This study attempts to understand various issues connected with the political and media discourse, as well as the political performance and achievements, of the Syrian opposition, which first emerged and grew into its current form in the period following the outbreak of the Syrian revolution on March 15, 2011. Moving beyond the various flaws that plague the opposition, we seek to sketch out possible alternative paths and solutions that could enable these political forces to elevate their discourse and performance to levels befitting a revolution.
Inevitably, the study will evince a degree of subjectivity. I am, after all, a participant in, or at least a witness to, these events. At the same time I am fully aware and accepting of the contradictions and differences that exist, not to mention the differing perspectives and experiences we have all passed through, and hope to avoid the pitfalls in a quest to generate new approaches and attitudes worthy of our cause.
Table of Contents
- 1. Introduction
- 2. The Syrian Opposition in Reality and the Meaning of Unity
- 3. The National Coordinating Committee: Formation, Structure, Discourse and Performance
- 4. The Syrian National Council: formation, composition, discourse and performance
- 5. The Syrian Opposition: Discourse and Performance
- 6. The Relationship Between Different Branches of the Opposition
- 7. Issues in Pressing Need of a Political Solution
- 8. Thoughts on the Future and Possible Roles
To Remain Silent or to Speak Out?
Given the current state of the opposition and its internal disagreements, the choice of whether to pass over them in silence or speak out is not an easy one, and is made even more difficult by the extreme sensitivity shown by all sides. The moment you voice criticism of a position or certain actions, a thousand voices are raised against you:
‘Not now! We must close ranks to bring down the regime!’
But if you say nothing you are also blamed:
‘By your silence you are complicit in everything. If it weren’t for your silence none of this would ever have happened!’
By and large, I feel the time is ripe for a profound, mature and responsible discussion. Until now, the atmosphere has been charged with so much ill-feeling and tension that people were unable to listen properly to each other and talk properly about events.
Writing is a responsible activity, because it requires the presence of two binding principles—knowledge and a sound moral base—which privilege a calm and rational approach to differences of opinion and the complex and precise calculations needed to analyse what is taking place. I say this because I have experienced numerous instances of wantonly irresponsible writing, particularly on social websites where everyone’s main obsession seems to be judging others without the slightest desire to debate issues and ideas or propose new ones.
My contribution—in the form of this study—as regards the challenges facing the revolution and the opposition, is to sound a note of warning and caution, or at least a reminder that the revolution, in both its constructive and destructive aspects, is a complex phenomenon. With destruction, there must also be a parallel process of rebuilding and this cannot be achieved by adopting the very thuggishness we are fighting. Indeed, thuggishness has become a culture, thriving both within the regime and further afield, in the opposition and society as a whole. Anyone who watches the satellite channels or browses through Facebook will find clear traces of it.
Some might say that now is not the time for debate or discussion on this issue, that we have to focus on our goal and get rid of our biggest problem first. To them, I reply:
‘Of course we must focus on our primary objective, we mustn’t wander off-course, but at the same time there’s nothing wrong with criticism if it stems from a desire to protect the revolution and the country, if it done with respect, ethics and a responsible awareness of the power of words, as opposed to a thuggish instinct to protect our own bloated selves. Moreover, I don’t know that it’s possible to move forward without first jettisoning (with deliberation and good judgement) everything that impedes our smooth progress.’
The Obsession With Names and Personalities
Whenever I take some idea or subject to discuss, whether on the social network sites or on paper, I find that I can divide the comments on what I’ve written into three categories, and I believe that the same is true for other writers:
In general people seem to want to attribute names to every idea they see written down. I would like to say that I open ideas to debate and discussion, not names. Personally, names don’t interest me: ideas are the thing. What matters is the clarity of ideas, and introducing names into the mix only encourages distortion, abuse and slander, not to mention the fact that it is unethical.
A considerable proportion of the comments I receive have nothing to do with what I have written about, betray an imprecise reading of the text, loading it with more meaning that it can bear, or reveal the personal obsessions of the commentator, hasty reactions that bear no relation to the words or intentions of the author.
Some comments are charged with a certain personally directed irritation, if not hostility or open enmity. This is a genuine tragedy and says much about the wretched state of people’s consciousness.
Constructing consciousness from rumours
Something that has hurt us in the past and continues to do so today is our habit of basing an understanding of the world, our convictions and positions, on rumours, word of mouth and an inability to listen carefully. Not only does this approach leave us prey to distortion and doubt it also diverts our energy away from working towards our common goal. In my view, the alternative to this is to return to the source; to calmly and objectively analyse everything we hear, or read or say.
The Dire State of the Opposition After Years of Repression
Whether from the Syrian National Council, the National Coordinating Committee or elsewhere, opposition political organizations in Syria are in a wretched state.
Most traditional parties, such as the Labor Party, the Arab Socialists Movement, the Democratic People Party (formerly the Syrian Communist Party-Political Bureau) and the Revolutionary Workers Party, have no more than one hundred members apiece. The only group to enjoy any kind of genuine popular support is the Democratic Arab Socialist Union, which boasts around two thousand members. New political organizations, which have sprung up since the start of the revolution are often poorly represented and appear to be unstable and unlikely to last. Even the Muslim Brotherhood has no real organizational structure within the country: in almost twenty-three years of political activism inside Syria I have yet to meet someone who introduces themselves as a member of the Brotherhood. While this may be understandable, given the risk such self-identification entails, it remains the case that there is little sympathy for the Brothers in most urban centres.
Neither do I have a clear picture of the organizational capabilities of the Kurdish parties, whether those from the Coordinating Committee, the Damascus Declaration or the Kurdish bloc within the National Council. However, I do detect a gulf between the parties themselves and the Syrian Kurdish population they claim to represent, and moreover, that these parties and groups were primarily formed to deal with the Kurdish problem within Syria, rather than the wider Kurdish issue. The Damascus Declaration, originally a political alliance that was one of the founding groups in the Syrian National Council, is now no more than a single party—the Democratic People Party—with a few unaffiliated nationalist political figures in tow, since the Declaration’s Kurdish parties realigned themselves within the National Council as the Kurdish Bloc. The same is true of the Democratic Assyrian Organization.
Of the political parties that make up the National Coordinating Committee, suffice it to say that the majority comprise no more than the party’s name and a handful of individuals.
Political Formations at the Start of the Revolution
When the revolution began there were a number of opposition political formations in Syria, each one comprising a number of political parties, some of which belonged to more than one group.
The National Democratic Assembly was founded in 1979 during a period of conflict between the Syrian regime and the Muslim Brotherhood and represents the traditional opposition. It includes the following parties: the Democratic Arab Socialist Union, the Revolutionary Workers Party, the Democratic People Party (formerly the Syrian Communist Party-Political Bureau), the Arab Socialists Movement, the Communist Labor Party (which joined the Assembly in 2008) and the Democratic Baath Party (which has not had a representative in the Assembly’s governing council for at least twenty years). The Assembly’s governing council is made up of ten members: two from each political party.
The Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change, an initiative of civil society committees and the National Democratic Assembly, was founded on October 16, 2005, and was at that time the most inclusive opposition formation in the country. It comprised the following political groups: the parties of the National Democratic Assembly, the Revival of Civil Society committees, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Communist Labor Party (not a member of the Assembly at that time), Kurdish parties (the Kurdish Democratic Party under Abdel Hakim Bashar, the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party, the Progressive Democratic Party and the Kurdish Azadi Party), the Democratic Assyrian Party and various unaffiliated political figures both within Syria and abroad.
About a year after the Declaration was constituted, the Muslim Brotherhood joined Abdel Halim Khaddam’s National Salvation Front and in 2008, without consulting their allies in the Declaration, they announced a cessation of hostilities with the regime during the Israeli incursion into Gaza. In late 2007 the Damascus Declaration held its first general conference, as a result of which the Arab Socialist Union and Labor parties left the alliance along with a number of independent political figures and the civil society committees. By the time of the revolution the Declaration’s membership had been reduced to the following: the Democratic People Party, the Revolutionary Workers Party, the Arab Socialists Movement, the Kurdish Bloc, the Democratic Assyrian Organization and a number of unaffiliated political figures.
Between 2008 and 2011 there were a number of attempts to repair the damage done to the Declaration, but these ended in failure and the situation went from bad to worse, especially after the arrest of a number of Declaration activists in January 2008.
It was around this time that the Assembly of the Marxist Left was founded, a group made up of a number of small leftist and communist parties, including: the Syrian Communist Party-Political Bureau (a splinter group of the Democratic People Party), the Democratic Assembly of Marxists, the Association of Syrian Communists and the Kurdish Left Party.
To recap, at the start of the revolution the political opposition in Syria was made up of the following groups and organizations: the National Democratic Assembly, the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change, the Assembly of the Marxist Left, a group of Kurdish parties unaffiliated with the Damascus Declaration and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Unity in the Opposition and Proposed Initiatives
We should not think of a united opposition as meaning a single organizational structure, with a single approach and manifesto, but rather as an agreement over general principles and policies; i.e. a loose umbrella organization that allows its constituent members to freely pursue their own agendas within their own political structures. In this sense, unity facilitates the distribution of diverse and complementary roles, which is vital to the realization of the opposition’s primary goals. The idea that any group ‘represents’ the internal Syrian opposition, or is the sole, legitimate representative of the Syrian people, is ultimately a destructive one, because it partakes of the very culture of exclusion and disenfranchisement that lies at the heart of the Syrian regime itself.
With this in mind, on 25 March 2011 last year, I launched an initiative to achieve consensus on a political vision and organizational framework that could unite the current groupings of the political opposition. The initiative was under the control of the National Democratic Assembly, to which, as a member of the Revolutionary Workers Party, I belong. The idea was met with great enthusiasm.
However, given my familiarity with the Syrian opposition and its problems, I knew that if the initiative was seen to come from the Assembly or the Declaration, it was sure to meet with opposition. To avoid this, I proposed forming a group comprised of independent political figures, tasked with promoting and implementing the initiative. The group was duly convened, comprising the following individuals: Burhan Ghalyoun, Michel Kilo, Hussein al-Oudat, Aref Dalila, Habib Eissa, Abdel Aziz al-Khair and myself, Hazem Nahar.
A proposal was sent out to all the political parties and groups concerned, in addition to some eighty unaffiliated political figures within Syria and fifteen other individuals abroad. The proposal addressed a number of points and highlighted the following pressing needs: providing the popular movement with political guidance; preventing the regime playing on divisions within the opposition; reducing the number of unilateral actions (such as irresponsible media appearances) made by individuals in the name of the Syrian revolution, in particular those initiatives that sought to forge ill-thought-out links between the opposition and foreign governments. The proposal was particularly urgent given the flood of initiatives and conferences involving exiled Syrians that were taking place at that time.
The proposal was addressed to the following groups: the National Democratic Assembly, the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change, the Assembly of the Marxist Left, the Kurdish National Movement (a new group comprising twelve Kurdish parties, including those from the Declaration), exiled members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and independents within Syria and abroad.
On June 30, after nearly three months of hard work, intensive communication and debate the National Coordinating Committee was formed. Though it boasted a highly inclusive membership, not all opposition groups joined. The Damascus Declaration was the most notable absentee.
