4. Blogging and reporting on five months of revolution from Syria: Kamal Sheikho boycotts Semiramis meeting

Semiramis Meeting of the Syrian Opposition: why someone decided not to participate?

30 June 2011
kamal_sheikoHere I transcribe part of the interview I had with a prominent figure in the opposition, who is really close to Michel Kilo, Luay Hussein and the other intellectuals who took part in the Semiramis meeting on June 27. I won’t name him because of security reasons, I will call him Ala*, since he has spent enough of his time in jail for his ideas. In 2010 Ala has been jailed for more than 8 months and he protested against his detention through a long hunger strike. After having been released in 2011, he spent only few days free to join the ongoing protests, but now he is out and resolute to pursue his struggle. Ala is still participating in demonstrations. He is an independent dissident not tied to any political party
.Q: What can you say about the status of human rights in Syria at the moment?
A: There are more than 1300 dead, 10.000 refugees in Turkey, 1000 in Lebanon, more than 13000 arrested since the 16 of March [the symbolic date in which protests started], more than 4000 wounded by undefined gangs [often referred to as shabbiha] and many people kidnapped.
The regime thinks it can keep on stifling demonstrations by violence, whereas protesters have asked the end to violence first of all. The regime thinks by killing the demonstrators people will go back home and won’t ask neither reforms nor to change the system.
QMilitary repression is the strategy adopted by the Syrian regime. What about those rumors which have been circulating about increasing division withing the armed forces, particularly along sectarian [sunni-shi’a] lines?
A: No, this is not the case, we are talking only about individual choices and low-ranking officers, when we speak about defections. There has been no relevant defection, I mean a phalanx or a brigade, as it happened in Libya or Yemen. While I was in prison, I heard the story of the division between the Fourth and the Fifth Brigade [the Fourth Brigade is the one headed by Maher al-Assad, the brother of the President] but I don’t believe it. In reality, we are not allowed to know what is currently happening within the Syrian army, because of the high secrecy surrounding this information. We don’t know if there are sectarian divisions.
Q: What is your evaluation of the current status of the Syrian uprising?
A: We have now entered in a phase of civil disobedience. Some call it a revolution, a protest, I call it a civil disobedience. Syrians have been 40 years under this regime. What is happening now is that a part of the Syrian people has said no, this is what I define as a civil disobedience. Naturally, we cannot compare our condition with Egypt or Tunisia, even if Syria is part of the Middle East.
From 2000, when Bashar took power, what his father was doing he started to do it, without any sort of difference in interior affairs. He preserved the ban on demonstrations, the imprisonment of dissidents, the security state, the ban on political associations and so on.
Q: What about the Damascus Spring in 2000?
A: The Damascus Spring was promoted by a group of intellectuals, -more or less the same ones who have participated now in the Semiramis meeting- who asked for limited political reforms and the end of the single-party system. The ruling regime refused the proposals and imprisoned 10 opposition leaders, with sentences ranging from 3 to 10 years: Dr. Aref Dalila was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Then we went through another crisis, the so-called Damascus-Beirut Declaration in 2006, which called for the normalization of relations between Lebanon and Syria. I was among the signatories and, together with other intellectuals, I was once again arrested.
At the end of 2007, when the signatories of the Damascus Declaration (2005) held a meeting in the Syrian capital, 11 figures of the opposition were arrested. I mean that there have always been arrest campaigns and long sentences under this regime. In 2005, Dr. Kamal Labwani, only for having given some interviews to satellite TV channels in England, France and the US, was arrested and sentenced to 12 years, upon his return in Syria.
All these events created among a Syrians a big bubble waiting to explode. We were in need of the Tunisian revolution to break that glass, which we have been afraid of crashing so far. People took the streets to ask for the end of the state of fear the Mukhabarat have been able to create.
Q: Actually, the main impression I had, while talking with people who take part in demonstrations, is that their uprising is first of all an act of rebellion against the power of the Mukhabarat. Do you agree?
A: Bashar and his father have been ruling this country by the strength of the security forces. There have never been democratic elections: the presidential elections take now place through a popular referendum and not trough regular elections, after the Constitution has been amended for this purpose.
Even the 10 parties, members of the National Progressive Front together with the ruling Ba’th Party, are scared to say a single word differing from the position of the Ba’th Party.
Q: Even the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP)? I personally got to know some young members of the party, who are taking distances from the official positions of the party, claiming also to respect the opposition legacy of their political history.
A: No, absolutely no. I talk as an individual dissident, I met with leaders of the SSNP and they are not dissidents, on the contrary, even historically the party has never been opposed to the regime.Q: What is the future of the Syrian uprising after more than 100 days from the beginning of demonstrations?A:I think the government has dragged Syria to a point of no-return. Why? If the government and the opposition had accepted small concessions in the beginning, thus reaching an agreement, then we might have been able to avoid what happened later on and these big figures of martyrs. For this reason, personally I cannot go back, I walk towards the collapse of the regime. If this revolution fails and Bashar al-Assad stays in power, I told the other dissidents many times that, even after 10 years of political activism, I will resign and leave politics forever. It is necessary to depose the current regime to start building a new modern Syrian city-state.

