A member of the newly formed Syrian National Council (SNC) told Monday Talk that they have been busy electing their leaders in İstanbul on Sunday and Monday, and they are more united than ever under a banner: The Assad regime should come to an end.
“There is diversity in the SNC. Of course we have had disagreements; before, we were working in different groups. But all of us are now united for the fall of the Assad regime,” said Radwan Ziadeh who heads the foreign relations office of the SNC.
Since the SNC was announced in İstanbul on Oct. 2, there has been curiosity about who its leader is going to be since the dissidents on the council have had difficulties expressing their collective will.
“At the beginning there were 150 members of the council -- 60 percent from Syria and the rest from outside. We tried to include everyone inside who are very active and organizing the protests. It is normal that there is curiosity about the group. When there is a popular uprising, it is difficult to identify who is who. There has not been a leadership position, but this is a positive thing because the Syrian regime cannot crack down on the whole movement if they detain the leadership. At the same time, it is difficult for the movement to organize itself. After the Damascus Declaration, the Muslim Brothers and the Kurdish political parties agreed that it's time for the council to have 230 members. Then we decided to have 10 offices. I am responsible for the foreign relations office," Ziadeh said in İstanbul, adding that the SNC leadership will be outside Syria but with support from Kurds, Alawites, the Muslim Brotherhood, Syrian Christians and the Druze, and all other political parties inside and outside Syria in order to represent Syrian society.
As the SNC's general secretariat of 29 members meets in İstanbul to announce their leaders, Ziadeh, for whom the Syrian government issued an arrest warrant in 2008 after he left the country, elaborated on his own activist background, how the SNC came about and what they expect from the Turkish government.
Would you first talk about your involvement with the Syrian National Council? How have you become associated with the group, widely known as the Syrian opposition?
I have been well-known in Syria as a human rights activist since the year 2000. The Syrians have found – despite their resentment about the power transformation mechanism between al-Assad senior and al-Assad junior -- an opportunity to express their fear about the future of their country. Also, intellectuals and activists utilized this opportunity to create space for free expression. A movement called “Damascus Spring” started after the “Forum for National Dialogue” was set up by former deputy Riad Saif who at the time was enjoying his relative parliamentary immunity. The forum started its activities on Sept. 13, 2000, during a lecture about civil society. But Saif was interrogated after the removal of his partial immunity, and this was the beginning of the end for the Damascus Spring. After its re-opening in September 2001, eight of the active members on its committee were detained, and this was the end of that spring. We succeeded in 2005 to release the Damascus Declaration for National Change. At the time the Damascus Declaration did not get much attention from the international community because there was not an uprising on the ground. There are no opposition leaders inside the country to meet or debate. That's why the opposition outside the country takes the leadership before the opposition in Syria can. We have had a series of meetings outside Syria since April 2011 here in İstanbul, in Cairo and in different cities around the world.
The Syrian opposition was announced on Oct. 2 in İstanbul as the Syrian National Council.
We set up a preparatory committee in İstanbul about two weeks ago. We made decisions on how to bring all aspects of the opposition inside and outside Syria together. We have 25 members on the SNC committee. After hours of debate, phone calls and e-mails, we had an idea about what the opposition looks like.
Would you elaborate on this? What does the opposition look like? Who are they?
At the beginning there were 150 members of the council -- 60 percent from Syria and the rest from outside. We tried to include everyone inside who are very active and organizing the protests. It is normal that there is curiosity about the group. When there is a popular uprising, it is difficult to identify who is who. There has not been a leadership position, but this is a positive thing because the Syrian regime cannot crack down on the whole movement if they detain the leadership. At the same time, it is difficult for the movement to organize itself. After the Damascus Declaration, the Muslim Brothers and the Kurdish political parties agreed that it's time for the council to have 230 members. Then we decided to have 10 offices. I am responsible for the foreign relations office.
‘Syrian National Council includes everyone'
Do you belong to the Muslim Brotherhood or the Kurdish parties?
I don't belong to the Muslim Brothers or any of the political parties, I am an independent. We had Kurdish political parties and Muslim Brothers and independents, which put out the Damascus Declaration. But the SNC includes everyone -- the Kurds, Alawites, Muslim Brotherhood, Syrian Christians and the Druze, and all other political parties.
Where are the dissidents located in the world? In which countries do they mostly reside?
