democratic principles and accept a civil society with a pledge that Islamic law would not be imposed.

In recent years, Syria's intelligence agents have worked to divide the various opposition groups, playing on their rivalries to plant doubt and leaving a legacy of suspicion still evident in their responses to an uprising that seems to have started as a spontaneous reaction to the Arab Spring.

Imadeddin Al Rashid, an Islamic law professor who recently left Syria and represents the latest wave of exiles, said a "long legacy of terror" against opposing views had left Syria without grassroots political activism for the last 50 years.

"The regime thrives on its fragmentation of the opposition," Mr Rashid said.

Published: August 2, 2011 04:00 AM

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