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The New Face of Syria

The President of the Syrian National Council (SNC), Burhan Ghalioun
The President of the Syrian National Council (SNC), Burhan Ghalioun
The President of the Syrian National Council (SNC), Burhan Ghalioun

The President of the Syrian National Council (SNC), Burhan Ghalioun, considers the end of the Assad regime in Syria to be close at hand. Despite serious misgivings about the implementation of the Arab League’s current initiative to resolve the crisis—including questioning the effectiveness of Arab League observers—Ghalioun is “100 percent sure of victory for the people.”

In the context of continuing violence in Syria and daily reports of more bloodshed—not least this month’s double bombing in Damascus—The Majalla questioned Ghalioun on the internal security situation in Syria, the fragmentation of opposition groups, the role of the Free Syrian Army and the likely implications that Syria’s crisis will have for the region as a whole.

The Majalla: Do you still count on the Arab League to implement their initiative?

No one, not even the Arab League, has confidence in this regime. It is not expected that such a regime will implement the provisions of the initiative, but rather we all—including Arab League ministers who drafted the plan—expect that Damascus will hinder the implementation. In fact, the regime has already started by fabricating the bomb blasts that resulted in the death and injury of large numbers of Syrians. The regime has sent out a message, implying that it can do anything to abort any attempt to uncover its crimes. Thus, no one feels optimistic about this initiative, or even its first steps.

Q: If the Arab League is confident that the Syrian regime will not implement the initiative, why does it give the regime more chances?

The Arab League has given the regime a final opportunity to get out of the crisis without further bloodshed. I think the majority of Arab League ministers who supported the initiative anticipate its abortion by the regime, and intend to refer the issue to the UN Security Council. We are surprised at the League sending in observers while the first provision of the initiative has yet to be met—which demands that the regime withdraw all aspects of armament in the cities and stop the murdering machine. This is what the initiative is supposed to mean, not the visit of the observers. What we are seeing is a modest beginning that should be explained by the Arab League. How can it send observers without ensuring the withdrawal of forces and an end to the killing?

Q: Do you still have contacts with the Arab league and do you coordinate your efforts to help the observers?

We have exerted extraordinary efforts to contact the observers, and we have set up a committee in Damascus to communicate with them and provide them with data, in addition to supervising the implementation of the Arab initiative. I tried to call the Arab League a few days ago, but couldn’t speak to the Secretary General, but I’ll call them again to follow up and convey our questions about the work of the committee, including how and why observers were sent before implementing the first provision of the plan.

Q: Is the number of members in the observing delegation enough to accomplish their mission?

An observing committee cannot succeed if its requirements are not met. I think that 200 or even 300 observers are unconvincing and not sufficient. For instance in Bosnia and Herzegovina, there were about 3,000 observers, though the population is less and its area is smaller than Syria. I believe that talking about 150 or even 500 observers reveals lack of seriousness in addressing the current situation, especially that we are facing a regime that has long history of lies and deception. In order to give the initiative a chance to succeed, the committee should be expanded and benefit from international agencies that have already experienced similar circumstances. The Arab League has no experience in this regard.

The Observers’ Mission

Q: What do you think of the formation of the delegation and its members, are you satisfied with it?

We don’t interfere with the participants; it is the responsibility of the League, which appoints the members and organizes the general framework of the committee. We rather want a professional framework by experienced international organizations, and the number of members should be raised at least to 2,000 observers. We also want the tasks of this commission to be clearly determined, which is to observe the implementation of the initiative by the regime. If we accept the existence of the commission without the implementation of the initiative, I don’t know what their mission would be. Is it just to say that military forces are attacking the cities, and there are protests and killings? We know all this and the media is broadcasting it. We need the observing commission to reveal whether or not the regime has implemented its commitments to the Arabs to stop the killings, and withdrawn the security forces and the thugs.

Q: After all you have said, do you think that the Arab League is serious in the role it assumed to solve the Syrian crisis?

The coming days will show the seriousness of the League. Current indications do not suggest seriousness, but we don’t want to kill the initiative without giving it all possibilities to succeed. We want to help it succeed.

No More Initiatives

Q: There is another initiative, proposed by Iraq, competing with the League’s plan. They think their initiative offers a sustainable solution to the Syrian crisis, unlike the Arab plan that aims at protecting civilians. What is your opinion of this initiative?

We are surprised at having multiple initiatives. We have been told that there is an Iraqi plan to reach a sustainable solution in Syria, but have not seen it, just read about it in the newspapers. When I spoke to an Iraqi official who called me, I told him that we don’t need more initiatives and asked them to support the Arab plan. We have no interest in moving to and from initiatives and wasting time. We have wasted much time while the Syrian people are being killed.

