Middle East

We’re not a 5-star hotel opposition: Ameer

Nora al-Amir, coalition vice president. (The Daily Star/HO)

BEIRUT: One of the main criticisms leveled at the Syria’s National Coalition, the main umbrella opposition group battling President Bashar Assad, is that it is out of touch, whose members, safely ensconced in Istanbul hotels, are far removed from the daily struggles and dreams of the Syrian people.

But Noura al-Ameer, a vice president of the coalition and member of its political committee, rejects these accusations. At 26, she is one of the youngest members of the body, which has seven women among its 121 members. And she herself has firsthand experience of the Assad regime’s notorious police state, having been detained for six months in 2012 for her own activist work.

After being freed in late 2012, she left the country and then joined the coalition in 2013.

Earlier this year she was elected one of its three vice presidents. The transition from on-the-ground activist – Ameer established an underground weekly newspaper in Syria, Hurriyat – to politician-in-exile has not been easy, she tells The Daily Star in a Skype interview.

“The process is slow, and it can be painful sometimes,” says Ameer, who is originally from Homs. “For example, in Geneva, the negotiations were so difficult ... I want to help the people inside Syria, but it is so complex when [their needs] are tied to the political process.”

Working within this political framework, which she admits has limited powers, can be frustrating, but she is motivated by a commitment to the people left behind.

“Many people inside Syria are trusting me and relying on me ... because I represent them and I try to work as hard as I can to help them, these hardworking people who are just trying to survive.”

While she no longer faces the daily risks which landed her in prison in the first place, Ameer prides herself on maintaining close links with Syrians on the ground, whether those living in regime-held areas or in “free zones,” as she puts it. For those in the former category she speaks with them via Skype “for their security, because they could be tortured until death if it was known they were working for the revolution.”

Where possible, she travels to Syria to meet with those living in opposition-held territory, but her movements are limited, she says, by the presence of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) the Al-Qaeda splinter group that has become notorious for kidnapping, torturing and killing anti-regime activists. She also meets with activists in southern Turkey, and in Jordan, as often as she can.

That the coalition members are detached from reality and concerned only with their own power is a lie invented by the Syrian government, she argues.

“It is regime propaganda, this rumor that the coalition does not care about the people and that its members are living in 5-star hotels: this is not true.”

Several high-profile members remain inside Syria, she says, but do not reveal this information for security reasons, while many others live on the border areas with Turkey and Jordan, only traveling to Istanbul when general meetings are called.

Of course, she says, seeing the coalition take up permanent headquarters in opposition-held areas of Syria would be preferable, as some members have suggested, but it is simply not feasible, at least for now.

Not only would there be the threat of kidnapping, torture and death – from ISIS and from the regime and its allies, including Hezbollah, she says – but it would not be possible, as it is in Turkey’s largest city, to meet with foreign dignitaries and international representatives, Ameer says.

Another main criticism of the coalition is that its politicians are incapable of achieving any tangible political results outside Syria.

A second round of Geneva talks, held earlier this year, proved fruitless and any hopes of another session have been all but abandoned with the announcement of a presidential election next month, an election Assad is virtually guaranteed to win.

Regardless of the complexities of the negotiations, patiently brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy to the conflict, Lakhdar Brahimi, the fact that the regime continued with its violent crackdown across the country negated the very worth of such discussions, Ameer says.

“There is no way that peace talks or political talks can be held in the near future,” she says.

“During the last round of negotiations the regime continued to drop bombs and kill people and make arrests, so there is no way that we can have peace talks when the regime continues to murder.”

But while Geneva III might be a pipe dream, the coalition has other tangible goals, she says, such as improving its image and gaining recognition as the official representative of the Syrian people.

“We must get more political rights for the coalition, for example having a seat in the Arab League and eventually a seat in the United Nations,” Ameer says.

“We are not politically recognized by a number of countries. The Syrian people do not want Assad, so why is he still sitting there?”

Damascus was officially suspended from the Arab League in late 2011 but its seat was not handed to the opposition, and instead lies empty.

Coalition President Ahmad Jarba is currently in the U.S. and Monday the State Department granted quasi-diplomatic status to the coalition, giving its offices in New York and Washington D.C. “foreign mission” status.

The coalition must also continue to work with the international community to pressure Assad “to stop the bloodshed and return to talks.” So far, at least 150,000 people have been killed in the conflict, now in its fourth year.

The Syrian uprising, she says, is a “complete and total struggle, at every level: civil, military and political.” Beset by complexities and hardships, it has also been manipulated by many outsiders, Ameer adds, trying to exploit the war for their own ends. But she is confident that the original ideals of the revolution will see it triumph in the end.

“The people inside of Syria are strong believers in the principles of this revolution, and they will always have their dignity.”

“The regime is trying to destroy these people, and this revolution, but no one can. It is a volcano which has exploded and it will keep going until we get the results we want.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 09, 2014, on page 8.




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