Shortly after Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait, we witnessed very significant days when we found the Iraqi opposition willing to talk to the media. Initially, this was not an easy task because being in opposition to Saddam prior to this was an act of suicide, where those who declared themselves against the regime were most often killed, and pursued even if they were living in exile as far away as Europe, where they would be poisoned with Thalium or shot in broad daylight. Of course this excludes the regime's opponents in Iran. Most governments at the time tried to avoid granting open asylum to the Iraqi opposition, because of the general political consensus which was pro-Saddam and anti-Iran.
Because of this isolation of the opposition, we initially could not find a single Iraqi [dissident] who could be contacted. I called a friend, Dr. Najm Abdul Karim, who in turn located an old friend as well, Hassan al-Alawy, who was in exile in Europe, and the late Saleh Jabr also encouraged media participation. Subsequently, a number of Iraqis of different backgrounds dared to declare their stance against the regime, and we found ourselves in front of a long line of opponents [to talk to].
The same thing is being repeated today in Syria. Expressing opposition to the Syrian regime is a risky business, not only for the individual but for his family as well. The Syrian regime used to intimidate other governments as well, who have always avoided disagreeing with it, and most still fear it. They believe Syria is capable of hurting their own countries, through groups affiliated with the Syrian regime, such as those who believe the Syrians were behind the recent kidnapping of Estonians working in the international peacekeeping force in Lebanon, and behind other assassinations and bombings in various regions.
For these strong reasons, we do not know of any genuine Syrian opposition with an openly declared stance except the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is feared by most regimes in the region, and which some believe to be a fascist movement, like the Baath party. There are some [opposing] Syrian cultural icons who live far away, in addition to the opposition which used to be part of the regime and then broke away from it, such as Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of the late Syrian president. And let us not forget the courageous few inside Syria who openly opposed the regime, although individual stances cannot threaten a government of such strength.
This is what allows the Syrian government to respond to every question about regime change by saying: "If there are Syrians who reject this regime, or oppose its policies, then where are they?"
Syria is the last closed fortress in the region, but there is North Korea and other closed countries in the wider world.
You do not hear criticism of Syrian affairs, even with regards to simple matters, except for whispers, because of the influence of the secret security apparatus, and Syria knows this. We must recognize that [security] intelligence in a country such as Syria is as important as oil in the Gulf States, where regimes enjoy far greater legitimacy.
The Syrian street suddenly exploded with much pent-up anger, after the incidents in Daraa, when security forces killed three demonstrators on March 18th. Then many more were killed, followed by the rapid spread of numerous protests around the country, which are now the largest and longest standing in the Arab world. Spontaneous individual and collective opposition soon emerged on the surface, alongside other organizations, internally and externally, united [in opposition] regardless of their different affiliations. This is a replication of the Iraqi opposition under very different circumstances; whereby technology has served the Syrian opposition today in a country which did not allow its citizens to use modern communications until recently. However, the Syrian opposition lacks Arab and international support, which stood by the Iraqi opposition in the 1990s.
Published in the London-based Asharq Alawsat on June 5.