02/16/2012 05:08 EST | Updated 04/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Open Letter to Syrian Opposition Leaders

As a Canadian with historical and family ties to Syria, I have always been a keen observer of what happens there. For years, I have encouraged the Syrian regime, publicly and privately, to adopt reforms and transition into an open society that respects the role of law and everyone's basic human rights.

Regrettably, very few meaningful social and political reforms were introduced. While some economical reforms were implemented, they benefited mostly an exclusive group of individuals with close ties to the regime. Corruption reached epidemic levels where citizens were bribing public servants just to be spared harassment. Syria has become a country where citizens have no sacred rights and anything could be subjected to arbitrary state control.

After more than 40 years of draconian control, the inevitable happened. People started demanding air to breathe. The proliferation of independent media and open access to the rest of the world exposed the regime. Syrians realized that other governments around the world permitted intense debate and criticism and at the same time kept advancing and growing, while Syria continued to deny pluralism and freedom of thought. Eventually, the public was going to stand up and say enough is enough. And they did.

There are very few people who would dispute the fact that the Syrian government is a military dictatorship. Even supporters of the regime are not able to deny the absence of democratic institutions and the lack of checks and balances.

The world is sympathetic to the plight of the Syrian people. They are inspired by their courage and horrified by the brutality they are facing. Syrian opposition leaders must not squander away that goodwill.

The Syrian opposition in all of its political colours must recognize the awesome burden it carries. The organic revolution that started almost a year ago was initiated by noble principles demanding freedom and dignity.

It's difficult to fully grasp what it feels like to be living in Homs, Hama, or any of the other Syrian cities being subjected to brutal military attacks by their own government. Watching one's family member being killed or have their house being destroyed is beyond outrageous. Living in my comfortable home in Canada doesn't qualify me to fully comprehend the anxiety and terror.

The sustained and deliberate brutality by the regime is pushing anxiety to unprecedented levels among many Syrians. That anxiety is occasionally being expressed through irrational calls for violence and revenge. Leaders of the Syrian opposition must be cautious not to let themselves be dragged into a world that loses sight of the honourable objectives of their revolution.

Opposition leaders must resist letting legitimate anger turn into hate. Apologists for the regime should not be threatened with violence or revenge. Sectarian generalizations, where groups are identified as enemies, must be avoided. Personal attacks and petty labels cheapen the discourse and undermine the moral high ground the opposition occupies.

Opposition leaders need to set a high standard in defining their revolution. They need to emphasize their goals of building an inclusive, respectful, lawful, and democratic society for all Syrians. They need to condemn any verbal or physical attacks against civilians just because they are assumed to be supporters of the regime. They need to reach out and comfort anyone who raises questions about the future of Syria beyond the Assad regime instead of ridiculing them or question their loyalty.

The opposition has history and justice on its side but needs to be aware that that alone is not enough. The Syrian regime will do everything in its power to distract people from its record and attack the credibility of the opposition. Demonstrating competence and statesmanship to Syrians and the international community will strengthen the opposition's credibility and expedite transition in Syria.

Fair-minded people and defenders of human rights want to see an end to the dictatorial regime that has suffocated Syria for decades, but they will be less enthusiastic about that change if they felt it would lead to chaos or further violence. The language and rhetoric used by opposition members needs to be reassuring instead of inflammatory.

Courageous Syrians who are risking their lives on a daily basis seeking dignity deserve leaders who will rise up to the occasion and honour their sacrifices.