Q: In your opinion, have Arab efforts decreased the pace of potential European initiatives? Is international action to solve the crisis delayed or suspended until further notice?

No, the whole world is convinced that if there is no Arab support, no initiative will succeed. There was no international action, just efforts to issue a resolution by the UN Security Council that was vetoed by Russia and China. Meanwhile, the main initiative should come from the Arabs, and we have reiterated that the Arab League should play an effective role in solving political conflicts and differences inside the Arab countries. There is no alternative to the Arab initiative, but this does not prevent any humanitarian intervention to protect the Syrian people, which requires a stance taken by the Arab League. Therefore, the Arab League has to direct all its efforts to move from simply an Arab initiative, to an Arab initiative adopted by the UN Security Council.

Q: There is a gap between your efforts and the action in the streets. Don’t you fear people inside Syria lose their patience while they are at the front lines against Assad’s regime, especially after they raised slogans calling for outside intervention?

The public in the streets are suffering greatly. The Syrian people have proved they are a great people. After 10 months of struggle, they were not offered any significant financial aid. We admit that, and refuse any distinction between opposition inside or outside Syria. I think that, today, all Syrian opposition groups want to topple the Syrian regime and no opposition side would accept to hold talks with Bashar Al-Assad.

Criticism

Q: How far did your efforts go to include opposition figures who previously accused you of exclusion, which drew criticism from Arab and European countries?

SNC is a coalition of seven Syrian opposition forces. It’s natural that SNC only includes those who agreed upon forming the council, so those who didn’t join the council are the people who refused to join it, and therefore there is no exclusion.

Q: Who are the most prominent figures who recently accepted to join the council?

Most notably there is Haitham Maleh [80 year-old human rights activist], Walid Al-Bunni [prominent Syrian dissident] and Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm [renowned professor of philosophy]. We invited many figures and personalities to join and all of them, without exception, will find a place in the council.

However, we think that people who refused to join the SNC—of course it’s their right—have a different stance and disagree with the strategic choices of the council. Yet, we are ready to coordinate with everybody, even those who disagree with us, because the SNC isn’t a political party, it is one of the resistance tools aiming at fulfilling the objectives of the revolution. Plus, we have lately sent a delegate to launch a dialogue with other opposition parties in Cairo. We have already released a document unifying the opposition stance and it will be submitted to the Arab League.

Q: Some of the opposition figures described the council as an Islamic structure standing in for the Muslim Brotherhood with a secularist spokesperson represented by you. To what extent does the Muslim Brotherhood dominate the SNC?

That is an exaggeration. Despite the fact that the council has more liberals than Islamists, the spotlight is fixed on Islamists due to the intense media interest in them.

The Syrian regime considers all the Islamists traitors and excludes them—that is one of the main points we disagree with—while the opposition has paid a high price for integrating the Islamists in the national movement.

Moreover, the regime have been trying to capitalize on that, describing the council as an Islamic council in efforts to weaken the opposition and distort its image. But the truth is different; the council is open to all Islamic or non Islamic forces.

Q: There has been some western focus on the makeup of the SNC. Are minorities under-represented in the council?

We completely understand sensitive stance of western countries towards the minority issue, but their focus on that issue doesn’t mean they are talking about facts; it only reflects their commitment towards the minorities. That has nothing to do with the SNC as all the Syrian categories have been represented in it, even if not equally and of course there is a lack of equal representation in the executive board. For example, the number of women is much less than it should be, but that is because the council is a coalition between many forces which have chosen their own representatives.

However, there is a dire need to fill in the gaps—out of national interest, not from sectarian or separatist aspects.

Q: What is the relation between your council and the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria (Kurdnas)?

We were regularly contacting Kurdish movements, parties and figures until the formation of the Kurdnas. We have expressed our desire to effectively integrate Kurdnas to our council.

Q: Does Kurdnas intend to join the SNC?

They have the same goals; two days ago I was speaking with the chairman of the Kurdnas about that. I think they are currently considering how to join us and the type of representation. It’s up to them now. We repeat our invitation to them. Their place is reserved in the council: all the seats dedicated to the Kurdish movements and figures.

Political Recognition

Q: Opposition against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime is still regarded as a rebel political front not as a legitimate alternative to the regime.  Does that mean the Syrian regime remains coherent and to what extent has the fragmentation of the opposition hindered its progress?

