After seven months of wrangling to form a cohesive opposition movement, Syrian activists finally pulled it off with the formal announcement in Istanbul of the Syrian National Council (SNC), a body that mirrors the Libyan opposition’s National Transitional Council in seeking international recognition. But the opposition group, which formed in Istanbul and is headquartered there, appears to be increasingly influenced by the Turkish government, which has so far played a significant role in helping to usher Syria toward a post-Assad era.
There are some good reasons to have confidence in the SNC. The group began by reaffirming its desire to see a democratic Syria with constitutional guarantees on civil and political rights. It also says it rejects foreign military intervention, arguing that the only way to topple Assad is through "peaceful" and "legal" means. Many of its top officials — such as prominent U.S.-based dissident Radwan Ziadeh, newly appointed the head of the SNC’s foreign affairs bureau, and Paris-based university professor Burhan Ghalioum, a member of the body’s presidential council — are secular, intelligent, and friendly to the West.
In 2007, Ghalioun went on Al Jazeera and said, in Arabic, that the two biggest problems besetting the Arab world were dictatorship and clerical control of the media, adding that these were mutually reinforcing.
Of the SNC’s 230-member General Assembly, 55 seats are designated for grassroots domestic groups. Twenty seats apiece have also gone to selected special interests: Kurds, the Muslim Brotherhood, the "Damascus Declaration" (a group of reformist intellectuals who emerged briefly in 2000 on the mistaken assumption that Assad, newly in power, would be an improvement on his tyrannical father), and independents. Another 20 are saved for any additional stakeholders who may join the SNC at a later date. The Muslim Brotherhood, which belatedly joined the body en masse, appears to be over-represented. Although they now hold 20 seats in the General Assembly and another 5 seats in the Secretariat, Hafez al-Assad all but destroyed the movement in the 1980s. Syrian oppositionists I’ve interviewed in the past several months say they believe that Islamists represent, at most, 30 percent of the opposition — and that figure, they say, is confined mainly to the ranks of the diaspora.
Nevertheless, the Brotherhood, along with a collection of independent Islamists, have wielded significant influence within the SNC, owing largely to the Obama administration’s "lead from behind" strategy in Syria, which has left Turkey as the main liaison to the opposition.
Turkish Prime MinisterRecep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) almost certainly prefer a fellow Sunni government in Syria to replace the current Alawite regime. Although previously friendly to Assad, AKP’s Turkey has since taken the lead among Islamic nations in condemning the regime’s violence. Turkey has hosted the majority of Syrian opposition conferences on its soil, from Istanbul to Antalya. Ten thousand Syrian refugees who fled a massacre in the Idleb province last June are currently living in tents on the Turkish border. Erdogan probably reckons that if he can’t rein in the Syrian regime’s terror, he’d better cultivate the inevitable alternatives. Turkey will wish to salvage its strong commercial relations with its southern neighbor. But it’s more than that: the chance to lure Syria away from Shia Iran and toward fellow a Sunni Muslim power is likely too tantalizing to pass up. If Assad falls, then Iran will lose its only state ally in the Levant, weakening Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon and almost certainly ending the Hamas politburo’s residence in Damascus.
Since the Arab Spring kicked off, Erdogan has attempted to play a larger role in Arab politics, giving a recent speech in Egypt that included, among other things, public advice on how Egyptians shouldn’t be wary of "secular" democracy. When Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which had rapturously received Erdogan in Cairo, blanched at the use of the term "secular," Erdogan said that he’d been mistranslated in the national press and that he wasn’t referring to the Western model.