A number of individuals within Syria from the Declaration stated that due to the unequal balance of forces between the regime and the opposition such an initiative could end up working to the advantage of the authorities, and even be seen as attempt to rescue them from their predicament. In short, in was inappropriate until such time as the regime was on the verge of collapse.
But who was rescuing the regime? Was it those who were doing all in their power to provide the opposition with a sense of direction and common purpose, or was it the ones who obstructed these efforts with their lame excuses? In my view, the most likely explanation is that these dissenters had no faith in the individuals and parties that made up the Coordinating Committee, or to put it another way, it stemmed from the opposition’s long history of mutual suspicion and infighting.
Did anyone really expect these dissenters to practice what they preached? We see them in the news every day, forming alliances with regional and international powers and the Arab League. Now we have the very situation I feared: a babel of contradictory and competing voices that leaves everyone, regime loyalists and opponents alike, mistrustful and dismissive of the Syrian opposition.
3. The National Coordinating Committee: Formation, Structure, Discourse and Performance
The aim of the National Coordinating Committee was to foster the opposition’s unity in the face of a vicious regime. As I mentioned above, efforts to form this committee date back to the early days of the revolution in March 2011. The very fact that such an initiative happened when it did should give some indication that those involved were well aware of the risk that the opposition would lose itself in internal wrangling. They anticipated the current chaotic situation, which was due to the sheer diversity of approaches that flourished under decades of tyranny.
I personally tried to delay the launch of the Coordinating Committee on three separate occasions in general meetings, which irritated a number of individuals and parties involved, though I was ultimately successful. I did so because I knew what the effect would be on the popular movement of having two such bodies competing for political legitimacy and issuing contradictory statements. Our failure to bring all opposition groups into a single coordinating body was a bitter pill for me to swallow and subsequent events have proved it to be a chronic flaw affecting both the opposition and the popular movement itself.
In my interviews with the media I became flustered when the conversation turned to the recent history and role of the political opposition. At such a critical moment, should I try and conceal the shameful reality and portray the opposition as a single movement, united against the regime; or should I criticize it, and give a full account of its flaws and problems?
The proposal for the formation of a National Coordinating Committee that was sent out in April and May was clear about why such a body was needed. We had to stop the flow of irresponsible and maverick statements and initiatives, stem the tide of conferences and pronouncements by the Syrian opposition in exile, and simultaneously persuade Syrians at home that there was a political organization capable of managing a post-regime transitional period. We also had to send a message to the international community that there was a viable alternative to post-revolutionary chaos (as the saying goes: a revolution without a head grows a thousand heads once it has succeeded). We knew that the regime would do all it could to stop the popular protest movement generating a viable political structure to represent its interests, and it did so: cordoning off the cities and preventing Syrians from interacting with one another. Furthermore, we knew that it would take time for such a body to become effective.
Despite this, there were still those who opposed the proposal or cast doubt on it. After the creation of the National Coordinating Committee had been announced there was a sense of victory in the air, but I found myself unable to participate in the celebrations. I felt that we had failed, and though I had expected it (after all, the chances of forming a fully united coordinating body had never been more than ten per cent at most) I had still staked my hopes on people recognizing the need to pull together at such a critical moment and form a temporary alliance as a bridge between the revolution and the future.
The Coordinating Committee and the Lowest Common Denominator
The National Coordinating Committee is not a political party, but rather fifteen separate political parties and a large number of unaffiliated individuals. It contains every possible belief and position and not everyone who speaks in its name represents the views of all. By their very nature, political alliances are based on consensus over the most basic issues. They are founded on the lowest common denominator.
I have always maintained that all political alliances and formations should not be immune to criticism and will all eventually become redundant. They are temporary and will be supplanted by others in the future. Their replacements will be less flawed, more dynamic, more representative of the age in which they exist and better able to express the hopes and fears of the people.
The Coordinating Committee and Dialogue With the Regime
A lot has been said about the Coordinating Committee being created to initiate dialogue with the authorities and rescue the regime from its current predicament. The truth is that the committee has yet to enter into any form of negotiation or dialogue with the regime. In the first three months of the revolution, the regime was in communication with certain individuals from the committee, though everyone was aware that the regime was playing for time and looking for a way out of the crisis.
There has always been absolute consensus over this issue within the committee. On April 13 I authored a statement on behalf of the National Democratic Assembly laying out an “eight-point program for a political solution in Syria”. The eight points were as follows:
- Halting the killing and withdrawing the army and security services.
- Releasing all prisoners.
- Stopping the regime’s media campaign against the protestors.
- Providing legally binding guarantees for the abolition of Emergency Law and judicial rulings based on Customary Law.
- Forming an independent and credible investigatory committee tasked with bringing officials responsible for opening fire on protestors to a fair trial.
- Permitting international media outlets and human rights groups into the country.
- Guaranteeing the right to peaceful protest.
- Officially declaring a start to the process by abolishing Article Eight of the constitution and legally enshrining the principal of the rotation of power.
When the Coordinating Committee was created it adopted these points as the basis of any future political solution in Syria. It should be noted that the regime is incapable of implementing a single one of these demands without laying the ground for its own collapse. The current Arab League initiative, undertaken in cooperation with the Syrian National Council, is a considerably weaker version of the same program.
The Coordinating Committee’s Political and Media Discourse
The committee’s media presence constitutes distinct statements and political positions, advanced by different individuals with different perspectives on events in Syria. Nevertheless we cannot deny that some of these statements, either in the name of the Coordinating Committee itself or by individuals associated with it, have created something of a stir in Syria. This is largely down to the naïve way in which certain slogans have been adopted and explained. These slogans include:
“No to foreign intervention!”
The committee made repeated statements opposing foreign intervention even as the protestors themselves were raising signs calling for no-fly zones, international protection for civilians and demilitarized areas. Indeed, the issue of foreign intervention became central to the committee’s media discourse, as though it sought to defend its patriotic credentials against a regime whose own claims to patriotism were utterly bankrupt. It never seemed to occur to these individuals that they could express the same sentiment in a more palatable manner.
Second, the furor over this position highlighted how important timing is when formulating one’s media statements. The use of this slogan made it possible to accuse the committee of seeking to placate the regime and facilitated attempts to divide the opposition into ‘honorable’ and ‘dishonorable’ camps.
Third, all the evidence suggested that the international community had no desire to stage a military intervention in Syria. The slogan ‘No to foreign intervention!’ was thus redundant: the product of a discourse rooted in fantasy, not fact.
Fourth, the committee never took the trouble to provide any carefully thought-out alternatives to the foreign intervention they feared, other than bland rhetoric about ‘self-reliance’. In other words, they had no plan to offer a people who were being murdered, arrested, tortured and besieged on a daily basis.
Fifth, the committee also failed in its duty to educate the Syrian people about the potential consequences of foreign military intervention in Syria.
Finally, political reality is stronger than slogans. Like it or not, everyone has to confront reality and deal with it. Thus, the National Coordinating Committee and others would have no choice but to deal with the consequences and complications of foreign intervention, were it to actually happen. The reverse applies to the Syrian National Council and others who called for such intervention. As long as it remains a dream, they have to engage with the fact that it has not occurred.
“Down with the regime!”
While demonstrators were calling for an end to the regime, certain individuals from the Coordinating Committee continued to insist that regime change was not one of its priorities. This slogan has become central to the popular revolutionary movement in Syria, as it should be to all opposition forces in this transitional period.
I am certainly no fan of the demagoguery espoused by certain opposition figures in exile, the ones who have suddenly woken up and turned anti-regime overnight, or those who, on various pretexts, switch their opposition principles on and off as circumstances change. There are also those who have made pacts with the regime for their personal benefit, or those who been corrupted and coopted by the regime. Nevertheless, I still believe it is possible to create a political discourse that combines both the aspirations of those on the street alongside what we opposition politicians believe to be politically appropriate positions.
Of course, to do so requires great precision and persistence. A political organization’s discourse must not be a superficial and unfiltered reflection of the popular mood (e.g. the discourse of some members of the Syrian National Council), yet neither can it be a direct affront and rejection of these popular sentiments (e.g. the discourse espoused by some members of the National Coordinating Committee), in case it is manipulated and exploited for the benefit of the regime.
Sometimes, silence is the answer: a refusal to engage with the media. This is particularly true if the individual in question senses he has no response or solution to offer. This awareness of one’s shortcomings is noticeably lacking in the Coordinating Committee, whose members cheerfully respond to any media requests. More tellingly, these spokesmen are addicted to the first person plural: “We in the National Coordinating Committee believe…”, they proclaim, or “Our position is…”
Furthermore, many Coordinating Committee members talk about events in Syria in a curiously detached way, listing instances of murder, torture and arrest as if describing events in Singapore or the Comoros Islands. As a result the Coordinating Committee has been described as the ‘soft opposition’ despite the heavy price many of its members have paid in the past. On the other hand, I am not advocating a move towards a sort of thuggish demagoguery that uses abuse and insults to win over demonstrators.
The Opposition at Home and Abroad
The repetition of the phrase ‘we are the internal opposition’ in the public statements of the National Coordinating Committee does a profound disservice to elements of the opposition operating outside Syria. The phrase, first used shortly after the revolution began, belittled efforts made by Syrians living abroad even as the Coordinating Committee itself was showing itself incapable of taking the initiative.
The activities of Syrians abroad have been described as a joke, but that will not do because joke or not, they may yet prove decisive in shaping the country’s future. Yet overseas-based members of the Coordinating Committee are often treated as merely decorative by their colleagues in Syria, who sideline them and deny them active roles in the organization.
The Istanbul Conference and Syrian National Council
The Istanbul Conference, held on July 28 last year was essentially a continuation of the Doha Conference (which ran from July 5-8), despite claims to the contrary from some non-resident Syrians. The parties invited to Istanbul were the very same as those who attended the Doha conference.
The invitation itself was formally made on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood and the “Istanbul Group”. I was invited, but when it became clear that the Coordinating Committee would not be attending I withdrew, despite the heartache this caused me, and despite the fact that everyone was encouraging me to participate in a personal capacity.
The real reason for the committee’s withdrawal was that the conference was to be held in Istanbul, a place they viewed as tantamount to the devil’s back yard. Had it been held in Cairo, they would have gone.
It was, however, unwise of some members of the committee to engage in a media war with the newly formed Syrian National Council in Istanbul, a view I shared with other committee members. Indeed, I remember giving my blessing to the National Council on a number of occasions, despite its many flaws and problems. After all, the Syrian street had been waiting impatiently for this moment; far better to let its shortcomings catch up with it. My political instincts told me that support for the council would soon drop away.
Unfortunately, the Coordinating Committee did not take advantage of this moment to reexamine its media and political discourse and address the issues before us in a serious, credible manner. Instead it stuck stubbornly to an outright rejection and hostility, which owed more to ideological differences than mature political calculation. Nor did it seek to develop new organizational mechanisms to keep pace with a continually and rapidly changing environment, but slowly calcified into yet another traditional opposition party, going the same way as the isolated and irrelevant Damascus Declaration. It treated members of the protest movement dismissively, important only so far as they enhanced the image of the Coordinating Committee, and not as influential and important political actors in their own right. In this, they missed an opportunity, as the protestors’ ability to invigorate the committee’s work and discourse would have saved them from their dusty fate.
