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.
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.
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.
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: 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.