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Hassan Hachimi, 47, a Toronto architect, is now a leading member of the freshly minted Syrian National Council. The SNC has emerged in recent days as the united face of the Syrian opposition. (Charla Jones for The Globe and Mail/Charla Jones for The Globe and Mail)
Hassan Hachimi, 47, a Toronto architect, is now a leading member of the freshly minted Syrian National Council. The SNC has emerged in recent days as the united face of the Syrian opposition. (Charla Jones for The Globe and Mail/Charla Jones for The Globe and Mail)

Graeme Smith

As Syrians plan their future, a Canadian helps lead Add to ...

When revolutionary fervour spread to Syria this spring, activists were initially reluctant to show their faces in public.

Hassan Hachimi, 47, a Toronto architect, says that when he organized the first protest outside of Syria, a small demonstration at the corner of Yonge and Dundas Streets, hardly anybody showed up. They stamped around in the February cold and chanted timid slogans about peace and dignity.

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“We were maybe 20 people, including my wife and kids,” Mr. Hachimi said. “We felt, okay, maybe this is going nowhere, but we must do something.”

Six months later, as the freshly minted Syrian National Council emerges as the central voice of the opposition, Syria's activists have gained confidence. They now demand nothing less than the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad.

For the first time in four decades the majority stand united, and they do not appear particularly nervous about showing themselves on the street.

From the patio of an Istanbul hotel, Mr. Hachimi watched freshly minted SNC leaders streaming out into the warm sunshine, long-bearded clerics in flowing white robes chatting amiably with clean-shaven businessmen in pinstripe suits. None of them expressed serious qualms about the fact that the hotel lacked a functioning metal detector. Nor did they complain about the absence of security officers around a conference where the SNC had essentially declared war on Damascus with its first policy statement on Sunday.

For many activists, including Mr. Hachimi, this moment has been brewing for generations. His father, a literature professor, was forced to flee Syria when Mr. Hachimi was 16 years old. Three of his brothers were arrested, and he believes one of them died in custody. Even as he built a professional career and raised his family in Canada, Mr. Hachimi says it was only natural that he continue the fight in Syria.

He joined the Damascus Declaration, an alliance of Syrian opposition groups that spelled out its intentions with a 2005 statement calling for a constitutional democracy that respects minorities, “regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sect or clan.”

The activists talked about that vision for years, without much hope of seeing it realized. As recently as November, 2010, Mr. Hachimi attended a Damascus Declaration meeting in Brussels as the group's Canadian vice-president, and listened to the speeches with a sense of despair.

“There was a lot of frustration,” he said. “We felt the situation remained frozen.”

The thaw came after protesters started dying on the streets in mid-March. Disparate members of Syria's opposition in exile gathered in the southern Turkish province of Antalya in May, marking the beginning of a series of meetings that would eventually produce the SNC.

The new umbrella group remains a work in progress, however. Mr. Hachimi is a candidate for membership on the 29-member secretariat, but the names have not yet been finalized. The secretariat is expected to include four representatives from the Damascus Declaration group; five from the Muslim Brotherhood; six from street protest movements inside Syria; four from Kurdish parties; one from the Christian Assyrian minority; and nine independents. So far, none of the potential independent candidates are drawn from the Alawi community, a Shia Muslim group sometimes described as harbouring more loyalty for the regime than the Sunni Muslim majority.

The SNC also hasn't worked out the details of how it intends to bring down the regime in Damascus. Mr. Hachimi now heads the North American section of the SNC's new foreign-affairs committee; two other committees are handling logistical and political support for activists inside Syria, but they have not yet decided on the best course of action.

Whatever happens next, Mr. Hachimi said, the revolution has gained momentum.

“The way people are breaking the barrier of fear, it's amazing,” he said.

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