Foreign Policy: Why Can’t the Syrian Opposition Get Along?

September 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Kate Seeyle

Kate Seelye is Vice President of the Middle East Institute. Prior to joining MEI, she worked as a radio and television journalist covering the Arab world from her base in Beirut, Lebanon.

The buoyant images of Libya’s rebels, who are currently tearing down the last vestiges of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, have also underscored the challenges facing the fragmented opposition in another Arab country — Syria. Five months after the start of an uprising against President Bashar Assad that has left more than 2,200 people dead, dissidents are still struggling to forge a united front that could duplicate the role played by Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC).

The TNC was created just 12 days after the start of the Libyan uprising, quickly organizing resistance to Gadhafi within the country and lobbying for support on the international stage. By contrast, the opponents of Assad’s regime have held gatherings in Antalya, Turkey; Brussels; Istanbul; and even Damascus, the Syrian capital, to shape the opposition’s leadership and articulate a road map toward a democratic Syria. But as of yet, Syrian activists in the diaspora have failed to establish an umbrella group that has earned the endorsement of the only body that can confer legitimacy — the protest organizers inside Syria.

Although Assad’s brutal crackdown has undoubtedly made this a difficult task, the absence of a united front has hindered the opposition’s ability to effectively communicate to regime-change skeptics that there is a credible alternative to the Assad government.
The disarray in the anti-Assad camp is recognized all too well in Washington. “I think the [international] pressure requires an organized opposition, and there isn’t one,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when asked on Aug. 11 why the United States didn’t throw more weight behind the protest movement. “There’s no address for the opposition. There is no place that any of us who wish to assist can go.”
Given the lack of a recognized leadership, different Syrian groups — mainly based in the diaspora — have been jockeying to assert themselves. Most recently, on Aug. 29 young dissidents speaking on behalf of a revolutionary youth group inside Syria named a 94-person council to represent the Syrian opposition. At a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, Syrian dissident Ziyaeddin Dolmus announced that the respected Paris-based academic Burhan Ghalioun would head the so-called Syrian National Council, which would also comprise the crème de la crème of Syria’s traditional opposition.

Dolmus said the council would include many of the traditional opposition figures based in Damascus, such as former parliamentarian Riad Seif, activist Suhair Atassi, and economist Aref Dalila. “Delays [in forming a council] return our people to bloodshed,” he said at the news conference, which was broadcast by Al-Jazeera.
But no sooner had the council been announced than it started to unravel. When contacted by the media, Ghalioun and the others quickly distanced themselves from the announcement, claiming they had no prior knowledge of it, according to reports in the Arabic press. Later, Ghalioun denied any association with the group on his Facebook page.
One Washington-based Syrian activist, Mohammad al-Abdallah — whose father, Ali al-Abdallah was named to the council — dismissed it as a joke.
Others said it was an attempt by young revolutionaries, upset over the lack of progress, to put forward a wish list of opposition members.
U.S.-based Syrian activist Yaser Tabbara, who had helped organize a gathering of anti-government Syrians a week before in Istanbul, called it “an earnest attempt by youth to reach out and demand that we move faster than we have been.”
According to Tabbara, the Istanbul conference that concluded on Aug. 23, was motivated by a similar sense of urgency. “It has been five months since the uprising started, and we don’t yet have a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Assad and his cohorts for their massacres,” said Tabbara. “Part of the reason is that some in the international community, like India, Brazil, and South Africa, do not see a viable alternative to this regime.”
The four-day Istanbul gathering, according to organizers, sought to unite all the efforts of previous opposition efforts under one banner.
Few of the groups or individuals from previous opposition gatherings attended the meeting, however. Members representing a consultative committee that emerged from a June opposition gathering in Antalya withdrew at the last minute, claiming, according to Reuters, that it “did not build on earlier efforts to unite the opposition.”
The conference was further handicapped by what Syrian journalist Tammam al-Barazi called “the perception that it was held under an American umbrella.” Its organizers included members of a grassroots community group based in Illinois, the Syrian American Council.
Although dismaying, the opposition’s divisions and sniping are hardly surprising. Most activists grew up under the Assad family’s authoritarian rule, and their differences reflect the many divisions inside Syrian society, which is split by sect and ethnicity as well as ideology. The opposition includes Arab nationalists and liberals with little trust for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose supporters were accused of dominating the first Istanbul conference organized in July by a leading human rights lawyer, Haitham al-Maleh.

Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Consensus After Big Win

June 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Pinar Aydinli and Ibon Villelabeitia

2011-06-12T211440Z_1243616371_GM1E76D0ER301_RTRMADP_3_TURKEY-ELECTION

Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, with a slogan reads that “We are Turkey together” in the background, greets his supporters at the AK Party headquarters in Ankara June 12, 2011. Erdogan’s ruling AK Party was set to win Sunday’s parliamentary election with 50.2 percent of the vote, but looked unlikely to get enough seats to call a referendum on a planned new constitution.

REUTERS/Umit Bektas

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will start a third term of one-party rule strengthened by Sunday’s decisive election victory but also burdened by the need for consensus to push ahead with plans for a new constitution.

Erdogan will have to focus first on a pressing foreign policy issue right on his borders: unrest in neighboring Syria has led to nearly 7,000 Syrian fleeing to Turkey to escape a brutal crackdown by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, with more coming every day.

But analysts said Erdogan also must find ways to revive a stalled bid for membership of the European Union and break down French and German reluctance to let Turkey in.

Erdogan, whose AK Party has transformed Muslim Turkey into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and ended a cycle of military coups, won 49.9 percent of the vote, or 326 seats, in Sunday’s parliamentary election.

The vote was AK’s biggest electoral tally since it first came to power in 2002 but the party failed to win the 330 seats it needed to call a referendum to recast the constitution, written almost 30 years ago during a period of military rule.

Financial markets were cheered on Monday as investors saw the mixed result forcing the AK Party to compromise with others to make the constitutional change. The Turkish lira strengthened against the dollar and bonds also gained.

“The new constitution requires consensus and dialogue with other parties and the society at large,” Cengiz Aktar, a professor at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, told Reuters.

“We will see if Erdogan is ready for these with his majority or will he go his own way and impose his own views on Turkey — in which case we will have difficult times.”

Turkish newspapers lauded his success.

“Turkey loves him,” “The master of the ballot box,” said front page headlines next to pictures of a smiling Erdogan waving to cheering supporters outside party headquarters.

Critics fear Erdogan, who has a reputation for being intolerant of criticism, might use the victory to cement power, limit freedoms and persecute opponents.

In a victory speech before thousands of flag-waving supporters in the capital Ankara on Sunday night, he pledged “humility” and said he would work with rivals.

“People gave us a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation. We will discuss the new constitution with opposition parties. This new constitution will meet peace and justice demands.”

The new leader of the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which garnered its best result in more than 30 years with 25.9 percent of the vote, warned Erdogan that he would be watching his movements closely.

“We wish all success to AKP, but they must remember there’s a stronger main opposition party now,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu said.

Analysts saw scope for political turbulence in Turkey.

“The anticipated preparation of a new constitution has the potential to create significant political uncertainty, as it may well raise profound and controversial issues related to the division of power, secularism, religion, nationalism and ethnic minority rights,” Ed Parker, Fitch’s Head of EMEA Sovereign Ratings, said in a statement issued on Monday.

MODEL FOR ARAB SPRING

Turkey and Erdogan’s party are often are cited as models for supporters of democracy living through the “Arab Spring” series of anti-authoritarian protests in parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
But opponents say Erdogan, whose party evolved from banned Islamist movements, is imposing a conservative social agenda.

Since crushing old establishment parties on a wave of support from a rising middle class of religious Turks, Erdogan has challenged the secularist military and judiciary with reforms meant to help Turkey meet EU standards of democracy.

He also has set the long-time NATO member and U.S. ally on a more assertive foreign policy course, building closer relations with Middle East countries, including Iran.

Some financial analysts had warned that too large an AK majority could polarize a country that is deeply divided over the role of religion and ethnic minorities.

A limited majority is seen making the government focus on macroeconomic imbalances, including an overheating economy.

There has been speculation that Erdogan would seek to move Turkey toward a more presidential system of government, with the ultimate aim of becoming president himself.

Besides the economy, Erdogan’s government also will need to tackle a separatist conflict in the mainly Kurdish southeast. A strong showing by the pro-Kurdish BDP in the Kurdish region played a role in denying the AK a bigger vote haul.

On Sunday night, a percussion bomb exploded in southeast Turkey, injuring 11 people celebrating election victories of Kurdish candidates, security and hospital officials said.

The explosion occurred around 11 p.m. (4 p.m. ET) in the province of Sirnak, near the Iraqi border. Casualties were being treated at a nearby hospital.

(Additional reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore, Ece Toksabay, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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