I just want to add another note that I feel is important. Many of my Syrian compatriots and supporters asked me why did RPS and Omedia arrange for this "Syrian Opposition" corner? With so many problems inside Syria and so much to do, why Israel? The answer lies in understanding the mechanics of an oppressive regime that has developed a strategy of survival to include stifling liberties of Syrians and spreading hate against Israelis in an attempt to target an enemy, which the regime needs in order to continue justifying its stifling of liberties. The Syrian government argues that Assad is resisting the enemy and now is not the time to seek justice or freedom. Our strategy has two purposes: 1) To really build understanding between the Syrian and the Israeli public and, 2) To upset the strategy of resistance by showing Syrians that communications with all of Syria's neighbors is possible and that the resistance strategy carried forth by Assad has but one purpose: To keep the Assad family in power against all odds, humane or otherwise.
On to the Q&A.
Q. Do you represent a true opposition to Assad, in the sense that you can be a viable political alternative?
A. We consider any opposition, and not just RPS, who wish to see a free Syria governed by a democratic government and respectful of the rule of law as a viable alternative to the Assad regime. However, the true alternative to the regime is not any one party or one man, but the true alternative is freedom and democracy. Once democracy is established in Syria, as is in Israel, and respected by all, then the Syrian opposition would have achieved its goals.
Q. Isn't Israel safer, when a dictator in Damascus saves Syria from the Extreme Islamists taking over?
A. There is this myth that somehow is being circulated, and has been circulating for a long time by the Assad regime and its supporters in the State of Israel, that the alternative to Assad are extremists. The Muslim Brotherhood is mentioned often as an example of that extremism, even though 50% of all Muslims in Syria belong to the Sufi Order (Sufism represents moderation in Islam). The Grand Mufti of Syria named Hassoon is a Sufi. He has met with Jewish leaders around the world and is representative of Sunni Muslims in Syria.
I think, in a post 9/11 world, it is our responsibility and yours to visit and analyze this question and not simply repeat the rhetoric of the Assad regime like parrots. If we all agree that people seek freedom the way they seek to breathe oxygen, then I think you would also agree that as long as freedom is missing, people will look for alternatives. In Syria, a political alternative is unimaginable given the tight control the Assad regime exerts over Syrians. Instead, Syrians turn to religion for answers because the Assad regime cannot stop them. There is nothing wrong in people turning to God for answers; in fact, we humans have always had the curiosity and the intellect to question our motives on earth. But when we turn to God in search of relief from misery, and on the way fall in the hands of people who have interpreted the Koran to suit their political goals, then we are allowing to instill political Islam into Arab societies. In other words, oppression is the direct feeder of political Islam and lack of freedom cannot be an excuse any longer.
The longer Assad stays in power, the more Islamic the Syrian society becomes. The Bin Ladens of the world did not exist some thirty years ago but today they are a dime a dozen. Anyone in Israel who supports the continuation of the Assad regime is indeed permitting the continuation of political Islam to gain momentum and become far more dangerous in the future. Furthermore, I do not believe that Assad can contain this phenomenon and sooner or later, it will come back to haunt Syrians and all of Syria's neighbors.
It also behooves the Israeli society to truly analyze what are the alternatives and how Syrians are willing, with the help of the international community, to construct a transitional period to democracy with a bullet-proof mean by which that transition takes place void of violence. That is the real challenge ahead of us. Allowing Assad to remain in power is like giving-up before one even tries and if that is not acceptable to the Syrian opposition it should not be acceptable either to those who advance humanity by giving freedom a chance.
Q. Aren't you naïve about the possibility of overthrowing Bashar now?
A. Who would have thought that the Ukraine would become free? or Georgia? or that the Soviet Empire would falter and fall or that 90 countries would become democratic up from 20 countries prior to WWII? Who would have believed that the Apartheid system in South Africa, with all its power and ruthlessness, would yield to the rule of the majority? Creators of pioneering ideas are called visionaries when they succeed and naive prior to their success.
If you, like us, believe in the power of the people and the power of human rights and freedom, you would also believe that one day you will make a difference. This is not a question of choice but rather a question of duty.
When I was in Israel, and on my way to the Golan Height to visit accompanied by MK Yuval Steinitz, Dr. Hussein Saado, and Nir Boms, I observed, at rest stops, many Israeli soldiers heading to the Golan. To some, it is a question of choice but to many, it is also a question of duty. This is how Syrians feel about freedom and human rights in Syria.
