Recognition of Libyan rebel council sparks similar moves in Syria and Yemen
Widespread international recognition of Libya’s rebel Transition National Council (TNC) is focusing debate among opponents of autocratic leaders in Syria and Yemen on how to organize a transition to democratic rule in their own countries.
Increasingly, the TNC, which won recognition on Friday from the Libya Contact Group made up of more than 30 governments and international and regional organizations, including the United States, the European Union, the Arab League and NATO, is serving as a model for opposition forces elsewhere in the Arab world.
A Yemeni youth movement said Saturday that had it established a transitional presidential council with 17 members to replace President Ali Abdullah Saleh once he has been forced to end his 33-year rule.
Mr. Saleh, who is recovering in Saudi Arabia from serious injuries suffered in early June in an attack on his presidential compound in the Yemeni capital Sana’a, insists on returning to Yemen to resume power. He has so far resisted pressure to resign despite months of mass anti-government protests and efforts by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States to ease him out of office.
The success of the Libyan rebels has also prompted Syrian opposition figures gathered in Istanbul to discuss the formation of a shadow government. The discussion breaks with the opposition’s reluctance until now to identify a leadership because it feared that would provide Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s regime targets for assassination. Some 2,000 people have been killed in the regime’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters.
The proposal for a shadow government was temporarily shelved at the Istanbul meeting, attended mostly by opposition figures in exile because of objections by activists inside Syria who said they were unfamiliar with many of the Syrians living abroad who were likely to take part in it. However, the activists, who were linked to the Istanbul conference by Skype, did not reject the Libyan opposition model.
Adib Shishakly, a Syrian businessman and activist based in Saudi Arabia, said that the opposition was establishing committees at conferences like the one in Istanbul that would provide the basis for an assembly to choose a shadow government.
The opposition figures in Istanbul were meeting as Syrian buried many of the 32 people killed by security forces during protests on Friday.
Unlike in Libya, where rebels are fighting Qaddafi loyalists with the backing of NATO tasked with implementing a United Nations-authorized no-fly zone in the North African country, the move towards creating governments in waiting is unlikely to significantly hasten the departure of Messrs. Assad and Saleh, who are clinging to power at whatever cost.
The moves do however constitute an attempt to bring some degree of unity to disparate forces in the opposition in both Syria and Yemen and to enhance their credibility primarily among the international community.
The Yemeni initiative in particular is designed to ensure that the protesters are a player in the shaping of a post-Saleh Yemen. The protesters had lost ground as established opposition forces sought to achieve a Saudi-backed deal with the Yemeni leader that would have eased him out of power within 30 days, which they rejected because it did not involve Mr. Saleh’s immediate departure. Mr. Saleh agreed to the deal on several occasions but when push came to shove refused to sign on the dotted line.
The protesters were further marginalized by the eruption of hostilities between a powerful tribal confederation and the Yemeni military forces commanded by Ahmed Saleh, the president’s son.
The formation of the TNC allowed the Libyan rebels not only to garner NATO’s military support but also to get access following Friday’s recognition to billions of dollars in Libyan assets frozen in North America and Europe in accordance with UN sanctions.
Opposition forces in Syria and Yemen are unlikely to enjoy such benefits by following the Libyan example of forming a shadow government. NATO has no intention of intervening militarily in either country. The United States and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Mr. Assad and his associates, but neither Syria nor Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest nations, has the kind of assets Libya assembled from its oil exports.
The formation of shadow governments in Syria and Yemen would also probably not win them immediate international recognition. The Obama administration and European leaders have asserted that Mr. Assad has lost the legitimacy to govern his country, but have stopped short of calling for his resignation. Speaking in Istanbul, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton encouraged the opposition to work for democracy in Syria, “hopefully with the government” of Mr. Assad.
Mr. Assad has pledged reforms, but that promise has been effectively nullified by the brutality of his security forces in cracking down on the protesters. An attempt by Mr. Assad earlier this week to launch a national dialogue was largely boycotted by the opposition.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United States have urged Mr. Saleh to step down but have favoured a transition that would be led by established forces rather than the youth that instigated the six-month old revolt against the Yemeni president.
Consolidation of the opposition in Yemen and Syria makes sense. In the case of Yemen, it could create an opening if youth leaders are able to win the support of the tribes for their transitional presidential council given that the international community favors Mr. Saleh’s departure but has been stymied by divisions within the country. Syria’s opposition is unlikely to even enjoy that opportunity as long as the international community maintains hope that Mr. Assad can still be part of any solution.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])