Q: Some of the youth participating to the demonstrations is getting upset by the slow, bloody pace of the revolution. There are people increasingly convinced of being more helpful by leaving the country and coordinating the struggle against the regime from abroad. Some believe that Syria might not be ready for a successful revolution and maybe it still needs time to overthrow the political elites. Are you more optimistic?

A: We cannot affirm whether three months are enough or not for a successful revolution in Syria. In Egypt three weeks were enough, in Tunisia one month. I think the Syrian situation is currently intertwined with the fate of two other regimes, which are supposed to collapse: Yemen and Libya. If one of these three dictators falls, then you’ll see the other ones following him. I think the situation is really similar to what happened in Eastern Europe in the 80’s. Poland started a 8 years-long successful uprising in 1982, when the Soviet Union was still a strong regime, following the example of Bulgarian and Romanian dissidents, who rose up first against totalitarianism. The effect of the downfall of another regime would be to encourage the rebels to insist and succeed in their revolution. Ok, If I was the Syrian President, and I listen now to the words of the streets, I wouldn’t feel myself exposed to the risk of ending like Mubarak in Egypt [being prosecuted in a court]. But I think that in the near future, the Syrian streets will become intransigent and call for the accountability of Bashar and high officials in his government. Because the Syria regime will continue with brutal repression, the people will start to ask to put on trial the President.

Q: Don’t you think that Bashar al-Assad is more popular in Syria, if compared with other rulers like Ali Abdallah Saleh and Qaddhafi?

A:No, absolutely no. Those joining rallies in support of the regime do this exclusively out of terror and fear of the future. They don’t trust the opposition, they believe the downfall of the regime will lead to a civil war, to a Lebanon-like scenario.

Q: And you don’t consider likely the possibility that the uprising will turn into a civil war?

A: No, I totally exclude this. I read Syrian history very well. We have numerous ethnicity and religious sects, but, historically, there has never been a single war between these communities. The situation in Syria differs from the one in Lebanon or in other Middle Eastern countries. In Islamic history, Damascus has been the capital of the ‘Ummayad Caliphate (661-750 AD) and, even in those times, fitna (sectarian strife) has never erupted. The regime describes the current events as sectarian strife to scare people, but this is not the reality on the ground.

Q: It happened to me to talk with some Sunni demonstrators, who clearly expressed their resentment towards Alawis in a way, which easily exceeds the hatred for the Ba’th regime to become pure religious hate. How do you comment on this aspect? Is there a risk of sectarian killings targeting Alawis, in case the revolution succeeds?

