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To understand opposition's failures, look to Syria's east

The reasons for the relative quiet in Syria's east can be attributed to the nature of the area and its residents but, more importantly, to the opposition's failure to cash in on a coalescing disdain for the Assad regime

If the Syrian opposition's failure to forge a truly inclusive national movement can be traced to one geographic area, then that failure shows up most clearly in Syria's east. For it is here where the Syrian National Council has been unable to win over influential leaders. And without them, efforts to topple the regime will remain in jeopardy.

Known as Al Jazira, the eastern part of Syria consists of three provinces and makes up over 40 per cent of the country. The area shares a roughly 480-kilometre-border with Turkey in the north, and nearly the same with Iraq in the east, making it indispensable if the uprising were to evolve into a full-blown armed struggle under external protection (for arming of and providing safe havens to fighters).

Al Jazira is populated by Arab tribes and Kurds; both have historically suffered from the Baathist regime in Damascus. The area is also economically vital for the regime, as it accounts for 70 per cent of Syria's oil and gas output and is a main source of agricultural and livestock products. If the Assad regime lost control here, it would suffer a heavy blow.

So why hasn't Al Jazira shifted fully against the regime?

While the area has consistently seen demonstrations, and over 600 of its residents have been killed since anti-Assad protests began last year, the protests and death toll here are lower than those in other parts of the country, including Homs, Idlib, Hama and Damascus.

The reasons for the relative quiet can be attributed to the nature of the area and its residents but, more importantly, to the opposition's failure to cash in on a coalescing disdain for the Assad regime.

In many ways, Syria's east has been forgotten by all sides. An estimated 75 per cent of the region has no presence of regime forces as it mainly consists of agricultural lands and small towns or cities. Many areas had been declared "liberated"; the regime has launched assaults to reclaim areas only when it had a surplus of forces.

As The National reported earlier this year, the province of Deir Ezzor had no army or security forces for 22 days in July; tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied daily in a square they called "Freedom Square". The regime eventually launched a military assault and reclaimed the area during Ramadan. But some villages still declare their liberation when criticised for being pro-regime.

I have followed the attitudes of residents towards the uprising closely over the past 14 months. Until the end of last year, residents had been divided almost evenly between support or opposition to the regime, to the point of small-scale civil strife between some tribes. In Al Bukamal district, for instance, a government official, who is also a tribal leader, armed his tribesmen and ordered them to shoot protesters.

Now the divide has nearly vanished. The majority of people are firmly opposed to the regime. As one resident said recently: "Only the crazy people now support the regime."

In a tent in Doha last month, where Syrians from Al Jazira have lived for years, hundreds of men who have relatives in the region gathered to mourn the death of 19 military defectors - gunned down by security forces in Deir Ezzor. Feelings were running high as a relative of one of the victims told details of the killing.

I heard heated discussions between attendees over whether and how to support the uprising, the Free Syrian Army and the SNC. Out of all those present, only two or three opposed the uprising because, they said, the consequences of opposing the regime would be costly on their families.

It was clear the attendees were ashamed for failing to aid their "ahel", or families, in other areas, especially Homs and Hama. One man pointed out that the residents of Al Jazira were used by the former president Hafez Al Assad as "shoes to step on Hama" (referring to soldiers from the region who served in the military campaign against Hama in 1982). But, at the same time, they maintained they should not fight the regime unless they know they could defeat it.

In the tent, a council of 25 members was formed strictly for those living in Doha to help the families of Syrian victims across the Deir Ezzor. Around 41,000 Qatari riyals (Dh41,379) were collected on the spot and a bank account was set up for donations. But they all insisted on restricting the council's work on financial help for families.

Members argued that "the regime cannot be defeated through protests and few armed men". Although they support the idea in principle, they said arming the Free Syrian Army is futile unless it is done by a state.

One man raised a question and many nodded: what will we gain from supporting the uprising? They feel they have no say in the uprising. People from the region who have joined the SNC are not influential in their societies.

In their minds, Syria's east has been neglected by the Baathist regime for decades; the current opposition would do the same if it comes to power. To counter this perception, the SNC must coordinate with groups from the region inside and outside the country, especially in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where Al Jazira is well represented.

At the weekend, a special committee tasked with restructuring the SNC to make it more representative reported that it has failed in their effort. The council has reached a stagnant level and cannot forge a country-wide movement if it does not represent all society's sectors.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Al Jazira - home to Kurds and Arabs alike. Reassuring religious minorities, on which the council's effort have focused so far, has miserably failed. But appealing to a broader cross-section of Syrians is essential to remove the regime.


On Twitter: @hhassan140

Updated: May 14, 2012 04:00 AM