The formation of a national council within the Coordinating Committee was thus rendered meaningless, since the committee persisted in operating through traditional mechanisms, with the constituent parties holding executive power. I believe that the outcome would have been very different had the committee functioned as a body that had control over its parties, with its executive committee (itself elected, of course, from the committee’s national council and not through the mechanism of party representation) able to overrule its members, with the national council being the ultimate authority within the committee, and with all decisions taken through accepted democratic voting mechanisms (i.e. some decisions take with the one-half-plus-one vote and others with the two-thirds vote) rather than the system of democratic consensus that has shown itself to be unequal and liable to break down.
What is needed at this moment in time is to give the popular uprising space to express itself politically, rather than focus on opposition parties who will inevitably reform and reconstitute themselves in response to the uprising’s achievements. These parties are temporary: Syria is entering a new phase in which the country’s political map will be completely redrawn
Attempts to Form a National Council
Since the start of the revolution Syrians based abroad have launched a number of worthy initiatives to set up national councils and committees in solidarity with their fellow citizens in Syria. Unfortunately, whether in Cairo, Istanbul, Bulgaria, Jordan or Tunisia, none of these efforts have been coordinated, each one taking place in isolation from the others. At one point we probably had a number of foreign-based national councils without a single concerted initiative from within the country. It would have been smarter to put a brake on the efforts being made by various isolated groups and tried to come up with a single initiative, in which the youth of the revolution and the political opposition at home and abroad, worked together for a common goal. Syrians were looking to us to create a united opposition body, which respected diversity and difference of opinion and offered a workable political vision for the future of the country.
While we knew that Syrians were in real need of a temporary political front that would give voice to their needs and aspirations, we also knew that whatever initiatives and conferences we came up with were destined to fall short so long as general elections in the country remained a dream. Nevertheless, the need for the broadest possible consensus among the opposition and revolutionary forces was pressing enough to make it worth continuing.
There can be no doubt that all the initiatives were motivated by the best intentions and stemmed from a clear desire by Syrians to have some concrete alternative to the current regime. But we were confronted with a real dilemma. If we conceded that a group of Syrians overseas had the right to form a council, then we must accept the right of other groups and parties to form their own councils. That would be only democratic, but it would have a deleterious effect on public opinion and put us in an untenable position.
We had, therefore, to come up with an initiative that would be acceptable to all parties, replacing the flood of newly minted councils and committees with a single national council, which offered a clear program for the country’s future. The opposition was very late in coming up with such an initiative and deserves to be criticized for leaving the revolution without any political representation.
Following a series of conferences and initiatives, the idea of the Istanbul council gradually began to take shape. From amongst the attendees at these conferences outside Syria, seventy-seven individuals—a representative cross section of Syria’s urban/rural divide and sectarian affiliations—were chosen to form the new national council.
This took place on August 20. Just twenty days before I had left Syria to attend a political seminar in Doha and since the announcement of this latest initiative coincided with other meetings in Cairo, Bulgaria and Tunis, which were due to announce their own national councils, I was forced to get in contact with everyone to delay their announcements until a single, united national council could be launched. I travelled to Istanbul to meet with the members of this latest putative council and after three days of fruitful debate we agreed to delay the announcement, then issued a statement that described it as ‘a step along the road’ to a united national council. My colleagues in Istanbul insisted I write the statement myself.
At almost every stage the mantra of the various opposition parties had been: ‘No one is prepared to join any one else’s initiative but everyone is inviting everybody else to their own!’ Indeed, this principle is so firmly entrenched in the culture of the opposition’s warring factions that we were unable to overcome it. My consciousness of this issue led me to tell the council members in Istanbul that they would find no one to join them if launched their national council at that juncture and thus it would be better to hold off and maintain good relations until their cooperation could be guaranteed.
We focussed our efforts on forming a committee to set up a national council. As a member of this committee, my task was to keep in contact with the Coordinating Committee and the Damascus Declaration inside Syria, as well as Syrians in Cairo and Tunis with their own council initiatives. From Istanbul I travelled to Cairo where I met a group of Syrians based in Egypt and Tunisia who were responsible for what they termed the ‘National Initiative’. Their response was positive and we agreed to delay the announcement of their council. This done I got in touch with members of the Coordinating Committee and the Damascus Declaration, as well as a few independents and young activists and invited them to Doha.
The Doha Conference
The sheer scale of the lies circulated about the Doha Conference astounded me. Unfortunately, there are those that continue to tell untruths about this event, perhaps motivated by a desire to placate the Syrian National Council or even win themselves a seat. Even more unfortunately, and completely unjustifiably, some of these lies directly touch on the role played by Dr. Azmi Bishara. Instead of thanking the man for trying to bring the Syrian opposition together, certain individuals have mounted disgraceful attacks on him, quite forgetting his consistently supportive stance towards all the popular Arab uprisings.
We should emphasize once more that the Doha Conference was the first concerted effort to bring the internal opposition (i.e. the National Coordinating Committee and the Damascus Declaration) and the representatives of the overseas-based opposition (i.e. the Istanbul Council) face to face. Prior to this that had been hardly any contact between the two sides Quite aside from this, it was this very conference, held on September 28, that led to the formation of the Syrian National Council.
Others targeted included Dr. Burhan Ghalyoun and myself. We were accused of talking to “other parties”, abusing our membership of the National Coordinating Committee to convince them to accept the Arab League’s proposal.
If I had been convinced that the National Coordinating Council was a truly capable organization, I would never have invited the others in the first place. Nor did I ever meet with these other parties in my capacity as a member of the Coordinating Committee, but rather as an interlocutor whose sole aim was avert the crisis I saw coming, a crisis precipitated by our being divided at such a crucial political juncture. I can say that the same is true for Burhan Ghalyoun. Furthermore, the Arab League proposal was never discussed.
My account of the conference is the testimony of someone who not only attended every single session in person, but also played a leading role in planning and preparing the event.
It is common knowledge that the Arab Center for Policy research, which is run by Dr. Azmi Bishara, invited a number of Syrian intellectuals to present papers at a seminar about Syria. The seminar was to be an academic event for Syria experts; an opportunity for considered reflection about current events in Syria. There was never any intention to issue statements.
In the course of the seminar it became clear that the affairs and internal conflicts of the Syrian opposition needed to be better understood. I proposed that the center play host to a political conference that was being called for by some prominent opposition figures from within Syria and overseas. The center supported this suggestion and promised to do its best to make it happen.
Approximately three weeks later I received a formal response from the center agreeing to host the conference and charging me with selecting the most appropriate individuals to take part, on the condition that the number of attendees did not exceed twenty-five. The event was to be called A Consultative Meeting of the Syrian Opposition. I promptly got in contact with various political groups within Syria and overseas, ensuring that no party or group was excluded from the process.
I had concentrated on the following groups: the National Coordinating Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change, the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Independent Islamist Movement. Between four and six individuals were invited from each group in addition to a limited number of independent opposition figures and young activists. Some of the invitees were subject to travel bans and others did not possess passports, but despite the obstacles most were able to attend. Indeed, at the conference it transpired that I had made a mistake in handing out the invitations due to my erroneous identification of some of the attendees at the Istanbul conference as members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
I drew up a program of discussions for the conference, covering the following topics: the circumstances of the political opposition in Syria; the youth movement in Syria; the coordinating committees and the youth; the opposition’s current plans, its vision for the future and the way forward.
Those invited were asked to arrive on September 4 with the following day and the morning of September 6 being set aside for the conference itself.
The conference began with a welcome speech by Dr. Azmi Bishara after which he had intended to leave. However, the vast majority of those present prevailed on him to stay if only to listen in on the proceedings, and although he missed a few of the sessions, he acceded to their request.
Over the course of the first two sessions it became apparent that we needed to address the practical aspects of the shared vision, harmony and unity of the opposition. This redirection was driven by pressure from younger attendees, who believed that such unity and consensus of anti-regime forces had become vital to the interests of the Syrian people.
A session was held to discuss this issue, after which all parties agreed to task a committee with drawing up a statement of mutual agreement on behalf of all opposition groups present in Doha. The committee comprised representatives from all parties and once the agreement had been drafted it was debated. There was a general consensus over the document’s formulation of our vision: everyone agreed over the central tenets of bringing down the regime, refusing dialogue, showing solidarity with the revolution and forming an inclusive alliance made up of all political forces from the opposition.
This alliance, the largest political coalition in Syrian history, was to be created by convening a national council to which independent political figures would be invited, revolutionary activists and representatives from all previous conferences and initiatives. However, having signed off on these points the Istanbul group backtracked and refused to join the alliance on the grounds that they had agreed to a national council and not a political alliance. Despite this supposedly principled objection many members of the Istanbul group privately stated that they would be willing to join the alliance in return for a quota of seats on its leadership council.
Members of the National Coordinating Committee and the Damascus Declaration flew back to Syria on September 7 where they obtained the consent of their leadership, prior to formally announcing the alliance on September 11.
A week later the names of the alliance’s leaders were announced. The leadership comprised twenty-five individuals, sixteen inside Syria and nine overseas. Until this announcement was made a committee of three individuals—Burhan Ghalyoun, Hazem Nahar and Nabras al-Fadil—had been responsible for discussing with the Muslim Brotherhood the possibility of their joining the alliance.
On September 8 a delegation from the Brotherhood arrived in Doha and after a meeting lasting just two hours, they announced their willingness to join the alliance, conditional on a few minor alterations both to the text of the coalition’s founding charter and the number of members of its leadership council. Having asked to be allowed to return home to obtain the backing of their leadership they contacted us two days later with their formal consent.
This is the true story of the Doha Conference.
Furthermore, I should like to emphasize the following points about the conference:
- The Doha Conference was a consultative meeting, the need for which had been raised at a research conference hosted a month previously by the Arab Center for Policy Research. During this academic event, it became clear that it was vital to hold a practical discussion on the state of the Syrian opposition in the presence of those young activists who were in close contact with the domestic scene. Issuing a statement about a political alliance had never been an aim of either meeting in Doha.
- The Qatari government had absolutely nothing to do with the event.
- No one, neither Dr. Azmi Bishara nor anyone else, sought any personal benefit out of the proceedings. Dr. Bishara’s presence at some of the meetings was in response to the direct request of the conference’s attendees, itself based on his standing as an Arab intellectual sympathetic to the cause of popular revolutions.
- Azmi Bishara was personally acquainted with only a very few of those present.
- The practical consequence of this meeting was the decision to form an alliance of political forces. It was not in and of itself a conference or initiative, so talk of exclusion and mutterings about those who weren’t invited is out of place.
- There was no media presence in Doha. The aim of the consultative meeting was to enable dialogue between the various branches of the opposition on the current situation. This absence has been exploited by some to perpetuate invidious rumours, such as the claim that conference members were not permitted to speak with the media.
- There was no difference of opinion between those parties that were present, neither over the aims of the revolution, nor the vision for the future. On the other hand, there was certainly debate over the meanings and significance of certain terms, but this is only natural given that this was the first opportunity for open dialogue between opposition groups for many decades.
