Friday 3 February 2012

Probing the mind of the Syrian opposition

Burhan Ghalioun (from al-Hayat)

Syrian National Council head Burhan Ghalioun, who is New York lobbying for a UN Security Council resolution backing an Arab plan for power transfer in Syria, talking exclusively to Raghida Dergham about Russia’s stance, the chances of civil war, the Free Syrian Army, Syria's Moslem Brotherhood, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah:  

On the UN Syria resolution
The SNC and Syrian people don’t count on resolutions, whether coming from the Security Council or even the Arab League. This does not mean we shun political battles (in international forums). It only means our foremost battle is on the ground, on Syrian soil. The SNC’s sole purpose in fighting political battles is to bolster the Syrian revolution on the ground.

On Russia
We want Russia to change its position, to condemn the regime’s violence against the Syrian people and to recognize that people’s rights to freedom, dignity and democracy. The Russians are getting there. They used to dwell on foreign conspiracies and gangs etc… But for the first time in our meetings, they have started to talk of the people’s rights. They recognize that people (in Syria) are struggling for their rights and freedom. But they (Russians) insist on a solution being reached through dialogue.

We’re not against dialogue. But we can’t be here today mustering UN Security Council support for the Arab League peace blueprint and leave suddenly for Russia to negotiate with the regime. We told them (Russians) so. I told (Russia's Ambassador to the United Nations) Vitaly Churkin if Russia did not wield its veto and were to let the Security Council resolution pass, we could have (all-Syria) negotiations in Moscow on the transfer of power as stipulated in the Arab peace plan. We don’t have a problem with the venue, except that any initiative has to fulfill the transfer of power to the people. Thus, possible negotiations in Moscow would have to be about the transfer of power. There won’t be negotiations with the regime, but negotiations on transfer of power procedures.

On the U.S. and UN
We did not seek U.S. assistance in our meetings with either (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs) Jeffrey Feltman or (U.S. Special Middle East Peace Envoy's assistant, Frederick) Hoff. We discussed UN Security Council options. I said there were two choices. One is to stand our ground with the Russians and accept their veto. That would give the regime another two- or three-week breathing space to continue the killings. The second option is to try and convince India, Pakistan, South Africa and perhaps Russia to back a resolution that would save Russia’s face but would not erode the essence of the resolution.

That’s what we discussed with them (Americans). We did not seek or discuss any sort of assistance. We asked the European Union to set up a fund that would extend material and humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. That’s what we asked of the Arabs and will be asking of the United States and everyone else in the world. I don’t think the Americans wish to do more than that.

In my meeting here at the UN with the Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, I also requested humanitarian and relief aid to the Syrian people at this stage.

On the chances of civil war
I think sectarian tensions have increased substantially. There have been clashes here and there. And there will be more of them. But I am certain the Syrian people will steer clear of internecine strife. Proof is that the regime tried but failed to ignite one.

On Assad standing down
We unequivocally and unhesitatingly want Assad to stand down. His regime is crumbling already. The regime is crippled. There is no regime left in Syria. There is chaos being exploited by a president trying to remain in office… (Assad’s deputy) Farouk al-Sharaa won’t head a (new) regime. He will be a cover-up for the transfer of power. He will be an implement for burying the regime.

On the Moslem Brotherhood
You cannot compare Egypt’s Moslem Brothers, for instance, with Syria’s. Egypt’s Moslem Brothers remained a cohesive and strong party throughout the recent past when the Moslem Brotherhood in Syria was practically nonexistent. Syria’s Moslem Brothers are now rebuilding their ranks. But I don’t think Syria’s Moslem Brotherhood is after Islamist rule in Syria. They are calling for multiparty cooperation with other political forces in a democratic government. It’s not in their interest to play the hegemonic card either during or after the revolution. Syrian public opinion aspires for freedom and not for a new dictatorship.

On recognition of the SNC
The SNC is a council, not a state. Unlike a state, it lacks a foothold on the national soil. We are a complementary component of the Syrian revolution. We are not a substitute to the regime. The regime’s replacement will emerge from the ballot box and through new state institutions.

On the Free Syrian Army
Recourse to arms by the army defectors was quintessential because civilians are lacking protection. They (army defectors) assumed part of a role that was shunned by the international community.

My fear is not the recourse to arms. My worry is failure to gather and organize the emerging military force so it can stay under political orders. We don’t want the emerging military force to operate, after the regime’s fall, independently of an organized political structure. That’s my fear. Hence the SNC drive to build relations with the SFA. We want the SFA to submit to a chain and command political structure and become the nucleus of the anticipated Syrian national army instead of a militia.

On Turkey and Iran
Rivalry between Turkey and Iran is far from being sectarian. They are the region’s heavyweights. They are sparring for a strategic trophy, which is Syria.

The SNC does not have relations with the Iranians. They tried building bridges and initiating a dialogue with us. We said we recognized Iran as a great regional power but we would not negotiate with any side opposing our people’s aspirations. We will negotiate with the Iranians once they issue a statement upholding the right of the Syrian people to a democratic regime.

On Hezbollah
There has been a marked change in the tone of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s speeches. In his early speeches he always talked of U.S. or foreign conspiracies and accused me of wanting to sever relations with Hezbollah. That’s not true. I said Hezbollah wouldn’t be the same after change in Syria. Hezbollah changed the tone of its rhetoric even before the regime’s exit. It will tone it down further after the Assad regime’s exit.

On Iraq
I am aware there are Iraqi sides solidly behind the Syrian regime. Where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is concerned, he sent us messages to meet so he can declare his support of the Syrian people. We said we were waiting to hear such support, in which case we would head to Baghdad, meet with the Iraqi government and pave the way for new relations between Iraq and the anticipated democratic Syria. We are also waiting for the political situation in Iraq to clear. We don’t want to get involved in it.

(Raghida Dergham’s 4,000-word interview with Burhan Ghalioun is published in Arabic today in al-Hayat)