As the Syrian authorities embark upon an indiscriminate wave of detention, prominent intellectuals and activists have gone underground. With Bashar Al-Assad’s unpopular government arresting more than thousand people in two days, the international community seems to be gearing up for punitive action against the oppressive regime.
The European Union is mulling an arms embargo while the United States has unequivocally condemned the regime for its high-handedness. In an exclusive email interview to this journalist, Anas Abdah – British based Chairman of the Movement for Justice and Development (MJD) and the elected head of Damascus Declaration Committee Abroad has candidly expressed his thoughts on the latest developments in Syria. He co-founded and led the MJD, a highly effective political force driving the pro-democracy agenda in Syria. Since early 2009, Abdah has organised the growth of Damascus Declaration’s committees across Europe and North America and has overseen the development of the Damascus Declaration’s network of Arabic and international relations.
(Q) Friday’s death toll of at least 112 in towns and cities across Syria was one of the worst since the revolt started. How does it feel like receiving news of continued oppression sitting in a free society like Britain?
Perhaps the level of repression was shocking to British viewers who are used to freedom of expression and association and the right to elect their own leaders in a democratic fashion. Sadly however, for a Syrian like myself I was not surprised by the way that the Syrian regime reacted to the protests. The regime of Bashar Al-Assad and his late father has been violating basic human rights for decades and has always resisted calls for democratic change. We know from past behaviour that the regime is capable of unspeakable brutality. The violence that has been unleashed on the Syrian people does not come as much of a surprise therefore.
(Q) President Assad has promised to undertake political and social reforms after lifting of the 48 years old draconian emergency law. Are you convinced?
Syria is not a state where the rule of law has been traditionally upheld. The law is there to suit the interests of the regime and it chooses to apply it arbitrarily. The lifting of the State of Emergency is more of a symbolic gesture which does not entail a change in the behaviour of the regime when it comes to dealing with dissenting voices. The security forces are still above the law, they are accountable to the president alone, and they are still shooting protesters and arresting them on a daily basis even after the State of Emergency has been lifted. This is clear indication that the regime is not serious in its promises of reform. The problem is in the system which allows breaches of the law, not in the law itself. That is why the protesters now want the whole system gone.
(Q) Would you be rooting for the establishment of an inclusive transitional regime and drafting of a fresh constitution to be followed by a general election?
The Syrian opposition has always called for an open dialogue with the regime in order to establish a peaceful transition to democracy. This is what I have been calling for and what the Damascus Declaration opposition coalition has been calling for. Unfortunately, the regime has chosen to ignore these calls and has preferred to rely on its security forces to maintain a tight grip on power. The regime has miscalculated. It has underestimated the extent to which it is disliked by the Syrian people, and the extent to which the Syrian people are in tune with the peaceful revolutions in other parts of the Arab world. It could be too late to talk about a “transitional regime” given that the protesters are demanding regime change. Time is quickly running out and I do hope that there are reasonable people within Bashar Al-Assad’s close circle who can advise him to take the painful but necessary steps to initiate a process of democratic transition befitting of the sacrifices that have so far been made by the Syrian people for the sake of freedom and dignity.
(Q) Do you think the call for political freedom and an end to corruption in the Arab world’s most tightly controlled state has not been heeded for so long due to a fragmented opposition and a loosely organized opposition movement in exile failing to convince the international community about their plight?
The performance of the Syrian opposition is only part of the story. I agree that much more could have been done to raise the profile of the Syria’s people’s struggle for democracy on the international stage, but we have to admit that we have been up against realpolitik interests which have traditionally favoured the regime. Bashar Al-Assad has a hand in Lebanon’s troubles through proxy groups, as well as in Iraq’s insurgency and in the Palestinian struggle; he has made the West choose between resolving important regional issues and making democratic concessions to the Syrian people. For many years the West has chosen to ignore the internal situation in Syria in favour of engaging with Al-Assad in the hope that he will deliver on regional peace and stability. Those who have staked their position on Al-Assad are now having to reconsider given Al-Assad’s weakening regional and international standing, and the obvious validity of the Syrian opposition’s argument that genuine peace and stability cannot be delivered by a brutal dictator.
(Q) How do you view the government allegation of the opposition groups, both in exile and within Syria receiving foreign funding and logistics? President Assad’s government is also accusing Saad Hariri’s future movement and Washington for instigating the violent protests that have erupted in Syria and people like Mr. Haitham Maleh seems to have explicitly pointed towards foreign meddling in the city of Baniyas and adjoining areas.
I do not think that a respected human rights lawyer like Mr Haitham Maleh would have accused protesters in Banyas of being supported by foreign elements given that he, as a direct result of his human rights work, has been accused of the same and has suffered lengthy prison sentences as a result.
The regime’s allegations of foreign involvement in Syria’s uprising are completely without substance. Not a shred of evidence has been given to substantiate these claims. We know that they are not true because we are part of the opposition and we know that the Syrian opposition has been under-funded and under-staffed for decades. It is in not in a position to instigate a popular uprising. The real roots of the uprising lay in the regime’s failed policies of political repression and economic deprivation which have alienated a majority of Syrians. After the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, ordinary Syrians now feel that a historic opportunity now presents itself to rid themselves of a hated dictatorship. It is ordinary citizens who are taking their future into their own hands. Syrian opposition parties are aiding the people in whatever capacity they can, but they are not directing events, let alone instigating them. We must not overplay the role of the opposition.
(Q) There remains some confusion regarding the killing of Syrian soldiers by the forces loyal to President Assad. Nine soldiers who reportedly disobeyed order to fire at protestors in Baniyas were killed as a punishment. Do you see it as a sign of rift in the Syrian Armed Forces?
The Syrian army is not monolithic. The majority of the army is made up of ordinary conscripts and there are many officers who are professional and patriotic, and have no interest in killing innocent Syrians in the defence of the regime. However, there are particular units of the Syrian army whose officers and soldiers are hand-picked based on political and sectarian considerations. The Army’s 4th Division, as well as the Republican Guard and the Special Forces, are elite units, many of whose commanders are linked to Al-Assad through blood ties.
The rift has already begun. We have received confirmation that hundreds of conscripted soldiers in Deraa have defected to the ranks of the protesters. Some have actually raised arms against the security forces in defence of the innocent civilians. It is not surprising therefore that many conscripts have been killed as a result of their refusal to fire on protesters. There is video evidence to suggest that even some Republican Guard soldiers have been killed because of their refusal to fire. We expect that patriotic army officers will take a stand and defend innocent civilians, which is their ultimate duty to their people and their country.
(Q) While authorities are infringing on the right to freedom of speech and expression by disrupting telecommunication and internet services as well as electricity connections and resorting to strong arm tactics, Syria is running for a seat in the United Nations Human Rights Council. What message would you like to convey to the international community especially the UN?
A strong message has already been communicated to the UN by around 50 human rights organizations who have expressed their rejection of Syria assuming a seat at the UN Human Rights Council. I would add my voice to theirs and say that if Syria is voted in, the Council will lose all credibility as a judge on human rights.