- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2012

ISTANBUL — A Syrian opposition leader says most of his colleagues now support international military action to oust President Bashar Assad “but they might not be brave enough to express it openly.”

Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian National Council’s executive board, said the “majority of SNC leaders agree with international military intervention as early as possible,” although no consensus has been reached.

“The people in the minority are the people who are still hoping that the popular uprising alone would force Bashar Assad to step down or might trigger, if it lasts longer, a certain coup d’etat within the regime,” Mr. Nashar told The Washington Times at his Istanbul apartment.

“But this has not happened 10 months later, the people on the ground are definitely growing restless and desperate, and there are no guarantees that such a coup would occur.”

The Assad regime’s deadly crackdown on dissent has continued despite last week’s arrival of Arab League monitors who are observing Syria’s implementation of a peace plan. The U.N. estimates that more than 5,000 Syrians have been killed since March.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby on Monday said Syria’s regime has withdrawn heavy weapons from inside cities and freed about 3,500 prisoners but continues to kill protesters even with foreign monitors in the country, the Associated Press reported.

The Syrian National Council, comprising opposition figures and Syrian military defectors, has opposed international intervention even as citizens began defending themselves with help from defecting soldiers.
The Obama administration reportedly has begun exploring how to help the opposition, though few think that a Libya-like operation is likely anytime soon.

Mr. Nashar noted why U.S. officials might be “very hesitant to pursue this particular policy,” citing the recent U.S. military exit from Iraq and upcoming elections. He also suggested they might be “waiting for a certain international coalition spearheaded, not by the U.S., but perhaps more so by Turkey.”

“And it’s quite unfortunate because, after all, the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world,” he said, nonetheless adding that a Turkish-led NATO operation with “cover” from Arab states would enjoy the greatest support among Syrians.

Mr. Nashar said the U.S. has a “historic opportunity” to improve its image in Syria.

“The vast majority of the Syrians I know were completely supportive of what NATO did [in Libya],” he said.

“People think that the Syrian regime is even worse than [Moammar] Gadhafi and much, much more brutal. And that’s why they do expect that, if things were to get worse, there has to be international military intervention to rescue the Syrian people.”

The opposition activist, however, left the door open for a deal that would grant Mr. Assad immunity from international prosecution in return for his resignation, calling it “a possibility that we are willing to consider seriously at this stage.”

“It all depends on the timing,” Mr. Nashar said. “If this were to happen now, it might be the beginning of an actual solution, and the people would be interested in granting Assad such an exit strategy.

“If it were to happen later, when the number of casualties is even higher and the level of brutality and violence against the people has become unforgivable, then this might not be an option anymore.”

• Ben Birnbaum can be reached at 138247@example.com.

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