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In exile, opposition groups unite against Damascus

UN Security Council passed a resolution Monday calling on Syria to cooperate with the probe into Beirut murder.

Almost daily Jawad Mella receives calls from the dusty steppes of Syrian Kurdistan. The callers, who never give their names for fear the lines are tapped, ask him when Babi Azad is coming.

"Babi Azad means 'the father of freedom' in Kurdish," explains Dr. Mella, the president of the Government of West Kurdistan in exile. "They're talking about George Bush."

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But while only a few Syrians are openly calling for US military intervention against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, many opposition leaders are hoping for greater international support as the United Nations Security Council piles pressure on Syria and opens the way for possible sanctions.

Monday, the Security Council passed a resolution demanding that Syria cooperate "unconditionally" with the ongoing UN investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A UN report released last month implicated Syrian security officials and their Lebanese allies in the murder.

The resolution also calls for Syria to detain and make available to UN investigators those implicated in the murder.

Although not as toughly worded as the United States, France, and Britain had hoped, the resolution, which passed unanimously, leaves open the possibility of economic sanctions if Mr. Assad's regime does not comply.

John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, said that despite the changes the resolution, which originally included the threat of sanctions, will deliver an "unmistakably ... clear message."

Far from Damascus, Syria's exiled opposition groups anxiously awaited the Security Council's decision Monday, the culmination of a storm of international criticism that has dogged Damascus since the February assassination of Mr. Hariri.

"The regime is not supported by the people," says Ali Sadreddin al-Bayanouni, leader of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood. "It is protected by the security organizations, the Army, and the international community.

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"We think that if this international cover or protection is removed, and if the people are allowed to protest and demonstrate, as in Lebanon, the regime won't survive," says Mr. Bayanouni, who has led the group since 1996.

In recent weeks Bayanouni's underground Islamic movement has recently formed a loose, but unprecedented alliance with secular opposition parties against the Syrian government. "The message is that they are united and all have a shared vision," says Obeida Nahas, who runs the antiregime Website, thisissyria.net. "It was a way of showing that the secular and religious of Syria can unite."

The opposition's increasingly unified appearance aims to refute Assad's assertions that without him, the country would descend into Iraq-style anarchy and ethnic conflict. "The only threat [for Assad] left to play on is the fear of the unknown if the regime collapses - civil war, Iraqi-style chaos," says Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House in London.

Although the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood can only be estimated, it probably has more power and influence than all the other opposition groups combined and it is perceived as the greatest military and ideological threat to the regime.

But although Syria's Law 49 of 1980 still condemns any member of the Muslim Brotherhood to death, "they still have a lot of presence inside Syria," says Walid Suffour, president of the Syrian Human Rights Committee, who estimates that there are 4,000 Muslim Brotherhood members in prison and thousands more who have been released.

"Officially the Muslim Brotherhood do not exist in Syria but they are still the largest political [opposition] organization," explains Nahas, adding that they have benefited politically from the increase in grass-roots religiosity in Syrian society.

"And after four decades of dictatorship," says Nahas, "the Muslim Brotherhood realize that there can never be another period of one-party rule."

Bayanouni, a precise, silver-haired man living in exile in North London, emphasizes his organization's increasingly moderate interpretation of Islam. He also says that he is willing to work with the US against the Assad regime to reestablish democracy and political freedom in Syria.

"In principle we can deal with any country on the basis of mutual interest. I think that this is the natural way of dealing with others," says Bayanouni. "I am ready to have talks with anyone in order to help my people - as long as the interests of our country are not threatened."

Islamist resistance

During the early 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood's armed opposition to the Syrian regime resulted in the death of 20,000 people in 1982 when the Army attacked the Brotherhood's base in the Syrian city of Hama. Today, however, like all other opposition groups, the movement emphasizes that political and economic, not military, action is the solution.

"After what happened in Hama we started changing our ideas, rejecting violence and asking for peaceful change," says Bayanouni "Our main principle is to accept others and live peacefully with them.

"After the death of Hafez al-Assad we tried to push [his successor] Bashar Assad toward creating a better, democratic solution," says Bayanouni. "We showed him that we are ready to help; that we were willing to turn over a page and forget the past.

"But during the last five years Bashar didn't take any real steps in this direction," he says. "There are still political prisoners who have been in prison for more than 20 years, and thousands are still missing."

"So in the last few months we and other opposition parties changed from asking for reform to demanding complete change," says Bayanouni, who sent British Prime Minister Tony Blair a letter of condolence after July's London bombings.

"Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood accept that they cannot control the country alone," says Najdat Asfari, a member of the Syrian National Council, which organized a recent Paris conference between Syrian opposition parties. "So they have asked for a consortium of all the people who believe in creating a democratic system for Syria."

Damascus Declaration

Together the Paris conference and the subsequent Damascus Declaration for Democratic and National Change that was signed in October by opposition groups in Damascus and Beirut indicates that Syria's fragmented opposition may be jelling as the pressure from the international community mounts. In this alliance between secular parties and the Muslim Brotherhood, only the Kurdish separatists are absent.

"A real alliance between the Kurds and the Muslim Brotherhood would pose a serious challenge to the regime, but I don't think it's likely," says Robert Lowe, a Chatham House analyst who visited Syrian Kurdistan this summer. "Replacing a Baathist regime with an Islamic regime is not really in the Kurds' interest."

Mella, who met Prime Minister Blair in April and whose influential London-based party, the Kurdistan National Congress, is the most ambitious and separatist Kurdish group, agrees.

"The Kurds have become far from Islam. All we see of Islam is killing. They shoot us, they gas us. And they say that we are all Muslims," says Mella. "For 1,400 years we have been Muslims and they haven't for even one day understood that we are a nation. We are a Kurdish nation - not Arabs."

However, events are moving swiftly, and last Saturday Mella and Bayanouni arranged a historic first meeting. Both said that they were determined that the possible fall of the Assad regime should not be an excuse for further bloodshed.

"I am worried that the fall of this regime that for 40 years has destroyed political life in Syria might lead to a lack of stability," says Bayanouni. "We think that the Damascus Declaration will help to reduce the potential for instability in the country. We want to emphasis that people shouldn't think of revenge and killing."

US pressure

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Security Council after Monday's vote that Syria had been put on notice by the international community that it must cooperate with the investigation led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis.

"With our decision today, we show that Syria has isolated itself from the international community - through its false statements, its support for terrorism, its interference in the affairs of its neighbors, and its destabilizing behavior in the Middle East," Rice said. "Now, the Syrian government must make a strategic decision to fundamentally change its behavior."

Wire services were used in this article.