The Syrian opposition must end perpetual rivalries

2014-12-20 ::

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12/20/14, ‘The Syrian opposition must end perpetual rivalries’ - Ghalyoun | 4:37 AM Region | Syria ‘The Syrian opposition must end perpetual rivalries’ - Ghalyoun

‘Iran and Russia are obsessed with their hatred of the West and their power struggle with it’

By Joseph A. Kechichian, Senior Writer Published: 16:06 December 20, 2014

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December 20 2014 | Last updated 1 minute ago

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12/20/14, ‘The Syrian opposition must end perpetual rivalries’ - Ghalyoun |

4:37 AM Image Credit: EPA Burhan Ghalioun speaks at a press conference of the Council in Cairo, Egypt EPA/AMEL PAIN

Doha: News that hundreds of combatants fell as the Jabhat Al Nusra gained control over the two key Wadi Al Deif and Hamidiyeh military bases came as extremists strengthened their hold over large chunks of territory in what was yet another blow to President Bashar Al Assad’s regime.

Still, while Islamist rebel groups like the Ahrar Al Sham and the Jund Al Aqsa, made additional inroads, Damascus fought back, sometimes retaking airfields, pipelines and other vital spots.

Under the circumstances, observers concluded there was no end in sight to the cat and mouse game, with attackers capturing as many men in uniform as they lost, which translated in a war of attrition. Why were Syrian opposition forces so divided and what did the future hold for the hapless nation as it completed four years of bloody warfare?

For Burhan Ghalyoun, the chief reason was infighting, which the regime learnt how to use to its advantage. Ghalyoun, a Homs native and an erudite scholar who taught at the Paris Sorbonne after 1969, believed the time was long overdue to allow a full “restructuring of the Higher Military Council [for a] better coordination between all armed opposition forces.”

This, he acknowledged, was not achieved when he served as the first chairman of the Syrian National Council (SNC) between August 2011 and May 2012. He

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12/20/14, ‘The Syrian opposition must end perpetual rivalries’ - Ghalyoun | 4:37 AM resigned from his post after opponents accused him of being close to the Muslim Brotherhood although his claim to fame came in the early 1970s when he published a pamphlet titled A Manifesto for Democracy that criticised President Hafez Al Assad for strangulating the Syrian people.

A no-nonsense leader, Ghalyoun hesitated to arm opposition forces in 2011, though he quickly understood that the SNC was doomed to failure if it engaged in perpetual infighting, much like the Faysal I debates that mired Syrians after Damascus was liberated from Ottoman forces a century earlier.

In a frank conversation in Doha where he attended the third annual Arab Research Centres conference, Ghalyoun underscored the need for unity, as he called on Western allies to muster the courage to stand with the Syrian people. His assessments of Russian and Iranian influences shed further light on the political roadblocks that prevented a concrete peace plan from gaining ground, concluding that 2015 could well usher in dramatic new initiatives that will lead to eventual peace.

Gulf News: Would it be possible to envisage a better restructuring of the Syrian opposition in the light of decisions reached by the international coalition to militarily strike Daesh in Syria and Iraq?

Burhan Ghalyoun: At the beginning of the uprising, our freedom fighters were young civilians whose only goal was to participate in peaceful demonstrations. Many were forced to arm themselves to defend protesters against the armed shabbiha (thugs) of the Al Assad

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12/20/14, ‘The Syrian opposition must end perpetual rivalries’ - Ghalyoun | 4:37 AM regime. Gradually, most organised into armed groups, to protect their neighbourhoods and defend their properties. These conditions led to the formation of what became the Free Syrian Army [FSA], which grew out of local popular resistance, itself marked by the decentralised structure of the opposition — a situation that prevails until today. Within such a structure, there are positive elements: the entrenchment of fighters in the trenches, which adds to their tenacity and, over time, to their strength. There is also and regrettably, a negative consequence, namely the lack of a central command that can articulate a clear national strategy to implement the goals of the revolution.

During the past two years, a fresh coordination movement emerged, which consolidated opposition forces into fighting brigades that could deploy FSA troops across the country. But we are still far from the integration of each and every FSA brigade under a single command. It is hoped the restructuring of the Higher Military Council will better coordination between all armed opposition forces. This is also the role of the new defence minister General Ziad Idris as well as the provisional government.

Gulf News: What is, or what are, the reasons for disagreements within the Syrian opposition? Is it possible to hope for rejuvenation against the regime of Bashar Al Assad?