- Partisan ideology was conspicuous by its absence. The discussions were purely political and revolved around aims and programs of action. In the course of proceedings, all issues and problems were raised, including those concerning the Kurds and other minority groups. On no occasions did any group veto the discussion of any subject, no matter how unpalatable.
- The meeting coincided with the announcement of the Arab League’s initiative, but this initiative was never discussed in Doha and none of the groups present were ever involved in it. All statements to the media on the subject confirmed that the initiative was contracted directly with the regime without the participation or consent of the opposition. Some of those present in Doha became disillusioned with the meeting—and with the National Coordinating Committee in particular—when they heard that the Arab League initiative would allow the Syrian president to remain in power until 2014. Some started to refer to the initiative as a ‘conspiracy’, an unfortunate choice of words that merely highlighted how similar the thought processes of some opposition groups are to the regime itself. It also demonstrated a laughable degree of ignorance about the regime, because had these conspiracy theorists stopped to think, they would have realized that the Syrian authorities would never accept a proposal such as the initiative. These individuals sought to end the Doha meeting, in the belief that the initiative had been cooked up by the National Coordinating Committee in partnership with Azmi Bishara, Burhan Ghalyoun and myself. I was the first to know of their unhappiness and informed them that I had heard nothing of an Arab League initiative until they told me about it themselves. I offered to speak to the media and state that we had nothing to do with it, and that is what I did. The fact is that when I questioned members of the Coordinating Committee in Doha, none of them had any knowledge of such an initiative, and the same was true of members in Syria.
- No one ever proposed striking a deal with the regime. Such a thing was never even hinted at.
It is obvious that the accusations directed against the Doha Conference stem from the fact that some people cannot conceive of making progress without belittling or slandering someone else. It may be, in fact, that some of them realized Doha was the most promising and serious effort out there, based as it was on dialogue between all political groups with an effective presence on the ground and long histories of resistance and sacrifice. Indeed, they may have feared its superiority to the endless stream of ineffectual conferences and slapdash initiatives, which, despite the clamor they created, did very little to further the fortunes of the revolution. Their motto seems to have been: I’ll lie about Doha so that Istanbul or Cairo can win. In other words, ensure the triumph of one conference at the expense of another’s failure. We have to ask: How does such behavior serve the national interest?
But despite it all I believe that this consultative process was a success and achieved much more than we dared hope. It was the first time there had been serious dialogue between the different branches of the Syrian opposition both internally and abroad. Anyone who cares about the Syrian revolution and its success will have to build on the achievements of Doha.
Another peculiar consequence of all this was the thuggish discourse that started to appear under the banner of ‘down with the regime’. It would have been better for them to first free themselves of the thuggish regime mentality, because the Syrian people have no need of yet another shabiha dressed up as the opposition. This is particularly the case with those ambitious characters who are either part of the regime, coopted, or silent on its abuses, and who live cut off from the everyday realities and aspirations of their fellow citizens.
The post-Doha Period and the Declaration of the Syrian National Council in Istanbul
The Doha Conference concluded with an agreement that the foundation of the Syrian National Alliance would be formally announced in Damascus no later than a week after the parties had left Doha, and that the alliance would be comprise the following groups: the National Coordinating Committee, the Damascus Declaration and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some members of the Istanbul group (i.e. the Independent Islamist Movement under Emad al-Din al-Rasheed) told me they would support the alliance, even if the Muslim Brotherhood did not join.
The three-man committee—Burhan Ghalyoun, Nabras al-Fadil and myself—got in contact with the political blocs involved. The Damascus Declaration did not reply. The National Coordination Committee assembled in Damascus and issued a peculiar statement which welcomed the alliance (as if it had not been intimately involved in its formation), asked that the “Three No’s” be added to the alliance’s charter, and mentioned that they were trying to hold a joint meeting with the Declaration but that the latter were not responding.
The Muslim Brotherhood informed me that they first needed to obtain the opinion of the group’s Shura Council and that this could not be achieved before September 16.
Emad al-Rasheed of the Independent Islamists released a quite extraordinary statement in which he accused the traditional opposition of seeking to impose their ideology on the revolution, despite the fact that the dialogue in Doha was entirely political and pragmatic in nature.
On September 16, the formation of the Syrian National Alliance was announced in Istanbul. The names of seventy-one members from outside Syria were listed (the same number as were announced at the first Istanbul conference on August 20) leaving seventy seats available for those within Syria.
Burhan Ghalyoun was invited to this meeting and travelled to Istanbul, but ended up returning the next day and did not take part. The Damascus Declaration issued a statement welcoming the announcement and described it as the most promising opposition initiative on the table. Members of the Declaration based overseas attended the meeting in Istanbul.
At the same time we received word that the Brotherhood had rejected the Doha Alliance and were going to put forward their own initiative. On September 20 I received an invitation, addressed to the National Coordination Committee from the Muslim Brotherhood, for a meeting to be held on September 28 in Istanbul. By a strange coincidence I received an invitation to the same event from the Istanbul alliance, which had been formed on September 16.
The agreement reached at Doha was thus nullified, which was no real surprise to anyone acquainted with the murky backstage deals of the Syrian opposition.
Before travelling to Istanbul, Burhan Ghalyoun and I talked about what we could expect when we got there. We agreed it would be one of two things: if everyone attended and reached an agreement then progress towards a national council would be facilitated; if one of the groups present raised objections, the council would be deferred. In the event, however, things turned out differently.
What took place in Istanbul on September 28-29 was, in reality, a continuation of the Doha Conference, with the addition of local coordination committees, the General Committee of the Syrian Revolution and the Revolutionary Council (non-political groups whose organizational structures and aims remain obscure). The final statement issued in Doha mentioned creating a political alliance, to be followed by the formation of a national council to represent it, and effectively this is what transpired in Istanbul, with the difference that the phrase ‘national council’ came to replace ‘alliance’.
Personally speaking, I did not much care for the term ‘national council’ and proposed as an alternative, ‘General Committee for the Support of the Syrian Revolution’. I was not as sure as some that we should be announcing a national council at a time in which questions about its goals and the manner in which it had been created were bound to be raised.
Despite my reservations I remained supportive of the council and on October 2 gave the following statement to the media:
‘The Syrian opposition has taken a major step forward in announcing the creation of a Syrian national council, representing a broad spectrum of the political opposition. We should support this country as a matter of national interest, despite the fact that some groups are not included and despite the negative attitude taken by certain individuals to the manner in which the council came into being and the number of its members. Dialogue must continue if the council is to claim it represents all parties, and all of us, members and non-members alike, have a responsibility to develop and advance this national council until it comes to represent all Syrians, and until we reach the point where free and fair elections are the governing principle of political life in Syria.’
It was for these reasons that I worked to convince everyone who had not joined the council at that stage (such as the Coalition of Syrian Tribes) to at least lend their voice to support the council. The tribal coalition for one were disgusted at the treatment they had received in Istanbul, where they had been put up in a separate hotel and barred from participating in the discussions over forming a national council.
I took the decision to leave the National Coordinating Council on September 29, at the very meeting in Istanbul to which the Coordinating Council had failed to attend. For me, the essential problem hadn’t changed: there was still a chorus of voices coming from the opposition instead of a single voice and purpose (something, I might add, which is very different to naïve and vague calls for ‘unity’).
At the same time, many people were inviting me to join the new national council in my personal capacity and this I refused to do, because, once again, the essential problem remained. Subsequent events were to prove me right.
Having resolved to leave the Coordinating Committee, I did not directly announce my resignation but waited a couple of weeks so that my actions could not be interpreted as an insult to the very body I had helped set up.
The Syrian National Council: Formation, Composition, Discourse and Performance
The Syrian National Council came into being, and although I supported it personally, I feared for the future. Now, some four months after it was first announced, I look back on what has happened and it seems to me like the plot of a horribly familiar film.
Below are some brief observations about the discourse and performance of the National Council:
1. It is a political alliance and not a national council:
Close observation of the council and the manner in which it was constituted and now operates, indicates that this organization is actually no more than an alliance between established political forces and new groups that have come to prominence in the course of the revolution. It has no real executive power, for instance. Even if all its members agree on something, they cannot take any practical step without obtaining the consent of their groups, which are ultimately governed by the dictates of their respective political offices. In other words, the council’s decisions are not taken within the council, but outside it. To be even more specific, the council’s authority rests with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Damascus Declaration (itself the voice of the People Party, formerly the Syrian Communist Party-Political Bureau). In this respect it is merely an extension of the mutually advantageous relationship that existed between these two parties during the 1980s.
Furthermore, certain individuals have gained undue influence in the council on the basis of their ability to supply it with financial support. There is endless gossip about the council’s funding and the ability it gives the donors to control the loyalties and decisions of certain members.
The formation of a political alliance is entirely legitimate. It is the right of the political groups concerned. The formation of a national council through a non-elective process will always be less credible. For this reason the council should act, not as a legitimate source of authority and representation, but as a work in progress. Consequently, it should not seek fundamental change at the present time but rather focus on what is absolutely necessary. It cannot act in isolation from the broad mass of Syrians, moving forward unilaterally under its own banner, if only because this gives the uneasy impression of a country divided.
The National Council’s main problem is that it contains the seeds of its own destruction. The real question is: Can it survive after the fall of the regime and effectively manage the period of transition that will follow? I believe that it cannot; that it will collapse when demands much less exacting than these are asked of it.
2. Recognizing the council:
On October 2, the day the council was formally announced, I told a number of its members in Istanbul, who were celebrating the development and impatiently anticipating Arab and international recognition of their council, that there was a major difference between ‘welcoming’ the council and ‘recognizing’ it. Recognition would not come so easily; it was not a routine procedure.
For a foreign state to recognize the council meant that it was prepared to burn all bridges with the Syrian regime; indeed, that it was ready to help bring it down. More realistically, the existence of a national council would be exploited by these foreign states, who would use the threat of recognition in their other dealings with the regime.
3. Tensions within the council:
The Syrian National Council contains a great number of internal tensions – for example, the generational issue and the tension over the revolution’s relationship with formal politics - because the council is made up of traditional opposition parties and emerging revolutionary groups, which have very different mindsets. At the same time there is no attempt to address the urgent need to bring all sides into harmony, or at least achieve consensus on the proper distribution of roles.
Such harmony or consensus is vital. Enmity between the two camps serves nobody’s interests, least of all Syria’s. We must concede that both the revolution and the political parties have their own mindsets and mechanisms. The revolutionary, for instance, may not be capable of managing a political dispute, setting up advantageous relationships with foreign powers or running a country. Yet these differences do not mean that the two sides cannot work towards a common goal. No revolution can be effective without a clear political vision to guide it, and politics is worthless if not based on radical, revolutionary choices.
This is why, at the Istanbul meeting, I proposed the ‘General Committee for the Support of the Syrian Revolution’ as the name for our newborn council. It was an attempt both to play down potential tensions within the new body, while ensuring that if the council ran up against a brick wall some measure of support would be retained for the revolution. This is exactly what happened: the Coordinating Committee refused to join the council, while the Revolutionary Council pledged its involvement.
