Worldview: The way forward for a moderate Syria

Members of various Syrian opposition groups at a news conference Wednesday in Istanbul, Turkey.
Members of various Syrian opposition groups at a news conference Wednesday in Istanbul, Turkey. (Associated Press)
Posted: November 01, 2012

ISTANBUL, Turkey - One of the thorniest foreign-policy issues facing the winner of Tuesday's election will be how to hasten the end of the brutal Syrian civil war that threatens much of the Middle East.

I've just spent two days at a fascinating conference in Istanbul attended by more than 80 rebel commanders and civilian activists who traveled here from inside Syria. The conference was called "Managing the Transition in Syria" and was sponsored by the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a Washington-based think tank headed by Syrian intellectual and activist Radwan Ziadeh.

The activists offered compelling answers about what needed to be done to establish a moderate, transitional Syrian government that could expedite the end of the war.

The rebels' main message: Those countries that seek the ouster of Syria's brutal President Bashar al-Assad must help civil society members and nonmilitant military commanders inside Syria; they are already setting up de facto government structures in wide areas liberated from government control.

Contrary to the images seen in the West, most of these activists, while observant Muslims, do not seek an Islamic state. But they need outside help and support to counter funds readily available to Islamist groups from rich individuals or governments in the Arab Gulf.

"If the Americans and the West won't help us with humanitarian aid, medicine, and setting up new institutions, the Salafis and al-Qaeda will be shored up," I was told by Ali Badran, a lawyer and human-rights activist from Tal Rifaat, a suburb of Aleppo that has been bombed and shelled by the Assad government. "The Salafis have money and provide services," he continued, "so the Syrian people will be sympathetic, and this will be a very big threat."

Until now, U.S. assistance to the rebels has been mainly limited to nonlethal aid to nonviolent opposition groups, primarily communications equipment. (I'll write more about this in a later column.) A major obstacle to further aid is this: The main external Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), has been unable to present a unified leadership through which aid could be reliably channeled - and has had much too little input from activists on the ground.

Developments in the coming week may, I repeat may, finally produce a leadership council composed largely of internal activists that could overtake the SNC and be recognized internationally as a transitional government. Immediately after a big SNC meeting in Doha, Qatar, this weekend, a second meeting will take place, which will include delegates from revolutionary councils and coordinating committees in liberated areas.

The idea - proposed by the legendary Syrian oppositionist Riad Seif - is to choose a new Syrian national council of 51 people, of which only 15 would come from the SNC. "The opposition inside would have a much larger voice," I was told by a European diplomat. The emergence of a credible council could also provide reassurance to fearful minorities in Syria that they will be welcome in a post-Assad era.

Already, however, there is discord about the Doha meeting, with some SNC members trying to put off any decision until a second, later conference in Cairo. "After 1½ years of fighting, with many liberated areas, you can't build a legitimate body from the top down," says Ziadeh, the conference organizer, who is dubious that the Riad Seif idea will be successful. He instead proposes the creation of a national assembly inside the liberated areas.

But the message is the same: There are now sufficient councils of civilians and military commanders in liberated areas to provide the basis for a transitional government. Those governments that want to speed the end of the Assad regime must expedite the birth of such a government ASAP, with pledges that it will receive aid.

In Tal Rifaat, says Ali Badran, despite daily shelling that has killed 300 people, the locals have elected committees that deal with issues of electricity, water, and fuel - all cut off by the government. They have chosen civilian judges to run de facto courts, and set up a prison to punish thieves. There are no formal schools, since school buildings have been bombed and teachers are fighting on the front, but they are trying to organize home schools run by housewives.

They formed a medical council of doctors and an educational council of teachers. They formed a relief organization in Aleppo province to assess basic food needs, since farmers now lack seeds and fertilizer to plant next year's crop and they fear famine.

But there is no money for salaries, school supplies, prisons, or clinics (the regime shelled most of the hospitals). "We need financial support to finance a civil administration with judges and police," Badran says. "We need funds for vaccines to prevent disease."

Tal Rifaat's story is duplicated in most neighboring towns. These are not radical Salafists, but Syrians desperately trying to reorganize a new, de facto administration.

If the Seif plan works, a new Syrian national council will provide an address through which aid can reach towns such as Tal Rifaat. If it fails, the concept will have to be re-created. Whoever wins the U.S. election must find a way to expedite a transition government composed of many Ali Badrans - if we want to prevent a Syrian implosion that feeds the message of radical Islam.


E-mail Trudy Rubin

at trubin@phillynews.com.

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