The Syrian Opposition’s “National Initiative for Change”: A Missed Opportunity


Given the atrocities currently committed in Syria and the spectacularly bad press this generates for the regime, one would think that issuing an effective petition calling for political change in this country would be an easy task.  All such a petition needs to do is to jump on the bandwagon of rapidly mounting protests and express the deeply felt anger across large sections of the Syrian population.  In addition, any serious public appeal would demonstrate that there is a viable alternative to the regime, by way of clever proposals for political change and an impressive list of signatories from Syria’s brightest and most respected minds.  Yet somehow the initiators of the “National Initiative for Change” managed to do none of all this.  Released on 29 April, its statement entitled “Syrian Opposition Demand the Army to Protect Civilians and Facilitate a Transitional Period” instead reveals the gathering’s ineptness.1  Receiving wide media pre-coverage,2 it ostensibly intended to pull still hesitating Syrians off the fence.  Yet the petition rather seems to vindicate the regime’s very few and increasingly obsolete arguments in favor of continued authoritarian rule face-lifted by some token reform measures.  In short, the mere 900 words that make up the petition expose some serious shortcomings of the Syrian opposition in overcoming the obstacles to the very transition of power it hopes to achieve.

The petition at first moves on solid ground when it refers to the wave of dramatic political change sweeping through the region as constituting the background against which it becomes “imperative that we put an end to the arguments of Syrian exception.”  Yet trouble quickly starts when its authors try to turn one of the regime’s arguments in favor of business as usual — there will be chaos and bloodshed without us — upside down by placing responsibility for such chaos and violence squarely on the regime’s henchmen if they continue to resist leading a democratic transition themselves.  A political scientist from the school of democratic “transitology” no doubt will agree with this assessment and, in a few years’ time, likely write a scathing critique of how the regime handled the uprising.  Yet, for the more politically conservative Syrian who today may still need quite some persuasion to get involved in the risky business of revolution, the clashes between security forces and protestors in front of his house forebode even more violent scenarios of unimaginable proportions — all the more reason to lock his door even more firmly and wait for better times.

The pamphlet rambles on calling for all kinds of desired policy measures no one would contend with: imposing institutional checks and balances, judicial reform, measures against corruption, and lifting the state of emergency.  At this stage the reader may be forgiven for thinking that he is plowing through a press statement of the official Syrian news agency as it was President Bashar al-Assad who already put the very same mantra of reform at the heart of his own response to the uprising.  Indeed, our imaginary Syrian conservative whom the petition-makers ostensibly hope to pull off the fence may yawn at so much discursive resemblance and wonder what the fuss is all about.  Yet when the petition proceeds to attempt to distinguish itself from the regime’s narrative, it does so with a bang that prompts the less adventurously-inclined Syrian to fully barricade his front door: “Above all comes the granting of all political rights to Kurds. . . .”  Of course, whether intended or not, all political rights as opposed to perfectly legitimate civil rights carry connotations of a sliding scale of concessions starting at autonomy and ending with calls for secession.  While Syrian Kurdish leaders over the last few years have been at pains to emphasize that their intention is not to replicate maximalist Kurdish agendas in northern Iraq, the current petition in contrast has no eye for the subtleties such assurances ought to entail.  All the petition does in this respect is to place Iraq — especially in Syria a byword for violence, sectarianism, and chaos — at the doorstep of the “silent majority” whose support the regime still claims to enjoy.

In times of revolution and the information fallout inherent to it, impressions surely matter, perhaps even more so than during “ordinary” times of authoritarian rule.  Indeed, it wouldn’t be improbable to expect both regime exponents and ordinary Syrians to act on rumors, especially those pertaining to perceived shifts in the balance of forces as unprecedented uprisings tend to shake up the cards of power.  It is in this context that the petition’s references to the role of Syrian armed forces appear to have significance, but again for the wrong reasons.  To quote from the petition at some length: “The only institution that has the capability to lead the transition period would be the military, and especially the current Minister of Defense General Ali Habib and the Chief of Staff General Dawud Rajha.  Both individuals represent a background that Syrians can positively relate with [and] that enables them to take a key pivotal role during the transition process. . . .”  Of course, this extract implicitly alludes to unconfirmed and probably exaggerated reports on important segments of Syria’s regular armed forces resenting the harsh crackdown, deserting in protest and/or siding with the demonstrators.  Others have already convincingly pointed out in this context that a Tunisian or Egyptian scenario — with the regular army siding with or at least not finishing off mass protests — is unlikely to materialize in Syria.  The loyalist and heavily armed 4th brigade and Republican Guard will make sure it won’t happen.  That, of course, doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t hope for the support of the regular armed forces and their strongmen.  Yet one may wonder whether publicly mentioning the names of those whom you hope to get on your side will do the trick.  More likely, if mentioning them at all has an effect, it will put them under extra surveillance from regime hardliners or prompt the latter to withdraw the few autonomous powers they may have had.  Something similar happened a decade ago when Syria’s Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabi was forced to resign following sustained rumors about his friendly ties with Walid Junblatt and late Rafiq al-Hariri, two of Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest Lebanese antagonists at the time.

