Syrian Dissent in Tahrir: Losing Faith in the Arab League


Syrian protestor Omar al-Omar during his sit-in in Egypt. Omar says his brother was killed during the Syrian uprising. (Photo: Serene Assir)

By: Serene Assir

In Cairo, Syrian supporters of the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime are losing faith in the Arab League. Some want the international community to intervene, while others believe the only solution is an internal one born out of the Syrian public protest movement.
Currently, Tahrir Square is home not only to protesters demanding the fall of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). At the gates of the Arab League, Syrian opposition youth have pitched tents alongside groups of pro-revolution activists from Yemen and Bahrain.
Their common goal is to push the Arab League to take a stand against their respective governments. The fence guarding the Arab League is draped in an Egyptian flag, alongside Bahraini and French mandate-period Syrian flags. Police stand guard silently without intervening in the sit-ins.
On Saturday, the Arab League is set to hold an emergency session on Syria, on the back of the Assad regime’s confirmation that it will accept international monitors.
Syrian anti-regime activists started their sit-in at the gates of the Arab League around six weeks ago, said Abdel Rahman Zoghbi. Former active Baath Party member turned political prisoner, Zoghbi has lived in Cairo for almost four years and holds UN refugee status. The sit-in, he said, has seen about 50 to 70 Syrians participating each day, while around seven to 10 have been spending the night there.
The action began as a way to garner support from the Arab League. Now it has turned into a sit-in protesting the 22-member state organization’s “ineffectiveness in the face of the Assad regime’s crimes against the Syrians,” Zoghbi said. “The Arab League’s actions so far have led to nothing: the killing is ongoing in Syria.”

After supporting international intervention in Libya earlier this year, the Arab League “froze” the membership of Syria, one of its founding members, on November 12. On November 27, it also approved sanctions which would prohibit senior Syrian officials from travelling to other member states, as well as any financial transactions with the country’s Central Bank.

But to Moomen Kweifatia, Cairo-based president of the Media Committee for the Coordination of the Syrian Revolution in Egypt, Arab League Secretary General “Nabil al-Arabi is a traitor. We won’t get real protection from the Arab League, because its member states refuse to stand up to Iran. Assad has the protection not only of Iran, but also Iraq under Nouri al-Maliki, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

Kweifatia has lived in Egypt since June this year. He was previously based in Bulgaria, where he was detained by the authorities after he started to speak out publicly against the Syrian regime. “I feared for my life when, whilst in detention, I was told my identity had been forged, and that the Bulgarian authorities claimed my place of birth was Israel,” Kweifatia said. “In the end it was the Bulgarian secret police that helped me flee the country.”

With the political agendas of more prominent Syrian opposition figures disputed even within anti-Assad regime circles, there were various shades to the intensity of calls for international intervention in Syria. Kweifatia’s position was among the most radical, referring to Hezbollah as “the party of the Devil,” “set up jointly by Israel, Iran and Syria.”

Other, more temperate Cairo-based opposition figures included Mamoun Homsi, longtime opposition figure and signatory to the 2006 Beirut Declaration, which called on the Syrian regime to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty. “The Syrian people have decided that the regime must fall. Nobody has a right to get in their way,” Homsi said.

Though more moderate in his language than Kweifatia, Homsi also believed there is no way out of the crisis without international intervention. “It is the Syrian regime’s ongoing violence that is pushing us in this direction. Of course, calling for international intervention is shameful. But the situation is unsustainable,” he said. “At this stage, the only language the regime will understand is force.”

To some opposition figures in Cairo, the danger that a civil, or even a regional war may break out should the international community intervene, is exaggerated. But activist, poet, and writer Khalil Ojail said that without intervention, civil war is unlikely. “The regime, and not the people, is sectarian. The regime has threatened us with sectarian war since the start of the revolution. In Syria, we do not have a culture of sectarianism.”

Homsi and Kweifatia say their calls for international intervention are addressed to the UN Security Council, not NATO or any of its member states. Backing his argument with the UN Charter, Homsi said he would have preferred things did not come to this stage. “But I simply see no other solution,” he said.

Some Syrian opponents to the regime still believe there is hope for the revolution, without resorting to the Security Council or the imposition of a no-fly zone. Dissident poet Ojail, who said he has spent a total of nine years of his life in Syrian jails for political crimes, warned of its dangers. “There is a Bedouin proverb that says, you cannot celebrate if your brother is killed by an outsider. Every intervention in the region by foreign powers in the name of democracy and freedom has led to the death of thousands,” Ojail said.

Seated at a coffee shop in downtown Cairo, the air alive with discussion on local and regional politics, Ojail remained hopeful that the Assad regime would fall soon. “The revolution has begun,” he said. “There’s no going back now. It may take a little longer if it means we need to rely on the Syrian people to persist in their peaceful struggle, and on the defecting army officers to fight, but that is the only way we make sure that we remain sovereign.”

To him, intervention could cause a sectarian war to break out. He believed that the Arab League should continue to negotiate, even if that meant the fall of the regime might take a longer time.

Asked whether he felt represented by any of the opposition forces or prominent figures that have emerged in the wake of a revolution that broke out nine months ago, Ojail said he did not mistrust their intentions, but that he was more focused on the fall of the Assad regime than critiquing the opposition as it stood.

To him, it barely mattered on the long run who was playing politics as long as the regime stayed in place. “It’s the people on the inside who are struggling and paying the price in blood. The regime will fall because people have willed it to,” he said. “Though I hated his actions, I agree with the words of Hafez Assad. He once said that there is nothing stronger than the will of God, and the will of the people.”

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