There is no opposition in the world unified in one specific frame. It is also against democratic principles. The Syrian opposition is required to take a unified stance against a regime that is killing its people and that has already happened.

On the other hand, it’s not true that the regime is still coherent. Politically speaking, it’s over. For example, the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Walid Al-Moallem, can’t leave Damascus. While economically, the regime is teetering. As for the society, all social classes have abandoned it; even businessmen who were betting on it have started to join the opposition, at least most of them.

On the security level, the regime has lost control over the country; it’s no longer able to control Damascus. In addition, its presence in some areas is similar to a gang of thugs attacking and killing people, not as an authority of the state. All this indicates that the regime is falling apart and on its way to collapse.

Q: Why does the recognition of the SNC as an alternative to the regime constitute a problem, especially for countries such as the US and France who were calling for the step down of Bashar Al-Assad?

The recognition issue is very complicated. All the countries that have received us, or the chairman of the SNC, whether on the level of prime ministers or foreign ministers recognize our council; otherwise they wouldn’t have received us. This is a strong political recognition.

As for legal recognition, it means that we are the alternative to the ruling regime in Syria, which has a lot of consequences including withdrawal of their ambassadors from Syria, expelling Syrian ambassadors and admitting representatives of the SNC to the Syrian embassies. That means creating an alternative state which entails many legal and political complications which are not currently helpful.

We don’t want to engage in struggles and bear what we can’t afford at this stage. We have a political recognition and many countries are backing our demands regarding the stepping down of Al-Assad, and the Syrian people only demand the toppling of the regime.

Q: Common consensus has it that toppling the regime won’t happen in the near future. What do you think?

The regime has not fallen until now for many reasons, including the ongoing support of some countries such as Iran, in addition to the regime’s dependence on violence, suppression and killing. It is a regime that is not ashamed of the bloodshed. Moreover, the sensitive strategic geopolitical position of Syria has scared off many countries from standing in up to that regime without Arab support or a resolution from the Security Council.

There are other factors including the opposition’s insistence on preserving the unity of the country and rejecting any interference that could affect the sovereignty of the country and its independence.

Internal Protection

Members of the Free Syrian Army. The "main pillar of civil protection."
Members of the Free Syrian Army. The "main pillar of civil protection."

Q: What about the protection of civilians through humanitarian corridors and buffer zones. Is it postponed until the end of the observers’ mission?

We are insisting on our demands in this regard. We call for a buffer zone to protect the people, but that must go through the Security Council. However, we are working on plans to protect civilians. We are studying many mechanisms to ensure that protection. We will not wait for foreigners to protect civilians but we will develop means to protect civilians from inside Syria, and that has already started.

Q: Are you referring to The Free Syrian Army (FSA) when you are talking about internal protection?

Of course, it is the main pillar of the protection system, but there are other strong civil protection systems that we are working on. We are currently developing plans to ensure the best possible protection. We will not wait for the Security Council.

Q: How do you coordinate with FSA, and could it be dubbed as the military arm of the SNC?

No, the SNC doesn’t have a military arm. The SNC is supporting the FSA and all other parties that are trying to protect the Syrian people and protesters, we are coordinating with everybody; we are coordinating and consulting with the FSA. We want the FSA to be independent, not a military arm of any opposition political entity—especially since FSA is one of the main pillars of the Syrian popular resistance against tyranny.

Q: Don’t you have concerns over the FSA affecting the peaceful character of the revolution?

Of course they are legitimate concerns, but things in fact are different. The FSA is only protecting protesters and that is not difficult to prove. You only have to watch TV channels; we are watching everyday hundreds of thousands of protesters without any weapons. Isn’t it a peaceful and popular revolution? This is the truth of the revolution, and the free soldiers are committed to protecting civilians not to waging a war.

Q: How does the FSA gain logistic support?

Well, we aren’t intervening in that but they obtain what they need mainly from Syrian resources; from the army itself, they take what they can only from the armories of the Syrian army, not more.

Q: What is the truth of weapons being smuggled from neighboring countries to the FSA?

I don’t have enough information about that. But I don’t think there is armament from outside Syria. There has always been smuggling of weapons from Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and probably Turkey. We are talking about very small and light weapons for individual use, which are available in Syria and all over the world.

Q: Could the FSA be an alternative to a military intervention?

Not on its own, but it is certainly one of the most important pillars of civil protection. Otherwise, we should develop civil mechanisms to protect civilians, we will try to develop the Arab initiative and we will find another means. We are currently working on that because we don’t bet on the fast change of UN position, at least in the coming few months. I think the next couple of months will be crucial to the regime. We might see the fall of the regime before we succeed in getting a resolution from the Security Council on any type of intervention.

