The ‘sheik’ of Syria’s rebellion ponders its obstacles

The Los Angeles Times reports: He doesn’t have a cellphone and doesn’t use regular phones. He avoids his home and mostly ventures out under cover of night, a cap pulled low on his head to conceal his identity.

“For 11 months, I have not been in a public place, not in a restaurant or a cafe,” Yassin Haj Saleh, a former political prisoner, said as he arrived at a previously agreed-upon rendezvous spot as darkness fell.

Despite his clandestine existence, Saleh is a prominent Syrian dissident, a prolific writer and columnist with a wide following both in print and on the Internet. One young opposition activist calls him the “sheik” of Syria’s yearlong rebellion.

Unlike some high-profile Syrian dissident exiles featured in opposition conferences abroad, Saleh spent 16 years imprisoned for his views and has remained in Damascus, the capital, daily risking arrest.

“He’s got total credibility: He was in prison and is part of that crowd still inside Syria, not living outside the country for 30 years,” said Joshua Landis, who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and writes an influential blog on Syria.

Syria’s opposition includes many disparate currents, among them secular liberals such as Saleh, Islamists, Kurdish nationalists, Web-savvy youths and urban and rural guerrillas. While at odds on many issues, they generally are united on one objective: the need to oust the government of President Bashar Assad.

“The worst possibility for our country is that the regime stays in power,” Saleh, 51, said in an interview at a safe house here. “Anything else is less bad.”

Still, the opposition is a fractious network riven by internal disputes. Last month, several prominent dissidents split from the best-known umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, complaining that it was a front for the exiled Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement viewed warily by many secular Arabs.

Saleh, who describes the Syrian National Council’s overall performance as “depressing,” has reluctantly come to accept the rebellion’s increasing militarization. But he bemoans the lack of a centralized command structure and discipline among the proliferating insurgent bands.

“None of us asked for it,” Saleh said of the Free Syrian Army and other factions that have taken up arms. “The problem is how to organize these groups.”

He believes the lack of unity and organization among armed factions and political groups are obstacles to the revolt progressing faster, as is a lack of “new” thinking.

What is most needed, he says, is fresh thinking about a dynamic, grass-roots upheaval that emerged with a vitality that shocked him and other longtime dissidents, both in Syria and outside. Too many Syrian intellectuals, he said, are still shackled to Arab nationalism and other Cold War-era ideas and political ideologies.

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