Ghalyoun: There are many reasons for this and they are linked to socio-political conditions imposed by a bloody totalitarian regime that stifled Syria’s political culture that emasculated citizens and institutions alike.

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12/20/14, ‘The Syrian opposition must end perpetual rivalries’ - Ghalyoun | 4:37 AM Syria has been under emergency rule and martial law for half a century, a genuine political sterilisation of the entire nation. No independent political or intellectual life was tolerated, which meant that political parties or associations of civil society were banned. In short, most fantasised of freedom of expression, and most opponents of the regime lived scattered across the five continents, with varied cultural and political influences. One can add to this complex situation the lack of external support to gain a better perspective on what ailed Syrian intellectuals. Top all of these with multiple interferences by regional and international powers, along with a lack of commitment by the international community to side with the Syrian people, to give you a clearer idea of what the socio-political consequences of the single party rule meant.

Finally, we in the Syrian National Council (SNC) must also acknowledge certain shortcomings, since inherent structural flaws were left in abeyance. The SNC along with the Syrian National Coalition, failed to promote solidarity within opposition ranks and embarked on perpetual rivalries that translated into more or less permanent electioneering, which also prevented the renewal of members. The result was a growing gap between political leaders operating outside the country and activists fighting on the ground. It is critical to end this gridlock and vital to stop rivalries between various Coalition blocks that engage in perpetual jockeying to elect their candidates to leadership positions. Moreover, it is important to institute a replacement rule, which will see at least a third of all members complete their mandates precisely to encourage the participation of

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12/20/14, ‘The Syrian opposition must end perpetual rivalries’ - Ghalyoun | 4:37 AM non-represented groups within the coalition.

Gulf News: What could the Syrian opposition do to persuade Russia and China to take into account the interests of the Syrian people and what could it offer Moscow and Beijing to encourage them to back regime change and, in time, rebuild the country?

Ghalyoun: Neither Russia nor China feel concerned by the tragedy of the Syrian people. I travelled to Russia four times and once to Beijing to discuss with their leaders the Syrian tragedy, and concluded they are conservative powers that espouse septic principles with respect to all upheavals or revolutions. Both are very suspicious of popular protest movements and their rhetoric focuses on the question of legality. For them, Bashar Al Assad is an elected president, full stop. Therefore, when we discuss substantial issues, Russians are far less concerned with the fate of the Syrians, than the restoration of the balance of power. In fact, what matters for Moscow is not to let Syria follow the Libyan model, especially because Russian leaders feel betrayed by the way the Libyan crisis unravelled. It seems that Moscow wants to teach Americans a lesson — that Russia will not allow anyone walk all over them. In Syria, Moscow concluded, Westerners will not prevail and Bashar Al Assad, his army, and his repressive intelligence services — with which Moscow maintains very old ties and on which it relies to consolidate its influence and strengthens its presence in the region — should remain.

Gulf News: Is it possible to envisage the end of the alliance between the regime and the Iranian power that

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12/20/14, ‘The Syrian opposition must end perpetual rivalries’ - Ghalyoun | 4:37 AM has seized Syria for its own geostrategic purposes? Is there a potential role for Tehran in the Middle East, and under what conditions?

Ghalyoun: Tehran’s ambitions are much larger than Moscow’s because the regime does not intend to leave Syria anytime soon. On the contrary, and after multiple declarations by Iranian leaders — to become the cornerstone of a regional axis extending from Qom in Iran to Southern Lebanon on the Mediterranean — it is amply clear that Tehran is ready to sacrifice for its goal. The quest is about Iranian grandeur, the role of Shiism, as well as the major function Iranian leaders affixed themselves to become a dominant regional and international actor.

It is too bad Iran has chosen such a path since, as a great nation, it could have played a much better role. Had it chosen to promote understanding among the nations of the Middle East, and to seek the establishment of an organisation for cooperation and collective security for the good of all the peoples of the region, Iran would have made a difference. It is precisely within such a wider context — the creation of a large Middle Eastern institution — that Iran could add value and fulfil its aspirations to innovate instead of being engaged in subversion, backing sectarian militias, and otherwise feeding the conflict frenzy among nations.

This has always been my message to Iranians, but the leaders in Tehran seem to be obsessed — just like the Russians — with their hatred of the West with whom they are engaged in a power struggle. They are desperate to convince leading Western governments

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12/20/14, ‘The Syrian opposition must end perpetual rivalries’ - Ghalyoun | 4:37 AM they are the only ones on whom the West must and can rely to defend the latter’s regional interests, and thus become the region’s ‘policeman’.

