ISTANBUL: Istanbul’s bustling streets, where tourists typically flock to attractions like Taksim Square and Askaray, is now also hosting a plethora of prominent Syrian opposition figures, many of whom have the upcoming presidential election in Lebanon in mind.
Along the popular Independence Street, amid the appetizing aromas of Turkish kebabs wafting through the air, The Daily Star met with Syrian opposition figures Wael al-Khalidi, of the Syrian Relief Commission and blogger Hamza Bakir, both of whom stressed that Lebanon’s next president should not have ties to the Syrian regime.
Khalidi, a well-known activist, was one of the first to participate in the Syrian uprising and has seen it develop from its early peaceful days. He settled in Istanbul with his family after he made international headlines for helping two French journalists escape from the battered Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs.
The journalists, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels, had been trapped for days in the besieged Baba Amr and were moved to safety to Lebanon in March of 2012.
The young blogger Bakir’s stirring posts prompted him to flee Syria and settle in Turkey. Though Bakir and Khalidi have found a sense of stability in Istanbul after months of persecution by the regime, both prefer to return to Syria as soon as possible.
The Daily Star caught up with both activists at the notorious Talawin cafe, which is perpetually shrouded with smoke from shisha, cigarettes and cigars. It hosts diverse customers, including moderate figures and Islamists. It is a known gathering place for Syrian opposition activists.
On this particular day, everyone was discussing the possible outcomes of the presidential election in Lebanon, as though it were the contested Syrian presidential elections to take place in June.
Opposition figures voiced concern about the election of a Lebanese president loyal to the regime.
“It’s a matter of life or death,” Khalidi said. “It is imperative for us that someone such as Jean Obeid, who is known for his strong ties with the Syrian regime, is not elected to the presidential palace.”
The Syrian regime calls Obeid their “loyal friend,” he added.
“We will not allow a Lebanese informant who is loyal to the Syrian regime to become the president to Lebanon,” he threatened.
Syrian activist in Istanbul Ahmad al-Ahmar, who is involved with humanitarian relief efforts goes to great lengths to explain the importance of the presidential election for the opposition’s efforts to topple Assad’s regime.
“Though this is an internal Lebanese affair, and despite the fact that we have been saying that we will not interfere in Lebanese affairs, we have to be careful with respect to the political maneuvering of the Syrian regime, which is being carried out with the help of its Lebanese allies.”
Khalidi believes that a political solution should be the ultimate goal to end the Syria crisis and accused Assad’s family of controlling the country’s riches for 41 years and willfully undermining efforts to forge peaceful solutions to suit his obsession with power.
“How can we reach an understanding with them while they see us as numbers and not as citizens who have duties and should practice their rights? They don’t recognize state institutions nor do they believe in transferring power,” he added.
Bakir, however, says resistance is key: “We have to be resilient for as long as possible. Our battles abroad are as important as our battles inside Syria.”
Khalidi criticized Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria.
“Hezbollah is implementing an Iranian plot to secure Iranian influence to span Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the rest of the Mediterranean,” Khalidi said.
“There is a prison run by Hezbollah in the Bekaa Valley town of Hermel, which is dedicated to detaining Syrian opposition figures and fighters. The prison has 175 inmates, according to our information,” Khalidi claimed.
“Assad’s clutch on power is the biggest obstacle in the way of resolving the Syrian crisis,” he said, recalling past negotiations with pro-regime businessman Mohammad Hamsho.
Bakir said that his online activism in support of the opposition was hampered as of late by the blocking of Twitter and YouTube in Turkey, a controversial measure taken by Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Bakir expressed his desire to go to a European country and settle there until the crisis ends and he can go back to his country.
“The only crime I committed was insisting on clinging to my freedoms and blogging in support of the Syrian uprising,” he said.