The new head of Syria’s main opposition group has urged government officials to defect from a regime that is “on its last legs,” echoing similar demands by the rebel Free Syrian Army, which also called for a campaign of mass “civil disobedience” and a general strike to increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime.
“We are entering a sensitive phase. The regime is on its last legs,” Kurdish activist Abdel Basset Sayda (above, right) said in an interview after being appointed leader of the Syrian National Council.
He also sought to reassure minority groups by offering guarantees for their rights and safety in a future, democratic Syria.
“We will expand and extend the base of the council,” he told reporters, “so it will take on its role as an umbrella under which all the opposition will seek shade.”
The rate of military defections has reached its highest level, says Ausama Monajed, a leading official of the SNC. Hundreds of troops switched to the opposition in Idlib and Homs, while a strategic air defense battalion, armed with anti-air and anti-tanks missiles, has also joined rebel ranks.
Sayda replaced Burhan Ghalioun (above, left) , who resigned last month amidst growing internal acrimony over the Muslim Brotherhood’s disproportionate influence and the SNC’s distance from the Syria-based Local Co-ordination Committees, which lead the anti-government protests on the ground.
A secular Kurd who has lived in Sweden for the past 17 years, Sayda “emerged as the consensus choice precisely because he represents no one, either inside Syria or out,” analysts suggest:
Both the Muslim Brotherhood and liberals in the council concluded that he did not pose a threat or provide an advantage to any bloc within the council, they said, but for the same reasons he will have little real authority, and the bickering will continue.
“Younger activists are understandably frustrated by the SNC’s impotence,” one observer notes:
They speak of their anger against those older activists they believe are trying to dominate the SNC to ensure they get good positions in post-Assad Syria, and neglecting the needs of the fighters on the ground. …..They are the ones pushing for a wholesale restructuring of the council, to make it more democratic. But one of the SNC’s founding members, Basma Kodmani, explained that this is the inevitable nature of a broad-based movement.
We have idealists and political opportunists under the same roof, and we have to learn to get along, she said – this is politics, something Syria has not had for more than 40 years.
The appointment of Sieda is being portrayed as a bid to broaden the opposition by rallying Syria’s 1 million Kurds, Reuters reports.
“Opposition figures are also portraying his election as a sign that Syria’s various minorities, who worry about their safety in a post-Assad Syria run by the majority Sunni population, would be safe,” reports suggest.
SNC officials say the election confirms that the Syrian opposition is “committed to upholding democratic principles and the idea of a ‘leaderless revolution’,” the New York Times reports:
“The ideal leadership of the council is not through one person — because no one is elected and has actual legitimacy,” said Bassma Kodmani, a member of the executive committee. Until such time as there are free elections in Syria, she said, the choice of the president of the council should be made by consensus.
“The revolution does not want to see a big leader, or one individual who leads everything,” Ms. Kodmani said. “Personalization leads to polarization.”
“Syrians have abandoned the regime in spirit, even if they have yet to defect in body,” according to Joshua Landis.
The recent massacres in Houla and al-Qubair indicate that the regime can no longer rely on the regular army to suppress protests and is now relying on the sectarian Alawite shabiha militia. The Sunni merchant class, a bastion of the regime, is also beginning to turn against Assad, says Landis.
“The revolution is popping up everywhere now. The heart of Damascus is now involved,” he notes. “When the merchants of Hamadiya – the main souq – go on strike, you know you have lost the conscience and heart of Damascus. The Sunni bourgeoisie has now turned on the regime.”
The revolution is coming to Damascus, writes Julien Barnes-Dacey, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, formerly based in Syria from 2007 to 2010:
Recently, security forces opened fire in the center of the capital to disperse a small gathering of peaceful demonstrators just a few hundred meters from parliament. The mood has markedly shifted away from the regime over the last couple of months. The decision by Damascene merchants to go on an unprecedented strike in response to the Houla killings marked an important escalation of local defiance. Many Damascus suburbs fall under effective rebel control at night. Anti-regime protests are spreading to districts like Midan and Kafr Sousa, just minutes from downtown Damascus.
According to analyst Muhammad Ali, Syria’s business class is approaching a tipping point: Merchants have finally decided to enter the crisis due to economic distress and slumping profits, the extortion by which the regime pays its Shabiha thugs, and civilian casualties in neighborhoods of Damascus. The massacre at Houla and further slaughters only strengthen the resolve of the merchants, mostly Sunni, against the largely Alawite regime.
The opposition’s gains over recent days reflect growing international efforts to provide assistance to rebel forces, say analysts.
The arming of the opposition has gained momentum, Roula Khalaf writes in the Financial Times:
Gulf-backed moves to arm Syria’s opposition are gaining momentum amid growing flows of funds and weapons and a better organization of deliveries to fighters on the ground. Syrian activists say more significant funds are now coming from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in addition to a regular flow of donations from Syrian expatriates and some wealthy individuals in Syria. The new arms include anti-tank missiles and account for the apparent sharp rise in attacks. At least 20 tanks or armored personnel carriers have been burned in the past week.
“The rebels now control a widening swath of territory in north and central Syria,” says McClatchy’s David Enders:
They use it as a base for storing and manufacturing weapons and for launching attacks against government soldiers in previously peaceful parts of the country. In May, at least 404 government soldiers and police officers lost their lives in combat with the rebels, according to burial notices published by the Syrian government news agency, SANA. In June, SANA reported the burial of 150 soldiers in just the first seven days of the month. In March, SANA reported only 176 deaths; in April, 363.
Rebel units show none of the desperation for weapons and ammunition that plagued them as recently as February. One unit on Friday proudly displayed six new Belgian FAL assault rifles along with ammunition – gifts, the rebels said, from Saudi Arabia.
“The opposition is a long way from producing the sort of coordination and command that can march on the Presidential Palace,” says Landis, editor of the Syria Comment blog, “but today, one can imagine the day when it will summon the strength to do it.”