Libyan, Syrian opposition score gains on diplomatic front; Yemenis shift for themselves

Istanbul has been a busy place on the diplomatic front over the past two days. In the most significant development, the 32-nation Contact Group on Libya—including members of NATO, the EU and the Arab League—officially recognized the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) as the legitimate government of Libya. Meeting with NTC leader Mahmud Jibril, the United States, Turkey and other delegations conferred on the Benghazi-based rebel council recognition as the North African country’s “legitimate governmental authority.” The Contact Group statement said dictator Moammar Qaddafi “must leave power according to defined steps to be publicly announced.”

The move could help the NTC out of its dire financial straits. Foreign Minister Alain Juppe of France—the first foreign power to recognize the Libyan rebels shortly after the uprising began—told reporters that official recognition “means that we can now unfreeze certain Libyan state assets because it is the NTC that will henceforth exercise this responsibility.” (Middle East Online, Hurriyet Daily News, July 15)

The news came as Libyan rebels announced that they were advancing on the government-held oil port of Brega, which has repeatedly changed hands over the course of the war. NATO denied claims by the Tripoli regime that it had launched a “land, air and sea” offensive at Brega in support of rebel offensive—but the alliance’s own figures show a sharp escalation in bombing around the port. On July 15, NATO jets destroyed 14 military vehicles at Brega, compared with 17 destroyed there during the previous six days. (The Guardian, July 16)

Syrian opposition elects National Salvation Council —in Istanbul
Simultaneous with the summit on Libya, some 350 opposition leaders from Syria also met in Istanbul, electing a 25-member National Salvation Council with an eye towards establishing a parallel government that could likewise gain international recognition. The Council is made up of independents, liberals, Islamists and members of other parties dedicated to ousting President Bashar al-Assad.

“Bashar al-Assad is finished,” said Haitham al-Maleh, a longtime political prisoner who was released by the regime in March in an attempt to appease protesters. “He must leave the country, leave the power. We want to build our government, our regime, without them.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ostensibly in town for the Libya summit, also expressed support for the Syrian opposition move—although in terms that still seemed to leave room for negotiation. “What’s happening in Syria is very uncertain and troubling, because many of us had hoped that President Assad would make the reforms that were necessary without seeing what we’re now seeing in the streets of Syria, which are government tanks and soldiers shooting peaceful demonstrators,” she said. “There must be a legitimate, sincere effort with the opposition to try to make changes. I don’t know whether that will happen or not.” (CNN, July 16)

More protesters were killed in Syria over the past week, as France, with other European governments, continued circulating a draft resolution at the UN Security Council to censure the Damascus regime—only to see it blocked by veto-wielding permanent members China and Russia. “It is indecent because Bashar al-Assad has mobilized incredible resources to neutralize his opposition,” said Defence Minister Gerard Longuet. “Countries…like China…and Russia must accept common rules—one does not deal with one’s opposition with cannon fire.” (Middle East Online, July 14)

Yemeni opposition elects Transitional Council —in besieged Sanaa
Opposition leaders in Yemen meanwhile set up their own 17-member transitional council to lead the effort to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh (who remains in Saudi convalescence follwing an armed attack on his palace). The council includes former President Ali Nasser Mohammed and leaders of several opposition groups, including exiles. The council has named Gen. Abdullah Ali Aleiwa, a former defense minister, as their choice for armed forces commander. The council “is charged with leading the country during a transition period not to exceed nine months and with forming a government of technocrats,” said protest leader Tawakul Karman. (Al-Bawaba, MarketWatch, July 16)

Use of the word “technocrats” is clearly aimed at soothing the fears of world powers in hopes of official recognition. But the fact that the council was elected in the precarious environment of Sanaa, Yemen’s violence-torn capital, rather than in the safety of Istanbul with high-powered diplomats on hand, is very telling. Unlike the Libyans and Syrians, the Yemenis have the misfortune of suffering under a tyrant who is still perceived (if with growing trepidation) as a loyal proxy by the Western powers.

As the opposition met in Sanaa, heavy fighting broke out in the southern city of Taez, between tribesmen who have proclaimed for the opposition and Republican Guards still loyal to Saleh, leaving 10 dead and several more wounded. (Middle East Online, AFP, July 15)

Tunisian youth still protesting
In near-forgotten Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began more than six months ago, unrest continues despite the change in regime. As the Libyan opposition leaders schmoozed NATO diplomats in Istanbul, Tunisian youths staged a protest in the southern city of Ben Guerdane to demand jobs, and threatened a “general strike” if the new regime does not take measures to alleviate unemployment. Opposition leaders in Tunis also announced a sit-in at the capital’s Kasbah to demand the resignation of key cabinet members. (Middle East Online, July 15)

See our last posts on the politics of the Arab Spring.

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