A: This is nothing more than a personal view, which has nothing to do with the Syrian situation. We don’t accept this way of thinking. There is a vision and among the opposition leaders, who will lead the transitional phase, there are personalities, who will not allow sectarian strife. I am not telling you there are no people willing to take revenge on other sects, but they are limited cases. Syria is composed of geographical areas mixed with regards to sectarian distribution and this has allowed everyone to get to know the cultural ‘Other’. To have the risk of sectarian strife, you need sectarian icons, figures representative of their sects. Now mention me one personality in Syria who is able to say: “I speak in the name of the Alawis, Sunnis, etc.”…Even Bashar al-Assad is not able to say: “I am an Alawi”, he is used to say: “I am the President of Syria.” On the other side, opposition prominent figures like Aref Dalila are Alawis and, in the same way, he doesn’t identify himself according to the sect.

Q: So you don’t think there is a sort of resentment towards the Alawis, due to their ties with the regime?

A: No, and I tell you why: many of the opposition leaders incarcerated in the past years are Alawis. The problem is that the poor status of our politics and the lack of cooperation among opposition groups have led Kurds, for example, to think that Alawi are privileged compared to them. The Kurd doesn’t know that the Alawi is even more oppressed than him: there are Alawi dissidents who have been jailed for 30 years. And the same goes for other minorities like Christians, if you think of Anwar al-Bunni and Michel Kilo. The regime is repressive on all Syrian citizens.

Q: What is your position on the meeting organized by the opposition in Damascus, at the Semiramis Hotel, on June 27? Why you didn’t participate to it?

A:The meeting was conceived only to gather under one roof the independent opposition leaders and express their position towards the regime and their support for peaceful demonstrations. Personally, I think it was a positive step and I share the ideas of the organizers. However it was not a ‘well studied’ step, it was organized hastily and, in fact, protests took place against this meeting. I didn’t receive any invitation for this meeting, because they knew perfectly that I wouldn’t have attended the gathering. At the beginning of the preparations for the meeting, I told to my friends, Michel Kilo, Luay Hussein and Fayez Sarah, who were organizing it: “Are you going to ask for the resignations of the President?” They told me: “No”. Then I replied them: “I cannot attend the meeting, because now there is a big proportion of the Syrian people, I won’t say everyone, who is calling for the downfall of the regime, and you cannot claim to represent the streets, if you don’t report the words of the streets.” I told the organizers personally that I don’t believe in diplomacy at this step, it is either you are the voice of the streets or you are not the opposition

Q: Are you still going to collaborate with these opposition leaders in the future?

A: Sure, I will participate in their meetings when there will be a clear vision and a shared agreement.

Q: So do you think diplomacy is useless at this stage? What about those dissidents who would approve armed resistance against the regime?

A: I am absolutely against the use of weapons. For sure, I don’t want neither my son nor my grandson to live under such a regime. It is about becoming a democratic, modern and developed country, if this won’t happen, then we don’t have to consider diplomacy. Politics is about listening to the people and implementing their will, diplomacy is about listening to the people, but implementing what is deemed more convenient. I don’t agree with this rule. The essential meaning of terms like ‘law’ and ‘democracy’ are unknown to everyone, hence the meaning of diplomacy has to change as well and become the implementation of people demands. The opposition which gathered in Semiramis is actually telling the people: “We are in front of a strong regime and we fear the failure of the revolution, therefore we have to accept limited gains and build the Syrian future on them.” They believe in the possibility of a political solution with the regime staying in power. What this will mean? The government preserving its security apparatus and allowing the opposition to have a few seats in the Parliament? Have them participating in local councils? I don’t think it’s enough. We, the opposition, need first to reverse the balance of power with the regime. This approach doesn’t convince me. For me it’s either the collapse of the regime or the failure of the revolution.

* ‘Ala is Kamal Sheikho. At the time I was worried about protecting my sources, but Kamal has published enough articles under his  real name, so that there is no need to conceal his identity anymore.

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