As members of Syria’s opposition filed into the conference center from the rain, past a small army of security officials and fierce-looking bomb-sniffing dogs, the mood amongst the exiled Syrian dissidents was clearly tense. After three days of discussions, marking the Syrian National Council’s (SNC) first congressional session to date, the faces of the various members of the opposition wore expressions of fatigue and worry. However, the words of the SNC representatives conveyed a spirit of determination and hope.
As Burhan Ghalioun, the French-Syrian exile and Chairperson of the SNC, took the stage with a panel of his colleagues, the chatter amongst the opposition members and guests settled, until the only sound that could be heard was that of the rain pattering against the roof.
The Chair’s speech denounced numerous atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime. Ghalioun paused at times to announce the deaths and detainments of Syrian civilians occurring while he spoke, reading aloud wires that were passed to him from his staff. Ghalioun cited human rights violations, which have been committed on a daily basis by the Assad regime since the onset of the uprising in March, as evidence that Assad had utterly lost its legitimacy to rule.
Omar al Hariri, a demonstrations’ coordinator for the SNC, described his involvement in the protests that began in his hometown of Daraa. “Of course I participated!” he said excitedly, “We all did. The protests began on March 15th, and, God willing, they won’t stop until Bashar is gone.”
On March 6, 2011, a group of boys were arrested in Daraa for writing, “The people want the regime to fall,” on city walls. The boys were reported to have been badly abused while in custody, sparking a protest on March 15th - referred to as, “The Day of Rage.” From March onward, the protest movement has escalated exponentially, and the subsequent government crackdown has resulted in the deaths of at least 5,000 Syrians.
Hariri’s tone dampened considerably when he recalled the predicament that his family and friends continue to face, “It frightens me that my family is still in Daraa. The regime has resorted to killing old people, women, and children. Assad is a murderer.”
In spite of the substantial obstacles that remain in the path of the opposition movement, Omar remains confident and resolute that the SNC will eventually succeed in toppling the regime. He also mentioned that it would be impossible to do so without the help of the Free Syrian Army, a group of officers that have defected from Assad’s military apparatus. “The Free Syrian Army has thousands of volunteers, and their membership grows every day. We cannot win this fight without an armed resistance.”
The SNC Chairman asserted during his speech that his organization was committed to non-violence, and insisted that the Free Syrian Army needed to focus primarily on the protection of civilians. However, he also stated that he was not opposed to the offensive use of force, either from the Free Syrian Army or a detachment from the Arab League, should, “certain circumstances in certain areas,” demand it.
Additionally, Ghalioun clarified the role that the Arab League and members of the United Nations need to play to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. Though he rejected the notion of a military intervention from the broader international community, he advocated for the imposition of a buffer-zone operated by forces contributed by Arab League member-states.
Omar Hariri also reiterated the need for a stronger response from the international community. “The international community cannot ignore the human rights violations occurring on a daily basis in Syria. We don’t want military intervention, but economic sanctions are not enough. We need a buffer-area to be instated as a place to keep the Syrian people safe,” he stated
Hariri went further than Ghalioun to say, “We need a no-fly zone setup over the country. Help us to fund and arm the Free Syrian Army.”
“The Syrian people are one, and our movement will not stop its struggle until the Assad regime falls.” Hariri concluded.
In light of the intricate patchwork of minority groups in Syria, the potential for an eruption of internal conflict amongst these various constituencies has been a prevalent concern among outside observers of the current crisis. Bashar al-Assad, himself hailing from the Alawite minority in Syria, has repeatedly asserted that his regime is all that stands to protect Syria’s minorities from religious zealotry.
Ghalioun continually reaffirmed that the Syrian people are unified, and that the rights of minority groups would be legally guaranteed should the SNC succeed in toppling the Assad regime.
Rabhan Ramadan, a Kurdish leader of the Syrian-Kurdish Union and a member of the SNC, asserted that Assad’s claims regarding the dangers that face Syria’s minorities are unfounded. “The Syrian people are united. Arabs and Kurds have been living side-by-side harmoniously in Syria for over a thousand years. We are all Syrians first,” Ramadan said.
Ramadan also stated that the regime was never a proponent of minority rights. “The regime passed racist laws against the Kurdish community. It was forbidden to teach our language in schools. Assad’s government is a murderous regime that spreads lies,” he said.
Ghalioun concluded his speech by asserting that the SNC would be successful in toppling the Assad regime by employing a three-pronged effort to: increase coordination between the SNC and local opposition groups, work with the Free Syrian Army to ensure that civilians are protected, and cooperate with the international community to apply the necessary pressure to ensure that the Assad regime is removed from power.
The congress, held in the Tunis-suburb of Gammarth, came to a close with an announcement that the Tunisian government plans to officially recognize the SNC. This decision coincides with official recognitions of the organization’s legitimacy issued by Libya, France, Spain, Bulgaria, and the United States.