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Syria opposition's quest to form councils beset by infighting

At an election conference in Turkey, groups from the spectrum of the revolution represent competing interests as city and provincial councils are chosen for Aleppo.

March 09, 2013|By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angles Times
  • An amateur photo shows protesters holding Syrian revolution flags during a demonstration against the Syrian regime in Aleppo.
An amateur photo shows protesters holding Syrian revolution flags during… (Aleppo Media Center / Associated…)

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — On the banquet hall stage, a young girl with a Syrian opposition flag painted on her left cheek sang antigovernment songs, a sort of greatest hits of the Syrian revolution.

Behind her, several men with their arms slung over one another's shoulders danced in rhythm. But few others at the election conference paid much attention to the impromptu display.

Huddled in the lobby or in secret meetings, small groups of men representing the spectrum of Syria's opposition plotted and lobbied on behalf of competing interests.

In doing so, they underscored long-standing tension between generations and between the city of Aleppo — Syria's largest — and its suburbs. And ultimately, they raised the question of whether those who have sacrificed and contributed the most in the revolution deserve a larger voice in a future government. Sectarian concerns rarely came up because almost no minorities were represented.

"In democracy there can be thousands of games and tactics," said Hazim Salih, a leader from the northern town of Marea on his way to one such tactical meeting. "Elections are like a sleight-of-hand game."

At times it seemed as if the elections would be derailed by the infighting in Turkey. But by the end of last weekend, two councils, an Aleppo city council and a provincial council, were established to oversee civilian matters even though the government of President Bashar Assad still controls some areas in the province and clashes between the two sides continue.

The elections are to be part of a series sponsored by the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition umbrella group, as a precursor to a national transitional government. The votes come at a crucial time for the opposition as world leaders warn that Syria could otherwise become a failed state.

"This brutal government has tried to convince the world that the people of Syria cannot be ruled except with an iron dictatorship," Moaz Khatib, president of the Syrian National Coalition, said at the conference. "This is the first time we try to get out of the cage we were put into."

A 25-member city council was selected for Aleppo, and a 29-member provincial council was chosen to represent an estimated 6 million people.

Osama Kadi, a general coordinator with the Syrian Economic Task Force whose name has been floated as a possible prime minister, said successful elections would lead people to "believe more in a state institution and civility."

Last year, residents in war-scarred Idlib and Aleppo provinces formed town councils and courts in response to the crime, chaos and breakdown of social services. Their efforts have had varied success, and the latest attempt could face even more obstacles.

Idlib province, for example, held elections more than a month ago, but the process was seen by many as opaque, and the council does not appear to have much support. The Aleppo conference has also been met with opposition by some at the forefront of the battle against Assad.

At an anti-Assad protest this month in an opposition-held neighborhood of Aleppo, demonstrators turned their ire toward those gathering in Turkey and denounced the elections, media activist Riyad Islam said.

Though the conference was broadcast on radio and streamed online, no one whom Islam spoke to had bothered to tune in. "They have gotten accustomed to council after council," he said.

At one point during the conference, someone posted a sign reading, "We prefer the war of the trenches to the war of hotels."

But as Hala, a humanitarian activist, sat in the banquet hall waiting for the vote to begin, she surveyed the room and was satisfied with who was being represented.

"Three-fourths of the people here are ones from the ground," said Hala, who asked that her last name be withheld because she lives in a government-controlled neighborhood. "You can look around the room and see that he came out in the protests and she was helping deliver aid and he was organizing."

Many of those selected in the voting are members of aid or lawyers groups or young activists who led the early charge in the two-year-old uprising. No one was chosen from the Muslim Brotherhood, a longtime foe of the Assad regime but one with little public support in Syria.

The results were not a surprise. Before the vote, deals were struck between many of the major groups on whom to select. Several said they preferred consensus over bickering and jostling for power.

"Voting agreements between groups is not democratic in normal circumstances," said Abo Adel, at 31 the youngest member of the provincial council and one of the few still using an alias. "But this is democratic in these exceptional circumstances. It is unfair for certain individuals, but it is for the greater good."

Abo Adel, a mechanical engineer, said an effort was made to balance the power among groups. One minority, a Kurd, was chosen. No women were named to either council.

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