ISTANBUL, (Reuters) – When former Syrian diplomat Bassam Bitar was stationed in Paris three decades ago, a secret policeman from the embassy knocked at his apartment door to deliver a thinly veiled death threat if he did not stop criticizing the ruling Assad family.
“The embassy’s operative, known as Lieutenant Colonel Ghayath Anis, which was not his real name, said he was advising me as a ‘friend’ to shut up or face consequences,” said Bitar, 55, recollecting the day when Anis visited his suburban home just after he was sacked from his embassy job in May 1987.
“I spoke out against the Assads’ racket of blackmail and illegal businessdeals. I lost my job and was deprived of seeing my country. Now Syrians are braving bullets for freedom and paying a much dearer price,” Bitar told Reuters.
He was talking in an Istanbul hotel lobby on the sidelines of a meeting this month that brought together opponents of President Bashar al-Assad from outside and inside Syria.
Assad, who succeeded his late father, President Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, is struggling to crush a four-month-old revolt that is galvanizing exiles to link up with underground street leaders and lend them organizational and moral support.
From Saudi-based Islamist scholars to savvy businessmen in Western capitals, and jeans-clad women activists living in Canada and the United States, the exiles mirror the diverse cultural, religious and social mix of Syria’s population.
Today’s protesters, braving bullets in the streets, have inspired Syria’s traditional opposition figures, sometimes seen as fractious, hidebound and cowed by memories of a bloody crackdown on an armed Islamist uprising in Hama in 1982.
The Istanbul conference was the latest in a series of gatherings in Western capitals aimed at forging links between the street leaders in Syria and exiled dissidents abroad, who are under pressure to set aside their differences and unite.
Bitar, a Christian from Aleppo, now sees an opportunity for real political change for the first time during his decades in the political wilderness. His hope of returning home has been rekindled as he organizes protests in front of the White House.
“It’s a very different opposition. The opposition today are all united in their goal of getting rid of this regime,” said Bitar, who has also been lobbying the U.S. administration to tighten sanctions on the Assad family.
Efforts to draw exiles and street leaders together have not gone unnoticed by Assad’s security apparatus, which on July 15 cracked down in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun, where activists had hoped to join the Istanbul conference via video link. They gave up the idea after security forces killed 14 protesters.
The uprising in Syria has helped resurrect a moribund opposition. It has also stimulated exiled dissidents to seek innovative ways of bankrolling the revolt and to coordinate with local pro-democracy protest organizers on the ground.
Exiles based in countries as far-flung as Australia, Saudi Arabia, Canada and Kuwait, sat around an Istanbul conference table with laptops and iPads, planning meetings and chatting on Skype with local coordination committees inside Syria.
Yasser Saadeldine, an independent Islamist-leaning commentator based in Qatar, said exiles could redeem themselves politically by acting as “servants to the revolution.”
The exiles received a boost when a travel ban was lifted this month on Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge who has spent a decade in jail for resisting the Assad family’s monopoly on power and the ruling Baath Party’s takeover of the judiciary.
Maleh, who appeared at the Istanbul meeting to acclaim as a statesman only three months after his release, is playing a leading role in linking Assad’s domestic and exiled foes.
“The opposition abroad is raising funds to sustain the rebels and help in broadening the civil disobedience that has already made some cities like Hama and Homs liberated areas,” said Maleh, as he lunching at the five-star hotel near the Bosphorus where the exiles were meeting.
The venue showcased the financial and organizational clout of a prosperous younger generation of exiles who have escaped curbs at home to run businesses in the Gulf and Europe.
Among the activists is Osama Shorbaji, 32, who interrupted his studies for a doctorate degree in microbiology at Paris University to attend. He was arrested in 2003 with a group of young activists after campaigning to clean the streets of Daraya, a suburb of Damascus — an initiative viewed as a subversive attempt to disrupt the municipality’s work.
“I find the new generation of Syrian exiles much more liberated from the political and dogma the older generation cling to,” Shorbaji said.
Expatriate Syrians, who have run anti-Assad websites and supplied smuggled satellite phones to protest organizers in Syria, say they are also finding clandestine ways to finance disobedience campaigns in cities such as Hama and Homs, which they hope will accelerate the fall of the Assad family.
“The opposition inside is in the driver’s seat. We are the echo, but we have mobility. They are encircled and if any opposition figure speaks he either gets a bullet or gets arrested,” said Saleh A. Mubarak, a U.S.-educated academic heading the engineering faculty at Qatar University.
LEARNING DEMOCRATIC ROPES
In another sign of political maturity, debates over the shape of post-Assad Syria have induced the Muslim Brotherhood openly to embrace democratic principles and accept a civil society with a pledge that Islamic law would not be imposed.
“The pluralistic democratic state is our goal. We reject all forms of the tyranny of the majority. We have suffered for so long and we seek to dispel all the fears of a democratic future we want to share with everyone,” said Ali Sadreddin Bayanouni, the former head of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood
In recent years, Syria’s intelligence agents have worked to divide the various opposition groups, playing on their rivalries to plant doubt and leaving a legacy of suspicion still evident in their responses to an uprising that seems to have started as a spontaneous reaction to the Arab Spring.
Imadeddin al-Rashid, an Islamic law professor who recently left Syria and represents the latest wave of exiles, said a “long legacy of terror” against opposing views had left Syria without grassroots political activism for the last 50 years.
“The regime thrives on its fragmentation of the opposition,” said Rashid, who was jailed briefly during the uprising and left the country as soon as he was released.
Many exiles acknowledge they lack a united leadership, but say the Muslim Brotherhood and secular leftists can agree on two main goals — Assad’s overthrow and a democratic future.
“They managed to unify their goals because the protesters have one goal: the downfall of the regime,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a well-known Syrian scholar and activist based in Washington.
He said the exiled opposition was under pressure not to air its disagreements while people were being killed in Syria, but it would take time to create an alternative to Assad’s rule.
“It’s quite difficult to get a united leadership after 48 years of dictatorship. It takes time for the opposition to develop and for the opposition to make alliances,” Ziadeh said.