Perhaps the greatest tension stems from the fact that some groups within the council exist nowhere else but on Facebook, where their online presence stands in stark contrast to their lack of popular support. When these virtual groups obtain seats on the council and start to work in public, conflict with real political parties and organizations is the inevitable result.
Of all opposition organizations, the National Coordinating Committee enjoys the greatest degree of cooperation and rapport between its constituent groups, This is a result of their long history of working together—even before they were formally joined under the rubric of the committee—not to mention the fact that all sides worked for three solid months, discussing the principles and mechanisms of the organization, before making a formal declaration.
By contrast, the National Council issued its founding charter after just a few hours of debate between the parties involved. Most of these parties were still unfamiliar with one another and a large part of their charter had to be lifted wholesale from the document drafted in Doha, with the addition of a few points that sat uncomfortably with the main body of the text. These tensions were thus present from the outset, something that is evident from the two statements made to the media by Burhan Ghalyoun and Riad al-Shaqfa on the day the council was announced. Each man had a different view of the council’s statement and stood by it, despite the fact that the statement itself was the source of such contradictions (i.e. it rejected all foreign military intervention while demanding the provision of international protection for civilians).
4. Popular support for the National Council:
It was expected that there would widespread support for the National Council, but this popular support had nothing to do with the political groups who made up the council, nor its contradictory political program. Rather, it reflected a vaguer approval of the concept of a national council, itself due to the belief that such a council—after the Libyan model—would represent the demands of the revolutionaries and would provide a political force for bringing down the regime. The Syrian street had no affection for the opposition, but it treated it as a political necessity.
The council then proceeded to lose its way between the competing desires of practicing politics and representing the aspirations of the demonstrators.
In my view, the National Council must stop playing politics with the revolution—creating its own slogans and fretting over whether to endorse this or that Friday demonstration—and directly confront the regime with all peaceful means at its disposal.
5. The role of the Islamists:
At the last Istanbul meeting, which resulted in birth of the Syrian National Council, I said to one Islamist:
‘If Egypt’s Islamists played only a secondary role in their revolution then in Syria, which has a totally different society, they should really be tenth in line, and then only if they really want it to succeed.’
Sadly that hasn’t happened, and it doesn’t look as if it will, because the Islamists continue to scramble to take their place at the forefront of the revolution, which in my view, is a major political error.
As everyone is now aware, there is a hidden power struggle going on between the various blocs both within the Syrian National Council and outside it. Such a struggle is poorly timed, taking place before the fall of the regime and a threat to the unity of the popular movement, which will be forced to decide which camp to follow. Furthermore, it gives the regime the opportunity to manipulate these divisions within the council and use them to create fissures in the popular movement. The upshot of all this is to alter the patriotic, inclusive nature of the popular movement, which strives for dignity and freedom, and reduce it to a rubble of populist blocs and alliances, each aligned with a different political group and competing for power.
The group that is fanning these flames more than any other is the same one that has been all but absent from Syrian public life for the last three decades and scarcely present at the start of the uprising. It is also the best funded and organized. This group is the Muslim Brotherhood and the variously titled Islamist groups that are allied to it.
6. The Syrian National Council and the politics of appeasement:
As the National Council expands it grows flabbier and less effective. There are currently over three hundred members: the result of a policy of appeasement that seeks to defuse the threat posed by certain individuals by guaranteeing them seats. The vast majority of these members have no real role or function.
The creation of a temporary national body such as the Council should not be construed as an open invitation to feed at the trough. It is a serious patriotic duty and should be reserved for individuals with experience in forging political relationships. These members are meant to ensure protection for the citizens of their country and contribute to the process of democratic transition. It is not enough to have had a stellar career as an actor, doctor, lawyer or imam. Membership of this council should not be predicated on fame or popularity, but effectiveness.
This strategy of appeasement and conciliation has swollen the council to unmanageable proportions, transforming it into a burden on the shoulders of the very revolution is it meant to support. What is the point in having twenty-three million Syrians in the National Council; a body that is both temporary and of purposefully limited influence?
There are people who started off attacking the National Council who, the moment they were offered a seat, sat down and swallowed their tongues.
7. The functions and roles of the National Council:
The National Council was set up to perform three principal functions. The first is to support and expand the revolution, the second to bring down the regime and the third, to manage the post-regime transition. As far as the first point goes, the National Council has played an entirely negative role, alienating the representatives of the popular movement with its discourse and crude statements in the media, and discouraging them from joining the project. The most damning verdict on the council was delivered by one such popular group within Syria—‘They’re not us and they’re not Syria’—which was intended as a comment on the members themselves. The woman who said this was an activist, directly involved with the situation unfolding on the ground. Demonstrators had been in the streets long before any council had existed, so where was the discourse aimed at those who were still at home, to encourage them to take part? The National Council aimed its rhetoric solely at the demonstrators with the hope of winning their consent; non-demonstrators, on the other hand, turned away from the council.
In respect to its second function the National Council relied entirely on outside intervention, without any plan or mechanism of its own to bring about the fall of the regime.
As for managing the post-regime transition, the National Council is certainly ill-equipped to manage a task that requires precision, professionalism and an ability to build consensus between opposing political views.
8. The performance of the National Council and its achievements:
Since its formation, the Syrian National Council has not played the positive role required of it, neither on the level of the popular movement and revolution within Syria, nor in fostering constructive relationships abroad and a political and media discourse befitting this popular uprising.
The council has no coherent vision for a foreign policy. Its foreign ties consist of the random relationships set up by individual members: this person gets on well with the Turks, this person knows the French, this one talks to the Qataris, and so on. The stance taken by foreign powers towards the Syrian regime and the revolution is by and large dependent on the principles that underlie the council’s foreign policy. It is because of this we see such confusion in the media statements made by council members when they are asked about possible ties with America, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Hezbollah, or for their views on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Golan Heights.
I have listened to numerous objections and complaints from council members about the Tunis Conference, which was prepared in the most slapdash way imaginable: there were no proper papers for discussion, the purpose of the conference seemed to be to hand out positions and titles, and the concluding statement consisted of a jumble of slogans appropriated from the demonstrators.
We have to ask: If the National Council does no more than echo other people’s slogans, then what’s the point of it?
The National Council has more than three hundred members, ninety per cent of whom, by my estimation, do nothing except mumble clichés. As one individual said to me, ‘There are people in the National Council’s media office who don’t know the difference between an interview and a Friday sermon.’
How did the National Council deal with the Arab League’s mission? The fact is, neither the council nor the National Coordinating Committee had any plan for dealing with the Arab observers. When Nabil al-Arabi said, ‘We want the opposition to supply us with lists of detainees,’ these two groups promptly evaded their responsibility by farming out the task to other groups, either because they didn’t regard it as important (especially the National Council) or because they saw the Arab League as little more than a gateway to the Security Council.
Elias Marqus, may God have mercy on his soul, used to say, ‘He who will not knock upon the narrow door will not knock upon any door.’ Anyone who regards simple things as beneath them does not deserve to be entrusted with truly weighty matters.
5. The Syrian Opposition: Discourse and Performance
My Grandfather’s Shop
For thirty years my grandfather owned a modest little shop, where he would spend all day selling his goods and chatting with customers. I still remember how he used to run it. He never knew what he had in stock and items lay strewn about chaotically. Nor did he have any idea about their prices. Sometimes he would sell a load of things in one go, and give away others for free. He could read and write but he never used his ledger to make a record of his transactions and people would often cheat him and take advantage.
The upshot of this, was that at the end of every day he found he had made a loss. He would always resolve to turn over a new leaf, but when the next day came it was always the same story, or worse. The whole enterprise had the appearance of a hobby, something to pass the time and nothing more.
These days, the Syrian opposition reminds me of my grandfather’s shop: no vision, no planning, no knowledge of themselves, reality or people’s needs, no awareness of time and no measurement of their achievements, or balancing profit against loss. The parties, I fear, are just hobbies; ways to pass the time.
Reviewing the performance of the Syrian National Council and the National Coordinating Committee tells us that on a fundamental level the popular movement is spurred on by the regime’s stupidity and hampered by the stupidity of the opposition. There must be something wrong, or rather, some methodological flaw, in the discourse and activities of the Syrian opposition.
Missing Elements in Discourse and Practice
1. Moral and political modesty:
Deprived of its intellectual or ethical components, politics becomes a meaningless endeavor. Today, more than anything else, we are in need of modesty. It is something we all lack. Every single figure in the opposition acts as though they are a leader, or prime mover, of the Syrian revolution, and the same is true of the various political parties, the youth and the demonstrators. As a result, nobody has a good word to say about anyone else and we are unable to work properly together. Modesty, in the political and moral sense, is a good way to begin any collective endeavor, and in the end, is in the interests of the country and everyone who lives in it.
Recent months have exposed a great number of shortcomings and flaws throughout the political opposition in Syria. These include:
- A dog-eat-dog culture of incessant slanderous campaigns between political blocs and individuals.
- The rise of an individualism that prioritizes itself over the interests of the group, the country and the revolution.
- A focus on making short-term gains by adopting positions comprehensible to a schoolchild at the expense of a long-term strategic vision and mature political calculations.
- Reducing politics to a set of prepackaged slogans.
- The “new shabiha” phenomenon, which attempts to move in on political territory monopolized by the regime.
- The new glibness, whereby everybody suddenly seems to know and understand everything. The entire opposition, within the Syrian National Council and outside it, is talking at the drop of a hat about issues that require a considerable amount precision and detailed reflection before taking a clear and well-reasoned position, such as the no-fly zone, demilitarized zones, military intervention and foreign relations. Half of these individuals have never read a single word about these subjects, yet strangely enough no one seems to say, ‘I don’t know.’ Everyone’s an expert.
- The constant fighting over positions. The vast majority is engaged in an astonishing battle to occupy seats on the opposition’s high table, seemingly oblivious to the fact that all these political alliances and groupings are temporary in nature and will undergo successive periods of deconstruction and renewal. Furthermore, the identity of those who will lead us through the next phase will only be fully known once the regime has fallen. This unseemly scramble is little more than a symptom of low self-esteem, insecurity and a profound ignorance of historical processes.
2. Types of political discourse for media consumption:
- A discourse of thuggishness. This can be one of two types: either a thuggishness that springs from ignorance and a lack of political awareness, or else as a form of cheap opportunism, which makes a spurious claim to represent public opinion and the revolution. This second type achieves its ends through emotional manipulation and crude demagoguery, maliciously sidelining other actors in its quest to replace the current thuggish regime with a facsimile of itself. Unfortunately, this form of discourse is currently the most prevalent.
- A fearful discourse. This is a discourse that places no faith in people or their abilities and supposes inevitable defeat at the hands of the regime. Its demands and ambitions go no further than what the regime itself offers, and it does its utmost not to take any fixed position until the outcome of events is more certain.
- A moderate discourse. This discourse seeks to reach moderate solutions, even though such moderation has no place in the political vision for the future of this country. Consequently, the discourse receives almost no support: neither from the regime, which actively combats it in its quest to convince the population of the opposition’s extremism, nor from the street, which sees it as ineffectual and weak.
