After four months from the beginning of the protests, what is evident of the Syrian opposition is its wide fracture between streets and intellectual dissidents.
The front of intellectuals based in Syria, including Luay Hussein, Anwar al-Bunni, Fayez Sarah and Michel Kilo, organized an unprecedented meeting at Hotel Semiramis in Damascus on June 27, where they were allowed by the regime to call for the end of violence and the beginning of a democratic transition.
Another main representative of the opposition, the economist Aref Dalila chose not to participate in the meeting: despite sharing the ideas of his companions of struggle, he told us in an interview that “the settings of the meeting were not free, with state media being the only ones allowed to distort the contents of the gathering.” The Damascus Declaration coalition, a major group of dissidents born in 2005, boycotted the meeting, arguing it took place under the control of Syrian security, featuring the participation of few real dissidents. Likewise, the Local Coordinating Committees, the most nationwide organized representative of the youth taking to the streets, refused to participate in the meeting, due to the ongoing violence perpetrated by the regime.
On June 30, the same intellectuals, including Aref Dalila drafted “A Road Map for Syria”, their vision on democratic transition in Syria. In this document, the controversial passage is the inclusion of the Ba’th Party into a newly established National Legislative Assembly, allowing Assad’s party to maintain 30 seats out of 100. This is crucial point of disagreement with part of the demonstrators, calling for the downfall of the regime, and some activists, who feel the voice of the Syrian people should be more fairly represented in this official meetings.
During a talk I had with Kamal Sheikho, a Kurdish blogger who spent long time in prison on hunger strike, he motivated his refusal to attend the Semiramis meeting by the unwillingness of the participants to ask for the resignation of the President. According to Sheikho, “there is a big proportion of the streets calling for the downfall of the regime and it is not possible to claim we represent the Syrian people, if we don’t convey their demands.” Demonstrations against the Semiramis meeting took actually place on the following Friday and the last Friday of protests, on July 15, has been labeled “No Dialogue.” The split between the streets and these groups of intellectuals is even evident from everyday’s conversations: a couple of days ago, I was exchanging views with Abu Sharif, the driver who takes me around during Friday protests, and he didn’t have a clue about who Michel Kilo was, despite being himself clearly opposed to the regime.
On the other hand, Aref Dalila commented on those protesters calling for the downfall of the regime by saying that “they don’t know how to bring the system down, therefore proceeding gradually is the only way out.” Among the participants to the Semiramis meeting, Fayez Sarah justified his choice, claiming this initiative had no ambition whatsoever to represent the streets.
Division among factions composing the Syrian opposition is not a new trend: even the meeting held in Antalya, Turkey (May 31- June 2), was met with skepticism, firstly by the Kurds, because of the choice of Turkey, a country historically unfriendly to the Kurdish cause. Only 5 parties out of the 12 Syrian Kurdish parties participated in the conference. Secondly, because a conference held in Turkey was perceived from part of the opposition as an excuse to ask for foreign intervention into Syrian affairs.
These features introduce another problematic divide within the opposition, the one between 1.5 million Kurds living in Syria and the Arab majority. Aref Dalila claims that the opposition has overcome differences, starting to unify itself along the lines of a shared project for democratic transformation. On the contrary, while I was speaking with Shanar, a Kurdish activist from the Future Movement, she clearly underlined the lack of understanding between Arab and Kurdish blocs, starting from the days chosen for mobilization: for example, the Arab groups refused to back protests taking place in commemoration of Kurdish Qamishli riots (March 2004). After I got to know Ahmed, an Arab activist in the University of Damascus, he admitted that Arabs should have been wary
of Kurds, because after the collapse of the regime they would have had a different agenda.
Besides ethnic differentiations, divisions within the opposition revolve around whether a dialogue with the regime is possible or not, and It is unlikely that a group of intellectuals, despite their commitment to the cause, are going to convince the families of almost 1400 martyrs to accept dialogue with their killers. This remains the main stalemate preventing unity within the Syrian opposition.
* I wrote this piece a couple of days ago, integrating talks I had with local activists with the interview I had with Aref Dalila, one of the main Syrian dissident intellectuals, economist and member of the National Coordination Committee. The image chosen is a banner in Arabic saying “Those representing me are the revolutionaries of the trenches and not the inmates of the hotels” a clear sign of the distance between political and military opposition (with a particularly reference to those opposition representatives living abroad). Differently from the ‘inmates of the hotels’, Aref Dalila spent many years in the Syrian jails, but in this interview his position was already detached from the streets and their subsequent militarisation.