There is a saying that goes: "All good things come to an end". I would add to it:" and all bad things come to a sooner end". The Assad regime has lasted almost 45 years and must come to its end soon because it has yielded nothing but misery, oppression, economic deprivation, and corruption. The only good thing that supporters used to say about Assad was that the regime is secular and will protect the region from extremism. As we have seen in Iraq, with irrefutable proof, the Assad regime, with Iran, have become the most important financiers and supporters of terrorism. There is no one good reason for this regime to stay in power. NOT ONE. Yet, fear from the unknown is driving policy makers to resist the idea of regime change in Syria. However, I believe that fear will dissipate the moment we realize that the Assad regime is worse than any imaginable alternative. How can it be worse than supporting al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and creating Fatah al-Islam and so many others waiting to spring to action in one part of the Levant or other? Enough resistance, enough terror, enough violence. We want to develop our economy and like you try and provide better standards of living to our people. Syria will always be dangerous as long as it is weak and the moment our economy develops, our competitiveness will be expressed not on a battlefield but in trade and balance sheets.
Q. What about the Golan Heights? How can this issue be resolved?
A. The Golan Heights is a land that belongs to Syria and it is imperative that it is returned to Syria in a peaceful manner. However, it is also important for Syrians to realize that there is a price to be paid to get the Golan back and also to understand how Israelis feel about their security and why in the first place the Golan was occupied and annexed on Dec. 14, 1981.
This is a subject that RPS is preparing a White Paper on that we intend to publish in the next coming months. The main jest of the idea is that once Syria becomes democratic, Israel will have little to fear because our politicians become accountable to the people and therefore, will be unwilling to engage Syria in military adventurism that would revoke the people's votes in the next round of elections (i.e. this includes starting wars). This, in our opinion, covers about 20% of the security requirements between the two countries. The other 80% will come with time, trust-building mechanisms to be established on the Golan, and most important to allow Israelis citizens the choice to remain on lands they already own but whose taxes would have to be paid to a democratic Syrian government. We, Syrians, do not see any scenario under which Israelis would leave the lands they have helped build and whose income to Syria via taxation is more precious than the pan-Arabist grandstanding we usually hear through slogans and chants by the Ba'ath Party in Syria. Israelis living on Syrian soil and paying taxes to Syria is the best protection both of our countries can have by commingling economic interests with security interests. Down the road, we see the Golan become a major international center by either building a Middle East Olympic city or some other international attraction in order to create an atmosphere free from politics and assist in building a culture of camaraderie and understanding. Nothing like sports to bring the people together.
Q. Are you an authentic Arab opposition, or just an imitation of westernized image of the way an opposition should look?
A. Most Syrians living abroad will tell you that they do so because of lack of opportunities and lack of freedom in their homeland. The fact that many of us live abroad was never a question of choice but rather a question of necessity or forced into exile as many Syrians will tell you. But having lived in the US for many years, one learns important lessons about governance, accountability, and transparency. Elements one would wish Syria would be rich with.
As one of the many opposition figures living in the Diaspora, we blend the old with the new, for a formula that throughout history has changed the courses of many countries. I am reminded of a book I read by the prominent Professor Bernard Lewis called: "What went wrong" in which he discusses the Ottoman Empire's last 300 years in power and its lack of interest in exchanging ideas and literature, culture and intellect, with the western world; all the meanwhile, the western world was thirsty for knowledge and would send orientalists constantly visiting the four corners of the Ottoman empire in search for the new and the innovative. The consequence is that the region has suffered tremendous backwardness that resulted in deficiencies on a scale that we, Arabs, are paying a dear price for today. The Turks, through an extraordinary man named Ataturk, were able to grasp and correct these deficiencies in their 1921 Constitution, changing to Latin alphabet, etc.. to re-integrate themselves with the west the result of which we see today with Turkey enjoying political and economic freedoms able to improve the standards of living of its people.
We, dissidents living in the west, together with the Syrian dissident community inside Syria can and will be able, having learned the ways to success to economic prosperity from well tested western models, to help usher that knowledge and know-how with no reservations or bias while taking into consideration our rich culture and heritage. So although we have not lived in our homeland for many years, our value system is still connected to that Homeland in the same manner of how Jews feel affinity for the State of Israel.
Q. Aren't you more popular in Washington than in Syria, helping the Bush agenda of forcing democracy on a not so-ready peoples of the Middle East? The same way Chalabi was for Iraq?