The revolutionary/rationalist discourse. This discourse combines a radical political position with a more considered approach to implementation and presentation. The radical position in question is its call for a complete break with the current regime. However its treatment of this position is rational and pragmatic, taking into account the balance of power on the ground and the importance of sustainability if the ultimate goal of regime overthrow is to be achieved. Regrettably, the numbers of those who speak and think like this are very few. About three-quarters of the media discourse deployed by the Syrian opposition is at a level that can be readily understood by my five year-old son: down with the regime; the blood of martyrs; the blood-drenched regime, etc. Apart from such slogans there is precious little worthy of our great revolution, or which seeks to outline a future to which all Syrians can aspire.
There is another serious problem. The mature and dedicated individuals we are lucky enough to have on our side spend the vast majority of their time trying to counteract the effect of the statements and actions of idiots and political pygmies. What the Syrian revolution needs more than anything is politicians with cold, clear minds and hearts that burn for justice. That is not to say that everyone in the National Council or Coordinating Committee are cut from the same cloth. One individual may come out to the media and speak in a very individualistic manner that damages the integrity of the organizational framework within which he operates and those he works with.
Populism and the Decline of Political Practice
The quality of political practice in both the opposition and the regime has undergone a noticeable decline, particularly evident in the discourse of the Syrian National Council. While the regime has become little more than a security apparatus, muscles without a brain to guide them, the opposition has come to function as an echo chamber for the street, uncritically repeating slogans in its single-minded quest to win popular support by any means possible.
Yes to the people, but not to populism. The people’s words are based on a specific set of circumstances, and when these circumstances change, public opinion changes with them. In other words, the people’s word is never final and no group or individual can pretend to offer unconditional or unwavering support for their demands.
Any politician or intellectual who bases his position or choices solely on the public mood at any given time, renders himself pointless. After all, what is the point of such people if they cannot influence public opinion and develop a forward-looking vision for the future based on their understanding of the present? On the other hand, if the intellectual or politician makes their decisions based on no more than ideas and ideology then his policies and positions will be lifeless and unconvincing and he will fit for nothing except counting bodies.
The Opposition Politician and the Statesman
In the last few months the opposition has presented the media with political and cultural figures of varying capabilities and effectiveness, but it has yet to bring out anyone resembling a ‘statesman’. This is not to imply that there is no one capable of fulfilling that role, but rather, that the various groupings and bodies of the opposition are incapable of selecting and presenting their people in the required fashion. If they could, they would win important ground in their struggle with the politically inept regime.
So what is a statesman?
It refers to someone who possesses a clear and deep understanding of the following concepts (among many others): timing, tactics, strategy, delegation, gradual progress, political and media discourse, organizational mechanisms, the difference between short and long-term goals, the balance of power, public opinion, means of applying pressure and their limitations, and the value of patience and memory in politics and the ability to generate solutions and initiatives at critical moments.
By contrast, demagoguery and thuggishness are just beating drums: loud and useless.
Moral Purity and Unfettered Realpolitik
The Syrian opposition deals with the issues and challenges confronting it in one of two ways: either with a moral purity that treats political reality with disdain or with a sort of heartless pragmatism, which is disquieting for most Syrians to behold. The moralizing position stems from a sort of blind idealism, while the pragmatism is most often found where narrow personal or party interests are at stake. These two approaches have grave consequences, producing on the one hand a form of inflexible ideological zeal, and on the other a rising wave of corrupt and self-serving behavior.
The political Culture of the Opposition
1. The separation of political goals from political culture:
Many groups within the opposition declare that their overall goal is the formation of a democratic, civil state, while continuing to operate in a political culture run along traditional, non-democratic lines.
For instance, some parties and individuals welcome the intervention of Western warplanes and missiles, in direction contradiction to their avowed principles, giving the impression that they would welcome foreign military intervention to set up a state that is a carbon-copy of the regime of which they have disposed.
Most opposition forces are fundamentalist in terms of their discourse and practice, regardless of their ideological hue. This description is not limited to the parties and groups of political Islam; it includes all those who, rejecting alternative voices and democratic mechanisms, like to believe that they represent the absolute truth. In this sense, it should be possible to talk of nationalists, communists, liberals and secularists as fundamentalist.
2. Democracy: between reflection and ideology
Democracy is more than a system of government. First and foremost it is a culture. Reducing and simplifying the term into a set of superficial, superimposed mechanisms prevents the possibility of any real change. The transition from totalitarianism or dictatorship to democracy requires more than political reforms and changes to the constitution; more than anything else, it requires a cultural renaissance.
For this reason, the function of the cultural elite goes beyond their role in opposition politics to embrace the regeneration of cultural thinking and practice, bringing it into line with democratic values and principles. Next, they must encourage the spread of this democratic culture within society at large. Democracy is a social phenomenon: a system for society as much as for the state.
The transition from the call for democracy to the actual unrolling of democratic thought requires a cultural shift from the paradigm of ideology to one of reflection. Ideological exhortations operate on the level of magic and miracle; socialism and nationalism are two good historical examples. Reflection means transcending ideology and undertaking a clear-headed evaluation of reality and one’s possibilities. It takes human beings and their potential into account, and looks clearly at obstacles to progress and the appropriate mechanisms for action. Reflection seeks out realists: politicians not ideologues; it looks for possibilities, starting points, strategies, stages and tactics: in other words, for details, mechanisms and programs. Ideology and its adherents, meanwhile, only know rallying cries and distant objectives, a contribution that, far from helping, serves only to muddy the waters still further.
3. The Secular Revolution and the State
I would go so far as to say the secret of the revolution’s success lies in its secular nature, despite the fierce opposition from some quarters towards this secularism.
Given the current situation, the eagerness to win the support of the Syrian street on the part of political parties and activities is completely understandable. After decades of repression, of political activity being conducted behind closed doors, this desire to win adherents is only natural and leads certain parties and groups to reject terms, such as ‘secular’, which are unpopular amongst the vast mass of Syrians.
I believe such a position is wrong on two counts.
Firstly, I think that in their obsession to win a fleeting popularity, the parties have abandoned their most important role, which is to raise the level of the public’s political consciousness. They are trying to harmonize with a fickle public mood, one that is shifting, reactive and selfish, and one that will eventually render them irrelevant. The public don’t just need someone to voice their views for them, they also require someone to inform and lead them.
Secondly, I believe it is based on a false characterization of Syrians. The Syrians engaged in the revolution have shown themselves to be far more secular in word and deed than those secularist thinkers and politicians who have fallen prey to sectarian infighting and partisanship. Syrians did not take to the street to usher in an Islamic state, nor were they mobilized by religious leaders and parties. Theirs was a revolutionary call for freedom and dignity in the face of a tyrannical and corrupt regime. Their positions and approach were derived from the principles of citizenship, patriotism and the greater interests of the people. They paid little attention to religious figures like al-Bouty and Hassoun and in demonstrations the length and breadth of Syria chanted patriotic slogans that proclaimed all Syrians to be a single, united people.
Some secularists have criticized demonstrators for beginning their protests in mosques, or chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’, but this is a natural response to the regime taking measures to prevent them gathering in public squares. And is it really our place to tell the protestors that they should be playing Beethoven and Mozart at their martyrs’ funerals?
If the Syrian street has any special sensitivity to the word ‘secularism’, it is that the term is linked to the policies of a regime that has always presented itself as secular, even though it is nothing of the sort. It is also associated (and no thanks to the professional secularists for this) with a negative and hostile stance towards religion, though this has nothing to do with the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of secularism, nor its political manifestations.
Indeed, we might scrap the word altogether were it not for one thing: the relevance of its meanings and significance to political goals and programs and their practical implementation. The alternatives available, such as ‘civic’, are inadequate, because the success of any revolution is predicated on its secularism. In other words, when citizenship of a country trumps all other affiliations. This sense of secular membership is the basis for constructing a democratic constitution, which grants all citizens equal rights and obligations.
It only remains for me to add a brief word on what I call ‘sectarian secularism’, that reductive, simplified representation of an entire system of thought. I am thinking in particular of the self-appointed defenders of culture and civilization. To them, secularism means little more than the separation of state and religion. They decry the hijab and stand for the freedom to wear eye make-up, a freedom protected by the current Syrian regime and which they fear to lose. The sheer superficiality of their position is the truest indicator of their fundamentally sectarian nature: the dismissive arrogance that underlies their thinking.
Secularism is so much broader than the hollowed out husk of an idea espoused by the sectarian secularists, plus a few Leftists who seem to think that the shabiha are the last defenders of the civilized world. Secularism means the rejection of any one religious creed, ideology, party or individual coming to dominate the state and its agencies, the schools, unions and the street itself. Looked at from this perspective the Baath Party has been more Salafist than any hardline Islamist government you could name.
In a secular regime, the state is a neutral body; politically and ideologically independent from the ruling party. The state belongs to all citizens, not to Baathists or Islamists or the ruling elite.
This secularism can only take shape in an environment that offers freedom and a respect for human rights. A state that lacks a democratic system at its heart cannot be secular, and the opposite is also true. Respect for the other, an acceptance of his right to exist and his freedoms, is the basis of any true secularist vision. No one individual or group can determine what religion or ideology people should follow.
The religious man who believes in the freedom of the ‘other’ and regards him as a fellow citizen and partner can therefore be described as a secularist. The person who reduces the issue of freedom to the clothes a woman wears, or her right to wear eye-shadow has no right to the title.
In conclusion, therefore, secularism is not against religion; it is not against any political ideology or belief. It stems from an unshakeable faith in freedom and an aversion to any and all monopolies of power.
Unfortunately, the Syrian National Council and the National Coordinating Committee have been sucked into a vicious political war. This is especially inexcusable given that the current state of the revolution requires us to forge a shared political vision, not squabble over legitimacy and representation.
The way the National Council has treated the Coordinating Committee, as though it were the work of the devil himself, has been shameful: an attempt to monopolize patriotism and the revolution. Equally shameful has been committee’s claim of precedence because it operates within Syria, denying Syrians overseas their right to participate in forging a future for their country.
A war of words is the worst kind of battle. Words gain their power from meaning and context. Without any basis in law or reality these verbal accusations are meaningless.
Blackmail and Naivety
Certain groups and individuals overseas have engaged in immoral attempts to blackmail persons with long histories in the anti-regime struggle, by claiming that they have called for the ‘fall of the regime’. It has not occurred to these accusers that uttering this phrase is costly for Syrian these days, especially given that many of the accused individuals are well-known, public figures. Indeed, the slogan was never openly used by the forces of the political opposition inside Syria until very recently, when it was included in a statement released by the Damascus Declaration, most of whose members are in hiding.
On the other hand, you have the error committed by members of the National Coordinating Committee, who, when the protestors first began calling for the regime’s fall, went to the media and simply repeated the language in the committee’s founding charter. Although the sense of the charter’s demands is essentially identical to ‘Down with the regime’, it would have demonstrated more political skill at that moment, either to show that the organization was in lockstep with the street, or otherwise keep quiet and jabber to the media.