The trouble is, Turkey’s credibility among many Syrian protesters plummeted in recent weeks after it was reported that Turkish intelligence agents may have been involved in the abduction of Lieutenant Colonel Hussain Harmoush, a leading figure in the Free Syrian Army, a contingent of defected soldiers. Harmoush went missing on August 29, after which his brother quickly claimed that he’d been ambushed in a Turkish refugee camp after government security contacts betrayed him, handing him over to Assad’s infamous mukhabarat secret police. Turkey denies any responsibility and has vowed to conduct a government inquiry. But the damage was done. Erdogan’s convoy in Egypt was surrounded last month by angry Syrians chanting "Erdogan coward" and "Erdogan, where is Harmoush?" Shortly thereafter, Harmoush appeared on Syrian state TV where he made an abject "confession," almost certainly forced, that blamed every imaginary bugbear for the regime’s troubles except the regime itself. Fellow activists now fear him dead.
Another headache for Ankara will be the SNC’s National Consensus Charter language on Kurdish rights, which are tightly curtailed in Turkey. The charter calls for "constitutional recognition of Kurdish national identity and the creation of a just democratic formula for the Kurdish question within the framework of unity of the homeland." Though vague (does this allow for a semi-autonomous Kurdish governorate in Syria? formal recognition of the Kurdish language?) it is far more broad-minded than any AKP policy on Turkey’s own restive Kurdish population, which can now point to the Turkish-backed SNC and say, "What about us?" The Assad regime is increasingly aggressive against Syrian Kurds‘ participation in this revolution: Syrian forces recently assassinated Kurdish SNC member Mishal Tammo and closed the border with Turkey to prevent more Kurds from coming in to demonstrate.
Syrian security forces have, in the last several weeks, conducted a dragnet of prominent activists as well as rebel soldiers, thought to be as many as 10,000. Rape and organ theft are allegedly new state policies of intimidation and repression. Armed protestors in Homs have lately begun to fight back, and in a sectarian fashion, fueling speculation that Syria is now poised for a full-on civil war — exactly the outcome Assad has long tried to provoke.
The situation is dire and bound to get worse. The SNC’s responsibility now is to shore up international recognition and go the way of the Libyans in presenting a coherent framework for democratic government. Syria’s transition stands to be the most dangerous and crucial for the Middle East — as Turkey plays a greater role with the Syrian opposition, it will have an ever-larger say in the political landscape of post-Assad Syria.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that the government of Al-Assad will fall under pressure of protests and sanctions. With a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Syria now seven months old, Western powers including France are relying on a combination of sanctions and diplomatic pressure to weaken Assad’s hold on power. The United Nations has estimated more than 3,000 Syrians have died since the start of crackdown.
The European Union widened sanctions against Assad and the Syrian state after China and Russia blocked an attempt by Western powers to bring about a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning violence against protesters.
"It’s true that in New York (at the United Nations) we were blocked, and that is a stain on the Security Council, which said almost nothing about this barbaric repression," Juppe said on France Inter radio.
"This will end with the fall of the regime, it is nearly unavoidable, but unfortunately it could take time because the situation is complex, because there is a risk of civil war between Syrian factions, because surrounding Arab countries do not want us to intervene."
Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi dead; Hosni Mubarak and family behind bars with millions of dollars of assets frozen; President Ben Ali of Tunisia sentenced to 35 years in absentia; the Bosnian war criminal Ratko Mladic awaiting trial in the Hague. We can take a moment to recognise that sometimes things go astonishingly well – the removal of these five characters from the picture is a blessing.
Whatever doubts we have about Gaddafi’s death and the absence of due process (if you can’t even decide where to bury a man, it is a good rule not to kill him), his death is a bracing lesson for the likes of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who is torturing young demonstrators to death, and President Saleh of Yemen and King Hamad of Bahrain, both of whom are drenched in the blood of their countrymen.
The knowledge that just 12 months ago Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi all looked untouchable must cause the goofy-looking butcher of Damascus and his fragrant missus to clutch at each other in the wee small hours.
The Nato intervention was right and I would say that now, even if it had not gone so well for the rebels in the last three months. At the time the decision was taken, I was in Tunisia, in the stunned aftermath of Ben Ali’s departure, looking up the timeline of the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, when General Mladic separated the men from the women and young children and went on to murder 8,000 people. Benghazi, the eastern city where Gaddafi did his military training, was as vulnerable as the Bosniak enclave. His mercenaries would have created a bloodbath if they had not been driven from the outskirts as the first air strikes began.
