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Syria warns nations against recognizing opposition group

Foreign Minister Walid Moallem says Syria would take 'tough measures' against any country that recognizes the opposition Syrian National Council.

October 09, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Syria Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, speaking in Damascus, called the opposition Syrian National Council "illegitimate."
Syria Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, speaking in Damascus, called the… (Youssef Badawi / European…)

Reporting from Beirut — Syria's foreign minister warned other nations Sunday not to bestow international legitimacy on a new opposition umbrella group that seeks to expedite the ouster of embattled President Bashar Assad.

Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, speaking in Damascus, the capital, vowed unspecified "tough measures" against any country that recognizes what he termed the "illegitimate" Syrian National Council.

The minister's admonition appears to be the opening broadside of what will probably be a protracted war of words between Damascus and the dissident council, which was formed this month with the goal of governing in place of Assad.

The rebellion against Assad's autocratic rule has mostly been visible to the outside world as a series of street protests that elicited violent government crackdowns.

While vowing that the demonstrations will continue, opposition leaders say the council also plans to pursue a parallel diplomatic path.

"We need to mobilize the international community to cut its relations with this regime and support the struggle of the Syrian people," Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based political scientist who heads the council, told Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite news channel.

The broad-based coalition of anti-Assad factions includes secular and religious activists, exiles and domestic opponents. But some Syrian exiles have already questioned its composition, calling its membership too Islamist, not sufficiently representative of Syrian minorities and possibly open to foreign involvement in Syria.

Council members have vowed to create a representative government to replace the more than four-decade reign of Assad and his late father, Hafez Assad. "We want a civil, democratic state, which means it is neutral to all religions and respects all religions," Ghalioun told Al Jazeera.

The council plans to pursue recognition as the legitimate representative of Syria's more than 20 million people. No nation has yet conferred such status on the fledgling group.

The coalition wants to emulate Libya's Transitional National Council, which was formed as a rebel political front and now stands as the de facto government in Tripoli.

The Syrian and Libyan cases, however, have played out differently.

Moammar Kadafi was chased out of Tripoli a little more than six months after mass protests erupted in Libya, and armed opponents seized control of several major communities. It has been almost seven months since demonstrators took to the streets of Syrian cities, and Assad remains ensconced in power, albeit weakened.

"The Syrian regime feels it can weather this storm," said David Lesch, professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio.

Assad still has more international allies and patrons than did the mercurial Kadafi, who was deeply unpopular in many Arab capitals and in the West. Syria sits not in North Africa but in the geopolitical heart of the volatile Middle East. And Assad seems determined not to repeat Kadafi's mistakes.

One reason that Assad moved decisively to crush opposition in protest-racked cities such as Hama and Rastan, analysts say, is the regime's resolve to retain control of all national territory and avoid a "Syrian Benghazi," a reference to the eastern Libyan city that served as the rebel capital.

Unlike the Libyan rebels, the Syrian opposition is not pushing publicly for foreign intervention. The Libyan experience, featuring months of punishing, Western-led airstrikes that crippled Kadafi's forces, appears to have soured global enthusiasm for such endeavors.

Damascus and its allies have warned against any outside interference in Syria's affairs. Assad has pledged to fire "hundreds of rockets and missiles" at Tel Aviv if the West launches an aerial assault in Syria, according to a news report from Iran, a close ally.

Last week, China and Russia vetoed a United Nations rights resolution assailing Syria's record. The two powers viewed the language as a potential pretext for a Libya-style air assault on their ally.

Despite opposing Libyan-style foreign bombing runs, the Syrian National Council has publicly endorsed "protection" for Syrian civilians. It is unclear what form such aid would take, but some note that protecting civilians was also the legal rationale for the Western-led bombing of Libya.

Some activists view the civilian protection goal as possibly opening the door for "a Libya-style solution to the Syrian crisis," said Samir Aita, a Paris-based Syrian dissident who has criticized the council.

As it launches an anticipated diplomatic offensive abroad, the Syrian National Council faces an ominous security threat inside Syria.

One of its members, Mashaal Tammo, a leading Kurdish activist, was assassinated by gunmen Friday, sparking massive protests in Syria's Kurdish heartland. That same day, activists say, another council participant, Riad Seif, a prominent businessman, dissident and former lawmaker, was hospitalized after being attacked on a Damascus street.

Activists said security forces killed 18 more people Sunday, including nine in the troubled city of Homs.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

A special correspondent in Beirut contributed to this report.

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