With one ear I hear people in the National Council casting aspersions on the Coordinating Committee’s discourse and the limited nature of its demands; with the other, I hear yet more people voicing their mistrust of the council:
‘Aren’t the Muslim Brothers the ones who suspended opposition to the regime during the Israeli aggression against Gaza in 2008?’
‘Wasn’t it the Brothers who shook hands with Abdel Halim Khaddam, the former regime figure who was as repressive and corrupt as anyone?’
‘Wasn’t So-and-so, the guy who’s now a member of the National Council’s General Secretariat, once a spokesman for the Salvation Front?’
‘Aren’t all these guys from the Muslim Brotherhood the ones who negotiated their return to Syria with the regime by promising not to engage in any organized political activity?’
‘Since when has this member of the National Council been an opposition figure? Until recently he was in one of the regime’s organizations and used to defend it.’
My point here is that everyone has something to say about everybody else. To a certain extent this is understandable, even necessary, but some of it is unacceptable. The real mistake here is to be wasting our energies in squabbles that benefit us nothing.
Opposition Infighting Versus Cohesion and the Distribution of Roles
There is a principle in psychology, which states, ‘My brother’s success means my failure’, and nowhere is this creed observed with greater fidelity than in the Syrian opposition. It means that an individual believes that to succeed he must obstruct and belittle the achievements of his own colleagues, thereby ensuring he shines all the brighter. The other, less negative option, would be to support the proactive initiatives of other people, develop his own capabilities and concentrate on his own obligations towards the common goal and engage in nothing but constructive competition that ultimately serves the public interest.
Personal ambition is not only a legitimate source of motivation, it is to be welcomed, but in order for this to be so, the ambitious man must be restrained by two conditions: the first, that his ambitions must not create an obstacle in the path of the public interest and the aspirations of the people, and the second, that his career must not be built on other men’s bodies.
The time has come to put an end to this negative style of competition and look to the future: to the concerns and needs of the great Syrian revolution and the higher national interest.
Thuggishness and Demagoguery
During their first visit to Cairo, a delegation from the National Coordinating Council was assaulted by Syrian demonstrators, motivated by false impressions about the committee’s mission and purpose. The demonstrators believed, for instance, that the committee wished to prevent the suspension of Syria’s membership of the Arab League and extend the regime’s compliance deadline. They also believed that the committee represented the regime-affiliated opposition. Regrettably, these beliefs were incited by individuals from within the Syrian National Council.
The delegation had travelled to Cairo to initiate the implementation of the Arab League’s initiative; not to argue for the proposals they were alleged to support by the demonstrators. The demonstrators’ aggression is a clear example of the ‘new shabiha’ phenomenon. It demonstrates an absence of deeply held democratic values and a worrying instance of demagoguery being privileged over rational political discourse. Following the incident, certain individuals washed their hands of the Coordinating Committee in an attempt to win a revolutionary and patriotic credibility.
Aggressive behaviour such as this reveals a lack of self-confidence both from those inciting and those carrying out the assault. This fear that the Arab League might adopt the Coordinating Committee’s vision and ideas, shows that those with different views on the matter do not trust themselves to convince the League of their own position. It also shows a poor understanding of the way the Arab League works. The League’s resolutions are not drawn up and pushed through by the General Secretary of the organizations but by the foreign ministers of the member states.
The Coordinating Committee Boosts the National Council
The Syrian National Council owes the National Coordinating Committee a debt of gratitude: whenever the council reaches a dead end it is rescued by the committee declaring its support for some position or other. This is because the council maintains its presence and stability by riding the coattails of the committee, deriving its legitimacy not from its own capabilities but by exploiting the committee’s lack of support from the street. Every now and again the committee generously provides it with another little boost.
Talks in Cairo Over the ‘Unity’ of the Opposition
For a month and a half during which these two opposition bodies were engaged in talks in Cairo, I told everyone I met from both groups:
‘These talks won’t produce a thing. There will be no agreement. The only thing that will make the council happy is if the committee joins up like the rest of the opposition parties, while the committee wants to be recognized as the official representative of the opposition in Syria, and thinks it has the right to demand that a new body be formed with half the seats allocated to its members. All other political matters are, in my view, quite trifling and can easily be worked out by reasonable people on both sides of the table.’
A total of fifteen members of the National Council’s leadership participated in the various stages of the Cairo talks. The agreement that resulted from this divided roles between the two parties and laid out common ground, but as soon as the council’s member groups began to make their feelings known, individual members of the council (including many of those who had taken part in the talks) backed off and announced to the media that they rejected the text of the agreement.
Eventually, all the National Council members who had been involved in the talks had distanced themselves from the agreement. The last man left was Dr. Burhan Ghalyoun, who was scapegoated for the whole episode. Indeed, he was openly attacked and described as having abandoned the demands of ordinary Syrians by those who wanted to enhance their own popularity and credibility. Ironically, Ghalyoun’s had only signed on what others had agreed.
The talks were held on the request of the Arab League, who wanted to produce a united vision for the opposition, which could be presented to an opposition conference that was to include the National Council, the Coordinating Committee and other opposition forces. In other words, they were forced on the two parties. The council’s attempt to wash its hands of the agreement while offering nothing in its place was a piece of political stupidity. The council was obsessed with gaining short-term support from the street without the slightest regard for how it was going to forge an alliance with the committee.
The challenges of the transition period
Both the National Council and the Coordinating Committee will have to discuss the post-regime transition period—the problems, obstacles and dangers that lie ahead—but this has yet to happen. The agreement reached in Cairo treated issues related to the current political environment, but on the subject of the future and the creation of new Syria: not a word.
Whatever happens, it is now of vital importance that we discuss the period of transition in Syria between the fall of the current regime and the creation of the state to come: a state for all Syrians. If Syria is to negotiate this period in relative calm and peace we must lay out plans and programs that will help us form a social security net, define our steps to recovery in all fields and guarantee the participation and cooperation of all political parties (including a Baath Party purged of violence and corruption). All social and economic classes must join the effort, regardless of whether they were involved in the popular movement, and the principles of tolerance and forgiveness be entrenched in society, alongside respect for the rule of law and the speedy construction of an independent and transparent legal system.
7. Issues in Pressing Need of a Political Solution
The Free Army
The Syrian revolution and the opposition may have hoped that the Syrian army would adopt the same position as the Egyptian and Tunisian armed forces, but for reasons that everybody knows, that never happened. Small-scale defections and discontent within the ranks was the result. As the revolution continued and the regime persisted in its violent suppression of the demonstrators these defectors and dissenters began to meet and coordinate, then merge into the nucleus of an independent army.
Any vision that fails to take the Free Army into account is incomplete. Love it or loathe it, the Free Army is a reality. Its role in the revolution has made it a moral necessity. Granting it political cover will make it a political necessity as well.
This point made, we must turn to the quite legitimate concerns about the existence of two separate armies in a single country and the search for solutions to this worrying state of affairs.
Disagreements over this issue within the Syrian opposition revolve around the degree of support the Free Army should receive, and the extent to which its operations against regular army units should be endorsed. In essence, this is a debate over the need to preserve the military’s unity following the fall of the regime. The greatest danger is that the armed forces will divide along sectarian lines, with pro-regime units being composed of sectarian groups favoured by the authorities. At the same time, such caution should not excuse a failure to support those defecting units, whose stated objective is to protect demonstrators, villages, towns and cities from assault by the state.
The Kurdish Issue
I believe that Syrian Kurds should look at the Kurdish issue as Syrians first and foremost, and not as Kurds, just the rest of the population should see the issue as their issue, and not simply a matter for the Kurds. This has to be the basis for any rational solution to the problem.
The Kurdish issue in Syria is above all a Syrian issue and reaching a political consensus around the subject should be the concern of all Syrians.
The Kurdish people in Syria are an indivisible and authentic part of the Syrian people and this principle must be enshrined in any new constitution. This in no way contradicts Syria’s status as a part of the wider Arab nation: history, demographics and geography place this issue beyond argument.
Kurdish political parties, like all the rest in Syria, lack any real influence over the popular movement. The revolution began as a popular, patriotic uprising calling for freedom and dignity and has never once raised any party political slogans or demands. The parties’ weakness is only to be expected, given that the dictatorship actively worked to break them and weaken their influence. The future of Kurdish politics will see new parties being formed, with new programs and new structures.
If the Kurdish parties continue to operate within the National Council and elsewhere as a separate Kurdish bloc, then we have a serious problem on our hands, as the vast majority of them refuse to act, or react, unless they hear the words, ‘Kurdish issue’. They continue to view the whole of Syria from a purely Kurdish perspective. Of course, the same is true in reverse of Arab members of the National Council and Coordinating Committee, who still view the Kurdish issue, not as a national issue, but as a problem that concerns only the Kurdish community.
1. For or against:
It is not enough to discuss foreign intervention in the naïve way favoured by most of the opposition, who never progress beyond ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; ‘For’ or ‘Against’. These terms reveal a political immaturity, one that supposes everyone can be corralled into one of two opposing camps, and it is deeply undemocratic. It is the logic of tyranny and extremism, the logic of those who tell people: ‘Do this or you will be labelled that.’ Recognizing diversity, difference and a plurality of views is the basis of democracy and offers more than a division of mankind into believers and infidels, patriots and fifth columnists.
The issue of foreign intervention cannot be resolved by pure idealism, nor by brute pragmatism. When it comes to precise political matters virginal outrage and crude realpolitik are equally useless.
The opposition to foreign intervention, idealist and patriotic, endlessly repeats ‘No to foreign intervention’ as if they want to win approval of their patriotic zeal from a regime whose own credentials are in ruins. On the other hand you have those who have shrugged off all considerations of national sovereignty and the concerns of ordinary Syrians for the future of their country. As someone put it to me:
‘Don’t be surprised if they call next Friday, ‘Israel Protects Us Friday’. To be honest, nothing surprises me any more.’
2. Profit and loss:
In other words, the decision to accept or reject foreign intervention should be weighed in the scales of the national interest. We must discuss and debate the details of any potential intervention: its mechanisms, stages, the parties involved, its duration and its effects; all the plusses and minuses, the gains and losses, that will result for Syrians’, and Syria’s, interests. Once we’ve talked about all that and reached an agreement, then it will be time to take a clear position on the issue.
To put it another way, we can only discuss and agree—or reject—a clearly defined plan for foreign intervention. Generalized ‘for-or-against’ positions get us nowhere. They generate a lot of chatter and white noise but have nothing to offer a rational discussion.
3. Delusion and demagoguery:
There is a lot of superficial thinking and outright delusion when it comes to things, like demilitarized areas, military intervention and no-fly zones, which really need long, detailed debate. Irrational voices in the opposition attempt to win popular support by nurturing these delusions, even resorting to lies and misleading claims to foist their own weakness and incompetence on others.
Some seem to believe that the world is waiting breathlessly for the opinions of a view opposition figures and parties before it decides whether or not to intervene in Syria. Others chant ‘No, to intervention’ day and night, as if their words alone could prevent foreign nations who want to enter Syria from carrying out their plans. Yet more think that they have the power to persuade unwilling states to marshal their troops and make a landing.
