Syrian opposition warns those who oppose them

Syrian National Council members, from left to right, Khalid Saleh, Bassma Kodmani, George Netto CBS News/Pamela Falk

Syrian National Council, Khalid Saleh, Bassma Kodmani, George Netto
Syrian National Council members, from left to right, Khalid Saleh, Dr. Bassma Kodmani, Dr. George Netto
CBS News/Pamela Falk

(CBS News) As the fighting in the Syrian civil war that has claimed an estimated 16,000 victims moves to Damascus - the capital and home to President Bashar al-Assad - the conflict has become more sustained and widespread. Additionally, the intelligence reports that the Assad government appeared to be moving chemical weapons from storage facilities has raised alarm signals in Washington and in Syria's neighbors.

Hopeful that the efforts at the U.N. might bear fruit, four members of the Syrian National Council and an advisor met with reporters this week to dispel some of the information about their intentions and to convey their hope that the international community would send a message to the Assad government.

Khalid Saleh, a member of the Executive Office of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), the largest of the political coalitions opposing Assad, told CBS News after the press conference in New York that the situation on the ground is changing rapidly.

"The Russians asked us to come to Moscow because they understand that things are changing on the ground. Prior to that they would not even talk to us," Saleh said.

The events that have taken place in Damascus in the last 48 hours indicate that the regime is losing control over the heart of the country, Saleh said. The military operations that are taking place there are five kilometers away from the Presidential palace.

Dr. Bassma Kodmani, the head of Foreign Relations of the SNC, also feels that the tide is shifting, and that morale is high on the ground among the opposition. Kodmani claimed the situation on the ground today indicates Assad's boat is sinking.

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As the related humanitarian crisis increases, the deadline is approaching for the U.N. Security Council to vote before days-end on Friday to renew the mandate of the 300 unarmed blue-helmet observers. The diplomatic shuffling ahead of the vote is intensifying: U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was in China; the Joint Special Envoy of the U.N. and Arab League, Kofi Annan, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin

Meanwhile, dueling resolutions on the Syria crisis found little common ground. Both a Russian Federation draft resolution and a U.K., U.S., France, Germany & Portugal draft resolution were both under consideration.

With the goal of putting some weight behind the effort to have the Security Council speak with a unified voice about the consequences of violating the ceasefire, the leadership of the SNC came to New York to speak out about what they need.

The Syrian National Council has embraced and supported diplomatic efforts for a peaceful path for a democratic transition in Syria, Kodmani said. The SNC, in coordination with the Free Syrian Army, accepted and adhered to the six points contained in the Annan initiative despite the complete refusal by the Assad regime to abide by any item of the plan. It was ultimately Assad's refusal to comply by the peace plan that caused the Syrian opposition to lose faith in it, Kodmani said.

The current effort by the West to pass a Security Council resolution that would give enforcement powers to the Council, should the Assad government continue to use heavy weapons, is what Kodmani calls "the very last chance for breathing life into the plan."

Should the current attempt fail, Kodmani warned, the Syrian National Council will explore other alternatives with international and regional friends in order to provide much needed humanitarian protection for the Syrian people.

Recent high level defections have buoyed spirits within the opposition, Kodmani said.

"We are more optimistic about what is going on the ground than we are with the prospects of some international or diplomatic solution," Kodmani said. "At the moment, we see that there may be a showdown at the Security Council. We want to send a message that the cost of a veto is increasing for those countries, for example Russia and possibly China. We hope to avoid that. We believe that if that door is closed at the Security Council, then the Syrians are told to rely on themselves or some of their friends. The SNC carries the message of the Syrian people, of 16,000 or so people (who) have died for the purpose of seeing the Assad family removed, and go. But the modalities of that change need to be discussed so that it happens in a peaceful and orderly manner."

Dr. George J. Netto, an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who was representing the SNC was upbeat as well. He said: "There is no doubt that the momentum is shifting toward the revolution, the regime knows it, the Russians know it. The only remaining question is how many more unfortunate lives (will be lost), and how much misery they will suffer, but there is no stopping it."

Najib Ghadbian, a member of the SNC and an Associate Professor at the University of Arkansas, told CBS News that the ballot box and a transition government would include members of the present government, who have not been involved in attacks against civilians. The Muslim Brotherhood is part of the SNC, but Kodmani said that the SNC wants the ballot box to decide the future.

Ghadbian said that Iran does not appear to want to be part of the solution. With regard to the Arab Spring, Iran welcomed change in Egypt and welcomed it in Tunisia, but not in Syria. It is a conceptual problem that the Iranian leadership must address first.

Opposition members also indicated there is an Arab League treaty to defend them as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. As soon as the regime loses its legitimacy, they could potentially ask for the activation of that treaty, and rely on allies to move forward.

Kodmani said if the U.N. were not stalemated, the SNC would like to see peacekeepers under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter and for the Security Council to refer the case of Syria to the International Criminal Court.

Asked about the much-noted divisions within the opposition, Kodmani said that a recent meeting in Cairo produced two documents: a joint platform for transition, and a joint vision for the future. That, she said, means that there is overall agreement, just not organizational agreement.

"If you want unity of one voice, of the Syrian opposition, you will not get it, but if you want a joint position on what the objective is, I think we have it," Kodmani said.

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.

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