They are active around the world, and a majority of them are in Syria. All of them are Syrians based in different countries. A significant group of people are based here in Turkey; also in London, Paris and the United States. When the uprising started in Syria, İstanbul became the safe heaven. Since Syrians do not need a visa to come to Turkey, they could freely travel here. Of course, the Syrian regime would not have made the visa-free regime agreement with Turkey [signed in 2009] if it knew that there would be an uprising. The agreement was very welcome since there has been a deep-rooted history of relations between the Syrian and the Turkish people. We appreciate the steps taken by the Turkish government that deals with Syria not just as a regime but recognizes the Syrian nation and its people. That's why the Turkish government is appreciated by the Syrian people.
And the Turkish government is also hosting Syrian refugees whose numbers now exceed 10,000. There is also the issue of the legality of the Syrian refugees here; the Turkish government has to deal with it because they are still treating the refugees as “guests.” We call on the Turkish government to allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), human rights organizations and the media into the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey. With the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, I spent a few days in the camps to observe the situation in order to write a report and discuss the issue of the refugees' status with the Turkish government.
‘We want to open an office in İstanbul'
How is your relationship developing with the Turkish government as dissidents under the SNC?
The Turkish government welcomed the SNC when it was announced. One of our goals is to open an office here in İstanbul. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed us that this is a welcome step, and they support the opposition's efforts to organize itself.
Do you consider this welcome message as recognition of the SNC?
No. Recognition needs some time. You know it took the Turkish government more than six months to recognize the Libyan Transitional Council (LTC) even though the LTC is based in Benghazi on Libyan soil. The situation for the SNC is different. This is one of the difficulties for the SNC. But recognition will come as support starts to come from Arabic countries and around the world.
Which countries are those?
The Libyan Transitional Council recognized the SNC, and they closed the embassy of the Assad regime in Libya. They are willing to give us responsibility for the embassy. We are going to have a high-level meeting with LTC representatives next week. We have gotten recognition from different political parties in Egypt and Tunisia. In addition, we have high-level channels with some of the Arab countries, [for example] Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) called the Arab League to a meeting to discuss Syrian affairs; first of all to expel the Syrian regime from the Arab League and to work on sanctions against the Assad regime.
What is the level of support that you receive from Western governments?
We were welcomed by the EU in their last meeting in Luxembourg. At the ministerial level, the EU issued a statement welcoming the SNC and saying that this is a positive step forward. We hope that after the leadership of the SNC is elected, European countries will recognize the SNC as the only representative of the Syrian people, free all Syrian assets and allow the SNC to be responsible for all of those assets.
‘Bashar al-Assad will become like Gaddafi'
Is the SNC going to have a leader to represent the group?
Yes, we have elections this Sunday and Monday [yesterday and today]. The SNC is electing its leadership in İstanbul. The situation on the ground is escalating. People call on the SNC to take quick action. We have hundreds of messages everyday from Syria – through Facebook, calls, e-mails – pushing SNC members to act quickly for international protection of Syrian people. This is what Syrian demonstrators on the ground ask for. They are demonstrating everyday and the regime is killing them. This has been the everyday practice of the Assad regime: to kill the protesters. The situation cannot continue like this. The regime is only killing opponents of the Assad regime not “armed gangs” as the Assad regime claims. Nobody believes that propaganda of the Assad regime anymore.
What can you say about the unity of the groups under the SNC? There have been reports that there have been a lot of disagreements inside.
There is diversity in the SNC. Of course we had disagreements; before, we were working for different groups. But all of us are now united for the fall of the Assad regime. We come from different ideological backgrounds, but we are united in our message, which is that the Assad regime should immediately step down. After this happens, everybody can pursue his or her own agenda in a political party or elsewhere.
Do you think Bashar al-Assad will become like Gaddafi?
No doubt! He is in denial that the Syrian people have lost their faith in the Assad regime's leadership. People do not want him to lead but to step down and be accountable for the crimes he committed against humanity in the country. Everything in our lives has been controlled by the Baath Party and the Assad regime. There are no free journals, no free parliament and no free and fair elections. Our lives have been under the state of emergency since 1963 when the Baath Party came to power.
Meanwhile, you will be holding elections here in İstanbul. How many people are gathering for the elections?
It will be a meeting of the general secretariat, which has 29 members. They will elect an executive office, which will have seven members. At the same time, our offices – like the foreign relations office that I'm heading – are continuing to work with foreign governments for recognition of the SNC. We inform the Turkish authorities before our meetings, and we meet under the protection of the Turkish government. Syrian intelligence has long arms to find Syrian activists around the world. Recently, the US government accused a Syrian citizen for spying in the United States on other Syrian citizens. This person met with Bashar al-Assad personally last June. It's shocking that he lives in the same area where I live.