Gulf News: Iranian interferences, directly or through the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, is a major reason for the prolongation of the Syrian wars. What could the Syrian people do to break the yoke of Hezbollah and end the latter’s control over the country? Is it possible to envisage any agreement between the Syrian people and Hezbollah?

Ghalyoun: Unfortunately, Hezbollah is not alone. Its action in Syria is part of the overall Iranian intervention to crush the revolution in favour of Al Assad and his regime, now an instrument of the Iranian occupation of Syria, and the stranglehold of Tehran over Iraq and Lebanon. The Damascus regime has no interest in cutting vital ties with Tehran, even if Iran has attacked Syria, and continues to provide the bloody Al Assad regime all the support the latter needs, including fighters, military equipment, and financial resources, all of which allow it to remain in power. The end result is the systematic destruction of the country and the massacres of many, which forces millions of survivors to seek exile and the lives of refugees. Despite all of this, the opposition is willing to talk with Tehran, provided Iran recognises the sovereignty and independence of Syria, the right of its people to determine their future, stops its support to the criminal regime of Al Assad, and agrees to withdraw its many militias, including that of Hezbollah, from Syrian land.

Gulf News: the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) support

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12/20/14, ‘The Syrian opposition must end perpetual rivalries’ - Ghalyoun | 4:37 AM the Syrian people and continue to invest considerable sums to help Syrian opposition forces defeat the regime. Are there specific actions that would change conditions in the ground and will opposition forces accept them?

Ghalyoun: Because of the lack of coordination between GCC States and other Arab countries as well as the lack of control over financial contributions made by individual Gulf citizens to Syrian fighters, the Free Syrian Army was unable to gain the upper hand on the matter, which led to a chaotic environment. Consequently, the Syrian opposition lost its ability to impose order at a time when it needed to coordinate and consolidate. We are now faced with an unbearable situation where the Al Assad regime on the one hand, and extremists like Daesh on the other, have the advantage of being unified under central commands, while the FSA continues to struggle with its unified leadership. The end result is an FSA loss in favour of the regime and Daesh, though this is what needs to be corrected, and can be. We must intervene to help all elements within the FSA to federate given that all Syrians, including true freedom fighters, would welcome such action.

Gulf News: Is it true the West still insists on controlling the SNC and similar organisations? What has prevented the SNC to win the vital trust of Western countries since 2011?

Ghalyoun: Things do not work that way. Westerners are astute enough not to announce their desire to control the SNC, and they are somewhat disunited, which means they cannot impose their will. Moreover, Syrians are not so naive to agree to be guided by others, and

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12/20/14, ‘The Syrian opposition must end perpetual rivalries’ - Ghalyoun | 4:37 AM are very sensitive as far as the protection of their sovereignty is concerned. In general, when you’re friends, dialogue prevails. However, Western governments do not have to force our hand to impose their choice, since the opposition was and is dependent on their cooperation, both in the political and military fields, which easily translates into Western choices made to satisfy powerful regional “allies.” If there was a loss of confidence in the SNC, perhaps this was due to two specific factors: the lack of appropriate and coherent support from friends, and the narrowness of view by SNC leaders who behaved as if they were in a closed club that, in turn, translated in the neglect of dynamic forces on the ground. This, regrettably, is the same challenge in front of the National Coalition today.

Gulf News: How do you foresee political and military trends in 2015? When will peace, perhaps reconciliation, and the beginning of the civil reconstruction of the country, begin?

Ghalyoun: The year 2015 will be difficult for all Syrians, but it will also be a decisive year. Calls for revenge and killings will rise alongside pleas for serious negotiations, dialogue and peace. In fact, the solution to this dilemma will largely depend on the emergence of a group of leaders capable of unity, willing to present a road map for democratic changes, and ready to adopt a programme likely to reassure Syrians that reconciliation is possible. We need to think of a common goal to come out of the abyss and concentrate on the sorely required reconstruction. After about four years of conflict, this should not be a dream, but a possibility.

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12/20/14, ‘The Syrian opposition must end perpetual rivalries’ - Ghalyoun | 4:37 AM Gulf News: Will this be possible with Bashar Al Assad in power?

Ghalyoun: Bashar Al Assad is finished. He survives only as an instrument of pressure used by the Iranians and Russians in their confrontations/negotiations with Western powers. He has no future and will not be able to build on anything. Anyone who destroys his country and is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of his citizens simply to stay in power a few more years cannot but continue along the same lines. Until such time when he is dragged in front of the International Criminal Court, where he will be tried for crimes against humanity.

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