I wasn’t optimistic – Libya seemed too vast, Gaddafi too cunning and the rebel forces hopelessly amateur. And there were doubts whether air power alone could achieve the result that it did. But after 26,000 air sorties and 9,600 strike missions, and a lot of blood spilled, the regime is no more and David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy can quietly take a bow. Both are nimble politicians, yet it is not unduly naive to believe they were influenced by the memory of what happened in Bosnia.
There is always a basic moral requirement to intervene, but any decision to act must gauge risk and the likelihood of achieving success. The seemingly pragmatic considerations also contain a moral element, because the interventionist obviously has an obligation not to inflame local opinion or create a situation worse than the one he is seeking to alleviate. These conditions were met in Libya, yet there was the additional incentive of the country’s "sweet, light" crude and the reserves of 46.4bn barrels, which have nothing to do with morality or Srebrenica.
Stage two of the Arab Spring begins today with elections in Tunisia for the Constituent Assembly, in which the Islamist party An-Nahda, led by Rachid Ghannouchi, is likely to do well. This is the first big test for the west because we have to allow the people who risked everything on the streets to develop their own politics and democratic processes.
Nor should we allow ourselves to be spooked by what happens in the Egyptian elections on 28 November, when the Muslim Brotherhood‘s well-organised political wing, the Freedom and Justice party, is expected to trounce nascent secular parties. Admittedly, this will not be the greatest outcome. Quite apart from the Islamists’ failure to reconcile their declared support for rights and civil liberties with the deeper convictions of religious authoritarianism, the generation of devout men likely to take power is hardly equipped to address, or properly understand, the problems of the young people who took to the streets Tunis and Cairo.
The thing that so few have really absorbed about the revolutions is that they were generational – the young rising against the tyranny and corruption but also the incompetence of their parents’ generation. The first demonstrations in the Arab Spring occurred in the Tunisian provincial city of Sidi Bouzid, where a young man set himself on fire because officials confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling without a permit. Like so many of his contemporaries, Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, could not find proper work.
Youth unemployment and the grinding lack of hope are the source of the most serious social and political problems across the Arab world. The unemployment rate among Tunisians under 25 is about 26%. Half of the 60,000 graduates released on to the jobs market every year will not find work. These are the well-educated and highly organised single young people who had nothing to lose during the uprising and have gained very little in material terms since.
To grasp what happened in Tahrir Square, you must know that 54 million of Egypt’s population of 82 million are under 30 years old and this age group makes up 90% of the country’s unemployed. The very highest rates of joblessness are among the well educated.
The UK’s median age is 40. Across the Arab world, it hovers in the mid-20s. In Egypt, it is 24.3, Libya 24.5, Tunisia 30 and Syria 21.9. Factor in regular unemployment rates in the Middle East of 25% among the young – even in the rich Gulf states – and you know that we are only at the beginning of this particular story.
The sophistication of this new generation of Arabs should not be underestimated. They require far more than sermons about prayer and clean living from middle-aged chaps to make lives for themselves in the 21st century. They will need freedom, empathy and technocratic as well as political leadership to create the jobs that will ensure stability and peace. When you talk to these educated young adults, as I did earlier this year in Tunis and Cairo, it is striking how well they appreciate that democratic change depends on job creation. Yes, they declare their faith, but it’s a given – not something they want to go on about.
If the west wants permanent change in North Africa, we have to recognise the potential of this new generation and find ways of providing stimulus and investment, even as we struggle to create jobs for our own young people. That is the only intervention open to us now and in some ways it is much more demanding.
In Libya, the guns need to be put away, a national army and police force set up and proper courts founded. The first test of the new civil society must be to give a scrupulously honest account of how the former dictator met his end. The new republic will not be served by a cover-up and by spokesmen for the National Transitional Council lying through their boots. As the graffiti that appeared in Tripoli this weekend reads: "Clean it up and keep it clean".