Syrian dissidents form new united front

Syrian National Council unveiled. From left: Ahmed Ramadan, Bassma Kodmani, Abdulbaset Seida and Imad Aldeen Rashid The announcement to form a Syrian National Council was made in the Turkish city of Istanbul

Six months after they started their uprising, Syrian opposition groups have for the first time agreed on a single body to represent them.

Meeting on the outskirts of Istanbul, a number of the most prominent dissidents living in exile announced the establishment of a Syrian National Council with 140 members.

"It's a kind of national assembly and it will have to give its voice on any major decisions," said spokeswoman Basma Qadmani.

"There will be an executive body, too, and this will be the interlocutor for foreign governments."

We have been here before, however.

On 29 August, after another opposition meeting in Istanbul, they announced the creation of a national council, this one with 94 members.

Some of those chosen to be on the council expressed surprise and dissociated themselves from it. Other groups complained that they were not included.

Then there was the Conference for Change in the Turkish resort of Antalya in June. That created a 31-member "advisory committee", whose role since then has been a mystery.

Start Quote

The credibility of the council relies on support from inside”

End Quote Basma Qadmani Opposition spokesman

One activist in Istanbul sheepishly described these as "trial runs", adding: "We lack experience."

The contrast with Libya is striking. There, the National Transitional Council was set up just two weeks after the uprising in Benghazi.

But conditions in Syria are far more challenging.

At no time has the opposition been able to take control of a part of the country, as it did in Libya.

The Syrian protests began in the southern city of Deraa and spread, but they have been organised locally with limited co-ordination, and any large protests have been met by a heavy-handed military response.

There was nowhere inside the country where a single opposition body could have been set up.

This time, say the organisers, lessons have been learned, and the new national council does enjoy the support of every significant dissident group.

Video grab of protest in Deraa, March 2011 Anti-government protests began in the southern city Deraa

"The focus was on the inside... because the credibility of the council relies on support from inside," says Basma Qadmani.

"And we did not announce the council until we had the support from the key forces inside Syria."

The organisers of this national council say they spent more than a month mapping out all the different political groups operating inside and outside Syria, and from that drew up a list of around 700 names.

From that list, using agreed criteria, they say they have selected 140 council members of whom about half will be from inside the country.

The new council will base itself on five core principles:

  • The overthrow of the regime and the continuation of the organs of state through legitimate means
  • The peaceful continuation of the revolution
  • Protecting national unity
  • Loyalty to the principles and goals of the revolution
  • Establishment of a civilian state that guarantees freedom based on democracy and pluralism.

Whether this effort is more successful than its predecessors will depend on the reaction of the activists inside Syria, especially the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCCs) and the Syrian Revolution Co-ordination Union, which have become the most prominent among those organising protests.

It will depend on the Muslim Brotherhood, which is represented within the council, and it will depend on how successful the council is in its goal of setting aside the huge cultural and political differences among the protesters.

Non-violence

Some LCCs have recently talked about taking up armed struggle against the Assad government. The council's organisers, however, believe non-violence should remain a core principle.

"You're talking about a non-ideological movement," says Yaser Tabbara, a US-based lawyer who helped to chose the members of the new council.

"When they seek freedom, it is the freedom to choose their representatives, it is the freedom to create their own economic opportunities, it is the freedom to have a highly qualified government."

The new council will be based in Istanbul - a mark of how important Turkish government support now is - but it will have representative offices in several other countries.

Only about half of the 140 members have so far been named. Some working inside Syria will remain anonymous to protect them.

Committees will be set up to manage day-to-day work, like diplomacy.

The idea is that from now on, when foreign governments want to talk to the Syrian opposition, they will know whom to call.

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