‘Five people from my family in prison'
Do you have any family members or friends in Syria who were forced into hiding, detained, jailed, killed or forced to flee the country for their pro-democracy activities?
My brother is in prison, detained by the Assad regime on Aug. 30. We don't know where he is right now. They also detained my uncle and three of my cousins. Can you imagine, there are five members of my family in prison in a small city, Daraa, seven kilometers south of Damascus.
On what grounds were they detained?
My brother has no activity in the opposition at all. He is a small businessman. He was being interrogated in relation to my human rights activities. The Syrian government issued an arrest warrant for me in 2008 after I left the country in October 2007. They banned my mother and sister from leaving Syria. My sister lives in Syria with her children, and her husband is in Saudi Arabia. They are not allowed to see each other. Some of my other family members are active in the protests. One of them is 14-years-old. They kidnapped him in front of his home. We have no information about him and all the others about their whereabouts so far. There are rumors that they are at branches of Air Force security. The number of people who are detained exceeds 30,000.
‘Syrian regime adopts practices of Nazi regime'
The United Nations says more than 3,000 people have been killed in Assad's crackdown on mainly peaceful protests. Does this number seem realistic to you?
The number of people who were killed exceeds 5,000. There are unidentified bodies. When you compare it to the revolution in Egypt at the time of the conflict, human rights organizations said that there were about 250 people killed, but after the revolution, the number of killed was revealed to be 822 as confirmed by the Armed Forces Council. This was in Egypt where you have an active media and strong human rights organizations. In Syria, it has been seven months with the stranglehold of the army. The number of killings and detentions is much higher. The soccer fields are filled with detainees, and movie theaters are turned into torture centers in Syria. The Syrian regime is adopting the practices of the Nazi regime. Schools, soccer fields and move theaters in Latakia and Damascus are turned into detention centers. They [pro-democracy protesters in Syria] are asking us to take action. Their first demand is international protection.
What does international protection exactly mean?
This is the one-million dollar question. The Human Rights Council [UNHRC] in Geneva already has two strong resolutions, one back in April and the other one back in August. They sent a commission of inquiry to Syria and of course the Syrian regime did not allow the commission [members] to get in. The commission said in its report that what happens in Syria must be investigated by the International Criminal Court [ICC]. This is why the UN Human Rights Council had two resolutions. The response by the Assad regime was not encouraging. This is why we believe that the UN Security Council should act and take a tougher stance against Syria. Unfortunately, the Security Council failed after the veto of Russia and China. What we want actually from the UNSC is to adopt a resolution to put sanctions on Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian security officers for opening fire on protesters, and there needs to be an investigation into the Syrian regime at the ICC – but since Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute [which is the founding international treaty of the ICC], they cannot open an investigation into the Syrian regime. So the only way to do something against the Syrian regime is to refer it to the UNSC. But after the deadlock at the UNSC due to the Russian and Chinese veto, it is the responsibility of the Turkish government as a regional power to reach other Security Council members like Brazil and South Africa. This is the only way to stop the killing machines of the Assad regime.
‘Turkey should enforce a no-fly zone along Syrian border'
What methods do you support for international protection of civilians in Syria? Do you support a NATO operation like the one done in Libya?
One way to do this is to enforce a no-fly zone along with a safe zone at the Turkish border. It is important for the Turkish government to take this into consideration. Without that, the Assad regime will continue the killings. I see that this is not easy to do as the UNSC is unable to do it right now, but despite that Turkey should think of the possibility of doing it alone with the support of NATO, the United States and the EU if Russia insists on using its veto in the UNSC. The Syrian regime is using the air force to attack civilians in different areas in Syria including Latakia, Homs, Rastan, Daraa and Idlib.
What else can be done?
If a no-fly zone is enforced along with a safe-zone at the Turkish border, this would send a strong message to the Assad regime that the international community is united and the brutal actions of the Assad regime would not be tolerated. We are also looking forward to the meeting of the Arab League [this week] to put more pressure on the UNSC to act.
He is the director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies. A visiting professor at Harvard University Kennedy School for Government since last month, he was previously a visiting scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies (IMES) at Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He left Syria in October 2007 to be a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington DC where he wrote “Power and Policy in Syria: Intelligence Services, Foreign Relations and Democracy in the Modern Middle East,” which came out recently. His earlier book “Human Rights March in Syria,” written in 1999, was published in Beirut and forbidden in Syria.