An opposition still may want to encourage the mere impression, even if false or inconsequential, that it enjoys some level of support within the armed forces.  After all, in the popular imagination such an impression may reduce still widespread fears to join the uprising.  Yet, again, publicly reaching out to named military figures and vaguely praising them for their track records, as the current petition does, will fail to bolster such impressions.  On the contrary, the petition leaves one with a sense that the opposition is desperate for — and thus must be conspicuously lacking — such inroads into the armed forces.  By implication it inadvertently corroborates what the regime hardliners wanted to emphasize all along: in terms of the capabilities of its repressive agencies the regime’s position remains rock solid.

The petition also stunningly falls short in terms of what is not in it.  In vain one will look for even a passing reference to the steep socio-economic inequalities generated by the regime’s “social market economy” pushing millions of Syrians all across the country into poverty.  This may be reassuring to the few upper-class beneficiaries of Syria’s crony capitalism, but it will unlikely make them throw their support behind the uprising.  To date, there has been no hint whatsoever of a “national bourgeoisie” sympathetic to the idea of a democratic transition, as in Egypt.  Yet the vast majority of impoverished Syrians who do have ample reason to rise up against cronyism and material inequality will find no voice in this “National Initiative for Change.”  Neither will those otherwise considering breaking with the regime find much reassurance in terms of preventing future rounds of retribution for past and present crimes of the regime.  The petition briefly mentions the need for establishing a “national committee for truth and reconciliation.”  Yet one may wonder how many Syrians know what that really means.  Indeed, their lack of clarity about the concept would be totally justified; in the scores of countries that witnessed processes of “truth and reconciliation,” there have been as many variations in linking these to formal criminal prosecutions and acts of retribution.

Syria’s republic of fear naturally causes individuals to be hesitant in putting their names under public and collective petitions calling for the regime’s overthrow.  Hence the current petition only carries 23 names of Syrians living abroad.  “For personal safety reasons” it does not list the names of 127 other “politicians, civil society activists and human rights defenders” presumably residing in Syria.  The petition rather oddly states that the full list of signatories will be provided to the media, probably on request.  Yet this does not remove the very real risk that the petition and its demands will be effectively portrayed as the project of outsiders whom the regime habitually accuses of sustaining dubious loyalties or, when in milder moods, of being oblivious to the realities of running a country as complex as Syria.  Hence, and against this background, the petition even manages to confirm the regime’s feeble argument that the current uprising is the work of foreign instigators.

More than one month ago at the beginning of the Syrian uprising, veteran opposition activist Riyyad at-Turk published an eloquently worded opinion piece wherein he praised the Syrian youth for their courage in speaking out against oppression.3  If only for the sake of organizing effective opposition, the members of the “National Initiative for Change” should be advised to take to heart the degree of self-reflection and honesty exposed in At-Turk’s remarks: “I have no solutions to remedy the present situation, nor am I able to read the future.  But it seems clear that young people will bring about the change, and not only because they constitute the majority of Syrian society.  They also have greater awareness of the needs of the time, more so than the opposition parties and the politicians, many of whom remain confined to traditional discourses and outdated practices, and fear the dictates of the security censor.”  Analogous to what many noted in the context of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, one can only hope that for now it may not be such a bad thing that the Syrian uprising similarly lacks a firmly organized opposition or leadership.

1  <>, 29 April 2011.

2  The New York Times, 27 April 2011; the Guardian, 28 April 2011; Al-Jazeera, 27 April 2011.

3  Republished at <>, 12 March 2011.

Reinoud Leenders is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam.  A version of this article was published in Jadaliyya (30 April 2011).

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