A. We believe this is another way of looking at the prism of the work of the Syrian dissidents. As far as our popularity is concerned, let me answer it this way. It is not something we embrace or encourage but the reality on the ground always projects the truest sensibilities of the Syrian street. The Assad regime belongs to the Alawite minority of Syria, which at best, accounts for about 9% of the population. 70% of the population belongs to the Sunni Muslim community of which I am a part of. Our popularity is self-evident in how we are perceived even though we try hard to discourage this notion of ethnic loyalty.
In Syria today, there is a minority Alawite government oppressing the majority, which happens to be the Sunni Muslim community. This formula for disaster cannot last for a long time. There will be a time when the majority, under such oppressive measures, will rise to earn its freedom and the right to rule. But unlike Assad, a minority that rules the majority with an iron fist, our vision for a rule by the majority does not mean neglecting the minorities. It is important to realize that a future majority rule comes with more responsibilities than one can imagine. As someone who belongs to that majority, it is my duty not only to protect the minorities but to insure that they prosper under special conditions. In other words, I know that the majority Muslim community will prosper because our representation in the government will create the conducive environments for that prosperity but what is very important is to insure that the minorities prosper as much if not more because their survival and prosperity would mean survival and prosperity for all of Syria. Syria is rich because Syria is diverse and that diversity must be protected at all costs. This is a major cornerstone of our vision for Syria.
As far as the people not being ready, one has to weigh this argument against the one we made in answering one of the questions above, which essentially facilitates and accelerates the Islamization of the society. The answer lies in-between and not in a sudden knee-jerk action, be it military or otherwise, to democracy via the right to vote. This transition process has been engineered by the Syrian opposition and its blueprint permits the building of a strong civil society and the time necessary to realize one's freedom. What is needed now is the critical mass necessary for the international community to help Syrians implement the blueprint in a peaceful manner. That has not happened yet but soon it will because we have no choice but to consider the tough choices. More on the blueprint in the next question.
Q. Are the Syrians ready for a democratic system? Isn't it dangerous to hold an experiment in Democracy that might end up in chaos, as it did in Iraq for so long?
A. This is a very good question considering not only Iraq, which I believe turned into chaos because of Syrian and Iranian terror and also because of dramatic American mistakes in its perception of the Iraqi people, but also how Hamas came to power and the suffering the Sderot people of Israel are going through for that failed experiment.
Syria's ethnic make-up today has created the opportunities for a dictatorship to control our political life but Syria's ethnic make-up is also an opportunity that has yet to be explored. The Alawites are central to that opportunity. Here is what I believe is a good blueprint for change in Syria.
Today in Syria, the Alawites control the army as well as the intelligence services. This is a very similar condition as to what is already a fait accompli in Turkey where the Ahlevies (Not to be confused with the Syrian Alawites as people but similar in secular behavior and anti extreme Islamist tendencies) have much power within the ranks of the Turkish Army. The obvious benefits are that the Alawites are committed to secularism in general and they already hold the reigns of power in Damascus.
We foresee a scenario by which the Alawites will remain in control of the Syrian armed forces and a democratically-committed transitional government is established by the Syrian opposition in consultation with all the different groups, unions, tribes, etc.. of Syria. The main tasks of this transitional government are to forge a New Constitution and to permit the Syrian civil society to grow and prosper under its protection to prepare the Syrian street for elections in a post-transitional stage. Meanwhile, the control over the Syrian armed forces, exercised by the Alawites, will insure that violence is muted, that the Islamists are not given free reign to intimidate or attempt to hijack the government, that the work of the free transitional government is enforced, and that no revenge act can be taken against them by over-zealous Syrians. The Alawites should remain in control of the armed forces as long as is needed to protect the Syrian Constitution and our nascent democracy.
Under these conditions, Syria will have a chance to create an environment that fulfills all the requirements for a transition to democracy. There are three important issues that we must protect: 1) That the transitional government is truly transitional and no politicians, after this transitional period, is allowed to be elected for some years after the termination of its work (to be decided constitutionally) and 2) That the Alawites in control of the armed forces will commit themselves to democracy without a shadow of a doubt and, 3) That the international community will provide total financial support for Syria to insure that no one group or political entity forges financial alliances with other countries in the region. Under this scenario, I see international guarantees governing those three conditions to be signed by all.
Copyrights © 2003-2007 - Reform Party of Syria (RPS) except where otherwise noted - all rights reserved.