The fact is that those who want intervention cannot make the world intervene if it doesn’t want to, while those who reject intervention cannot prevent the world coming if it has made up its mind to do so. Thee foreign powers are not waiting for a signal before they proceed. No one can hold them back or urge them on. They will only intervene if they want to, based on their own strategic considerations and interests.
The truth of the matter is that foreign intervention is impossible at the present moment, no matter how much we disagree about it and divide ourselves into camps.
The situation is just as the regime would have it: an opposition fractured and divided over issues that have no basis in reality. Neither those who call for intervention, nor those who oppose it, are doing what they should for the Syrian revolution. Everybody is still feeding off the regime’s errors, not from the fruits of their own endeavours and initiatives.
Turning to the reality of how the international community is dealing with the situation in Syria, it is clear that they are continuing to gamble on the regime falling through steady erosion from within: perhaps by exhausting the capabilities of its military and security apparatus. Furthermore, the major world powers view the fall of the Syrian regime through the lens of a coherent vision and strategy for the region as a whole.
All of this means that a direct land invasion as happened in Iraq, or the bombing and air cover provided by NATO to Libya’s revolutionaries in their war against Gaddafi, are unlikely to be repeated in Syria, at least at the current time. The one option that does seem to have been mooted is the creation of demilitarized zones (the details of which remain unclear), where civilians could go safe from pursuit by the regime’s forces. It is time to stop the fantasizing and talking about applying the Libyan experience to Syria.
The Syrian National Council is deeply split over foreign intervention. For instance, the statements coming from the council’s main party, the Muslim Brotherhood, are diametrically opposed to those of Ghalyoun. The Brotherhood’s leaders, such as Farouq Tayfour and Mohammed Riad al-Shaqfa, have no qualms about openly espousing positions that directly contradict those of the council’s official spokesmen, who declare that military intervention is a certainty and that Turkey will play a role, especially in keeping Syrian warplanes out of the no-fly zones and enforcing demilitarized zones on the ground. Perhaps they are hoping to create a Syrian Benghazi and bring down the regime that way!
4. Political and media strategies for foreign intervention:
- The regime is pushing the country towards foreign intervention: The real spur to foreign intervention has been the idiotic policies followed by the regime since the outset of the revolution. Political foolishness is the root of all foreign intervention, and the regime’s claims about Arab and international conspiracies are ridiculous. Is it really credible that the vast majority of the international community are engaged together in a conspiracy against the Syrian regime? Such claims are baseless and ignore the fact that it is the regime’s own behaviour that has brought it to this pass. It reminds me of Saddam Hussein’s political discourse. If his regime had not been so stupid as to invade Kuwait then an international coalition would not have come to bring it down. Similarly, if the Syrian regime had not murdered, tortured and displaced its people then the world would not have mobilized against it. Remember, that for a long time, the international community did nothing at all; on the contrary, Arab states and the West treated Syria like a spoilt child who always gets what he wants. Now they are paying the price.
- The essence of the popular movement: The popular movement in Syria needs to have its own internal logic and mechanisms, free from the influence of both the Syrian political opposition and the international community. In other words, it must rely on its own efforts and strategies. This is particularly important given the many weaknesses within the opposition, which prevent it carrying out its appointed duties and the fickle nature of regional and international statements on the Syria, which fluctuate according to a complex calculus of interests. The movement must realize its objectives by its own efforts, as though it were acting alone, treating any support it might receive as an unexpected blessing. This is why it is vital to keep holding strikes and deploying other methods of peaceful resistance for as long as possible. No one can predict how long any regional or international position will remain fixed, so it is important to treat any news from that quarter with skepticism. The essence of the revolution is the youth; their determination and resolve.
- Foreign intervention is coming and we need to manage it wisely: the regime has pushed things so far that it has legitimized intervention for everybody, both neighboring powers (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah) and the international community, such as Russia, China the EU and the US, not to mention the Arab League and its member states. Just deploying the Syrian army along the border with any one of its neighbors would suggest that those states were going to invade. Indeed, if the Syrian regime continues to pursue these blind policies then there won’t be anyone left who isn’t involved on some level. Intervention on various levels is bound to increase and it is the duty of the Syrian opposition to manage this intervention wisely so that it accords with the interests of the Syria people as a whole.
- International protection for civilians and international humanitarian law: The demand for foreign intervention to protect the civilian population is a moral, humanitarian demand and is not subject to political considerations. It is the right of the Syrian people, akin to the humanitarian aid that is given after natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or floods. International humanitarian law should be exploited to protect civilians in Syria. We must free ourselves from an obsession with the Libyan model of intervention and focus on the principle of ‘intervention for the protection of civilians’, which was adopted by the UN and international law in 2005, then seek to apply it to the specific geographical, political, demographic and historical circumstances that make up the Syrian nation. Applying the principle of ‘international protection’ requires precision and sensitivity. In our case, it must also take an unprecedented form that will allow us to achieve our desired objectives: to prevent the regime persisting with its repressive tactics, while also avoiding direct military intervention as happened in Libya. Outside pressures (i.e. public statements and embargoes targeting the regime, dispatching Arab and international observers and foreign media reports) are not only acceptable, they are necessary for the protection of civilians, yet we must continue to search for more effective and influential means to achieve our ends.
- National sovereignty and the regime: For the last four decades Syria has not been a nation state in the accepted sense of the term. Indeed, it has never been a proper state at all, but rather the state of the ruling regime. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that ‘national sovereignty’ has become synonymous with the sovereignty of the regime. For all this time Syrians have lived under a system where ‘patriotism’ is defined by the regime and their sense of ‘national belonging’ or citizenship has been crippled. In a true nation state, the people are the rulers, exercising their sovereignty through state organizations and democratic mechanisms, all of which are based on a constitution at whose core lies a respect for human rights. National sovereignty is thus linked to respect for rights, and the nation becomes a synonym, not for a patch of land and a population, but for a democratic constitution. The Syrian state has never enjoyed any internal legitimacy but has relied on foreign recognition for its survival. When it began to lose this foreign recognition it found it no legitimacy to draw on within Syria and so it tried—indeed, continues to try—to find a new international legitimacy to provide it with cover. Furthermore, the authorities have developed a populist, demagogic discourse in order to render the idea of foreign intervention unacceptable to Syrian public opinion. Having succeeded in this, the regime now believes it is free to abuse its people without fear of calls for outside help. The discourse claims that intervention by the international community, its humanitarian bodies in particular, constitutes a violation of Syrian national sovereignty. Yet true national sovereignty lies with the people and elected bodies whose legitimacy derives from the popular will, freely exercised and guided by the principles of human rights. We cannot allow sovereignty to be reduced to the exercise of power by a regime that has lost all legitimacy; turned into a slogan in support of political dictatorship and the suppression of public freedoms.
- An international conference to resolve the Syrian crisis: The Security Council has been unable to create consensus over Syria, at least at present. The alternative is an international conference to discuss the crisis, tasked with drawing up a detailed roadmap for a peaceful political transition into a democratic, civil state, whose security and stability can be assured. The following parties should attend: the United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union, the United States, Russia, China, France, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Qatar. To ensure the conference’s resolutions are implemented, it should remain in constant contact, through a variety of channels, with both the Syrian regime and the political opposition. As long as the crisis in Syria remains an international issue (whether we like it or not), the conference would provide an opportunity for all sides to reach an agreement on credible solutions.
If Syrians are forced to undergo foreign intervention, then what should be their conditions and demands? If progress continues to be blocked as it is now, then the population will have to start taking military intervention more seriously. ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ won’t do any longer. If the potential negative impact of such intervention is to be ameliorated, we must offer a detailed description of what we want:
- A strong UN presence within the process, funded by the major powers and overseen and led by Arab states.
- Limited intervention with a fixed deadline that can only be extended with the consent of a united political opposition.
- Intervention that does not violate national sovereignty in any way: neither Syrian soil, nor the unity of the Syrian people.
- Intervention that does not require Syria to sign any normalization treaty that does not guarantee Syrian possession of the Golan Heights and its right to maintain its position on the Palestinian issue.
- Political authority over the intervention must rest entirely in the hands of a united Syrian opposition.
- Management of the post-regime transition must be left in the hands of the Syrian people with oversight from the Arab League.
- Military intervention must be preceded by a detailed projection of the material and human cost of such an action.
- The strategic capabilities of the Syrian army must be left untouched.
- Any military intervention on the ground must be as limited as possible.
- Arab troops are to be used whenever possible. Other UN forces are to be kept away from land-based operations.
- Highly trained, independent Arab military observers will ensure that the military intervention stays within the limits agreed upon.
- A high quality humanitarian aid and relief agency will be set up by the United Nations, the Arab League and the Islamic Work Organization, to counter any negative impact such intervention may have.
- A guarantee that no other states or powers be allowed to participate to ensure that credibility and clarity of purpose are maintained.
The Opposition and the Need for New Faces
The term ‘opposition’ is essentially meaningless under a totalitarian dictatorship; true opposition can only exist in a democratic system However, we used it in the past as shorthand for anti-regime forces and now the revolution has come it is even less justified. Now we continue using it as a temporary bridge to the future. Revolution means creating a new system and new political forces. Naturally enough, all the political groups and parties of the past have been brought together under the rubric of ‘the opposition’, but now it is time to start building new civic and political structures that will create a break with the culture of both the regime and the traditional opposition.
Gambling on the Future
Over the last few months we have seen that nobody is putting their money on the National Council or the Coordinating Committee. Both these organizations are a burden on the revolution and neither can claim any credit for the victories achieved so far. All gains have come courtesy of the revolutionaries’ determination and the stupidity of the regime.
In my view all serious political developments and actions are taking place outside the council and committee. With all due respect to the groups and individuals who make up the opposition, the organization that truly represents the Syrian people and which they deserve, has yet to be born.
I also think that one temporary solution to the chaos and inefficiency that bedevils the opposition, would be for the popular movement and the political opposition to appoint twenty-five individuals and allow them to take charge. These individuals should be selected using transparent mechanisms and standards and should be collectively known as the ‘Committee of Governors’. This committee should oversee the transition period, leaving the remaining political forces free to renew their party structures and discourse, or form themselves into new political groups, syndicates and organizations, befitting the civil society of the Syria to come.
The following points summarize my vision of what needs to be achieved as we move forward:
- Forming a Committee of Governors and empowering it to manage the political and media struggle against the regime.
- In light of the aforementioned points, the political forces in the National Coordinating Committee and the Syrian National Council must update their discourse, structures and political practice.
- The Coordinating Committee and National Council must offer their support to the popular movement on all levels and open dialogue about the tasks required of them during transition.
- Encouraging the formation of new political forces.
- Encouraging the formation of professional unions and civil society.
Finally, I would like to refer to a Quranic verse:
‘For the scum disappears; while that which is for the good of mankind remains on the earth.’
Truly, with a little patience and a lot of hard work in the right direction we can bring Syria back to life and hand victory to all Syrians.
15 January 2012
Dr. Hazem Nahar is a Syrian writer, activist and political researcher. He studied medicine and physiotherapy at university. He has published widely in several Arab language magazines and newspapers including: Kifah al-Arabi, Elaph.com, Al-Rai newspaper. As an activist, he has participated in several regional and international conferences on the situation of Arab youth and on human rights.
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