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Former East Timor president Jose Ramos-Horta’s Advice For Syrian Rebels

Nobel laureate and East Timor’s former president José Ramos-Horta has some advice for Syria’s freedom fighters.

Pamela Martin / Getty Images

Just four decades ago, at the height of the Cold War, Timor-Leste (known to many as East Timor) was nearly isolated in its struggle for freedom and democracy, like many countries at the time. Every major Western and Asian power supported the other side in our struggle, which began with Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of our island.

We did not give up our own dreams of freedom. But we died for them for 24 years. The Indonesians, too, endured a dictatorship that did not seem to even stop and think before slaughtering real or perceived enemies en masse.

No one came to our rescue. On the contrary, all regional and world powers consorted with the Suharto regime.

That was then. That was the Cold War. The West has changed. Today it is wiser and more sensitive to public outcry against gross and systematic abuse of human rights. Today nearly the whole world backs the Syrian struggle for freedom and democracy. Syria’s freedom fighters have reason to be hopeful.

But divisions within the movement are as obvious as they are inevitable, and undermine their own efforts.

These divisions are not going to dissipate any time soon. And it is the actions of the freedom fighters within the country that will prove to be the lynchpin in the conflict.

So for the Syrians fighting for freedom and democracy, allow some unsolicited advice from a fellow freedom-fighter, someone who has been there.

First: fight on, with the full strength of your faith. But do not join your adversaries at the bottom of the gutter. Do not kidnap, torture, humiliate the captured soldiers or civilians who have collaborated with the regime.In our own struggle for freedom, tens of thousands of our innocent civilians were arrested, tortured, and disposed of. But we never abducted, tortured, or killed a single Indonesian civilian. All captured soldiers were treated humanely and eventually released.

You have won the diplomatic battle. But you risk losing the international goodwill you have gained if you do not overcome your own internecine divisions, and worse, if you descend to the level of your adversaries, using similar inhumane tactics against captured adversaries.

Second: be patient. It is possibly your best weapon. The regime is running out of options.

What it does still have is enough fire power and loyalty among its army and certain sectors of the society to continue to inflict widening carnage on its citizenry. In the face of the regime's military superiority, to challenge it militarily is to define the battle where they are the strongest.

When you are weak militarily, you try to outfox the other side politically and diplomatically. Use the goodwill you have gained strategically.

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Third: be pragmatic and smart. Accept the Annan Plan, and step into the peace and political process. This is where you can outsmart the regime with cunning patience. In this globalized world and Arab Spring fervor, the days of regimes such as the one you face in Syria are numbered. As you play a constructive role within the Annan Plan, you will win over the trust of those still hesitant or entrenched within the al-Assad regime, including the powerful army. You would further consolidate support in your region and in the world.

We know there are serious risks in playing political chess with the regime; your leaders can be assassinated or co-opted. But you have shown us now how capable you are of enduring risk for the ultimate prize.

There are more actions the international community can take that are still short of a sea blockade and air campaign. For instance, in the coming months the Arab League should lead efforts in the United Nations Credentials Committee and the General Assembly to reject the accreditation of the al-Assad's regime delegation.

As it might be premature to recognize any Syrian faction, maybe the more representative Syrian opposition groups should be granted observer status in the General Assembly with the right to speak but without the right to vote. As soon as the Syrian opposition comes up with a more unified and broadly representative body it should be accorded full diplomatic recognition.

The Syrian democracy movement and the international community should offer an olive branch to senior officers in the Syrian army. Say they are given three months to defect and if they decide to do so, they will be granted full amnesty and the possibility of returning to active duty after liberation. This offer should be extended to civilian leaders as well as business leaders.

Much greater effort must be made by the Syrian opposition and their Arab allies, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to make contact with and entice the Syrian Army to change sides. The Army will eventually arrange for al-Assad's exit, as happened recently in Egypt and in Indonesia in 1989.

The al-Assad family should be offered safe passage to Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has been a safe haven for dictators—often a valuable element to the resolution of a conflict--over many decades. Idi Amin of Uganda, for one, died in the Kingdom after many years of quiet but apparently comfortable seclusion.

The U.S. and its NATO partners are right in being prudent, and they are doing what is possible in a very complex region. Yet finding a solution to the unfolding situation in Syria cannot rest solely with the United Nations and the major powers such as the U.S., Russia, and China. If China and Russia were to change their stance and decide to dump the al-Assad regime, it is certainly not clear that the regime would topple any faster. And those advocating a Libyan-style intervention are wrong. Syria has fought wars with Israel, directly or via proxy forces, and has been in a state of war for decades. Its military preparedness should not be underestimated.

The Annan Plan is the only realistic way forward. Intelligence, cohesiveness and strategic thinking and execution on the part of the Syrian freedom fighters, with support from its neighbors and the West, could bring it to fruition.