Q: Do you believe in the probability of a coup d’état?

Until now there has been no coup d’état, which means it’s less likely to happen. But we shouldn’t rule out any probability even if it only represents 30 percent.

Q: How much do you depend on defections as an alternative to a military coup d’état?

We know that there are messages sent by officers who are willing to defect from the army. At least there is a big wish for defecting, but the question is: is there a group of officers who are trying systematically to topple the regime? I don’t rule out this possibility, but we don’t have confirmed information about such attempts.

A European Fund

Q: Have France, or other European countries, offered you financial support?

We asked EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton to establish a fund to support Syrian people, in which all the EU countries would participate. Many countries supported the idea and we are waiting for the announcement of its establishment.

Q: Many people hope that the Russian stance will change after the announcement of a draft resolution on Syria submitted to the Security Council, which faced American objections. Are you still convinced that Moscow’s position may change?

I’m optimistic that a little shift will happen. Moscow realizes that the Syrian regime is crumbling. There is ongoing contact between us and Russian Foreign Ministry and they are always sending us signals about their recognition of the rights of the Syrian people. They are also recognizing that the Syrian regime is committing crimes. We received many delegates from Moscow to assure us—I won’t mention their names. However, Russia still urges us to launch a dialogue with the regime, but we have repeatedly asserted that the regime has put an end to the dialogue path because it is still killing people. We call upon Russia to take obvious stances against the crimes committed against Syrian people. When Russia contacted us before submitting their draft resolution the Security Council, I asked them to seriously express their belief in the cause of the Syrian people and their recognition of the difference between the people and the regime. We also hope that they adopt the Arab initiative.

The Role of Regional Countries

New Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki, with Burhan Ghalioun
New Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki, with Burhan Ghalioun

Q: How do you see the role of Saudi Arabia?

It is clear that Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, are taking the most powerful position in supporting the Syrian people politically as well as backing the Arab initiative. The Arab League initiative was initially a Gulf initiative and there is a consensus between most of Gulf States that the regime went so far in its brutality, killings and destruction that it has become impossible to deal with.

The national interest of neighboring and Gulf countries requires supporting Syrian people to ensure the minimum limit of stability in the region. The Syrian regime is the source of instability not only for Syrian people but also for the whole region.

Q: Turkey engaged early in the Syrian revolution by imposing sanctions on the Syrian regime and also through what some described as an important role in forming the SNC. How do you see the Turkish role?

The current SNC wasn’t established under the auspices of Turkey. Therefore it didn’t intervene in its structure. The SNC came through a coalition of opposition forces without any intervention of whatever player. That doesn’t mean that Turkey doesn’t support SNC. Obviously, Turkey supports SNC and the Syrian opposition as a whole. However, The Turkish policy tends to be in harmony with the policies of the International community and the Arabs. SNC is endorsing the Arab role which entails political, strategic and practical commitments.

Q: In your opinion, why is the Turkish role retreating in the current phase?

Certainly, Turkey has taken a strong stance from the beginning, but they have different evaluations of the amount of challenges and the pressures they can apply to bring the Syrian regime down. Certainly, cutting Turkish relations with the Syrian regime represents a pressure on the regime. According to our discussions with Turkey, they are tending to believe that it can’t act on its own, and any role should be in harmony with the Arab role and international efforts.

Q: To what extent will Syrian interests intersect with the interests of Iran and Hezbollah after fulfilling the objectives of the revolution?

Of course, we will not think of cutting relations with them. It’s not logical to cut the relations with other states, even if that country has not taken positive stances towards our people’s cause. But certainly there is a difference between special relations and ordinary relations. I think after the change, there will be no justification to have exceptional relations between Syria and Iran. There won’t be such an Iranian-Syrian axis against other Arab countries.

Syria will have closer ties with the Arab region as a whole. I don’t think we can resume the special relations between new Syria and Iran, while Iran is publicly supporting the Syrian regime against its people. It’s not logical.

As for Hezbollah, I think it will change its stance when the situation in Syria changes. However, whatever what we say today doesn’t have any value. The Syrian people, through its elected parliament, will determine the future policies of Syria not the SNC.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future of Syrian revolution?

I’m not only optimistic, I’m 100 percent sure of victory for the people and I think the people have already won. But they still need to complete the mission and get rid of Assad regime. Undoubtedly, the victory of Syrians will come very soon.

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Roshan Kasem
Roshan Kasem is a Syrian–Kurdish writer based in northern Iraq.

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