The world has united in condemnation of the bloodshed in Syria while the Syrian opposition argues over who has the right to speak on behalf of the Syrians. In the midst of this international concord and Syrian discord, all eyes have turned to the president of the Syrian National Council (SNC), Burhan Ghalioun. The doors of the world's diplomatic forums have opened for him, perhaps hoping he and his SNC would turn out to be the “Noah's ark” of the Syrian people, who so far seem to have been the crisis’ biggest losers.
In this interview with Al-Hayat, Burhan Ghalioun says that the Syrian regime only has one choice: “to submit to the popular will and agree, without equivocations, to transfer power to the people, who would then set up a true democratic system and forever end the era of oppression and tyranny.” Ghalioun does not exclude the possibility of foreign intervention in the next phase.
Al-Hayat Are there any similarities between the situation in Syria and what happened in Qaddafi's Libya and Saddam Hussein's Iraq?
Ghalioun [Muammar] Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein preferred to confront their own people and trigger a foreign military intervention over conceding some basic political rights to their people. Both of them fell into their own trap. Assad is betting on foreign military intervention and civil war and is enticing the people to resort to arms to make it appear that what is happening is not a popular revolution but a foreign conspiracy, and thus justify his brutal and deliberate war — which has exceeded the violence and massacres of colonial wars — and make of the devastation he is wreaking on his country a punishment to those striving for freedom and democratic change.
The ruling dictatorships try to provoke [foreign] interventions because they know how much the people reject them. So they try to discredit and isolate the opposition or the protest movements by accusing them of resorting to external forces. But what these dictatorships fail to realize is that today it is the majority of the people who are doing the peaceful protests seeking change, and not small organized movements as in the past. And those people taking to the streets day and night and losing sons and brothers in the dozens and hundreds cannot be made to believe that their struggle for freedom, justice and equality is the work of foreign powers or in collusion with a foreign military intervention. Such falsehoods could have worked had the protesters been a small group, a particular political movement or a small number of individuals. But when the peaceful demonstrations start covering all the country's cities, towns and villages, as is happening today in Syria, then the falsehood of a foreign intervention or of a conspiracy becomes an additional reason to reject the regime and question its leaders' patriotism, if not their sanity.
“It is Either Me, or Chaos”
Al-Hayat Have the Syrian regime's attempts to weaken and fragment the opposition during the previous phase been to the benefit or detriment of the regime?
Ghalioun Eliminating the opposition is certainly in the regime's interest because that gives society two choices: “It is either me [the regime], or chaos.” And the people have accepted injustice, humiliation, oppression and exploitation for fear of chaos. But now the situation is reversed. Escaping the regime's control has become the road to building the state, bringing order and ensuring stability. One of the causes of today's revolution was the regime's success [in exerting control] to such a degree that the people have become completely deprived of any participation or ability to decide. Then the regime lost control of itself and drowned in violence, repression, and corruption. Its officials flouted the concepts of politics, the state, the laws and the institutions, and made the regime the main source of chaos and the main cause of corruption, backwardness and of society's destruction. Revolution against the regime has become the way to restore order, security and stability — that means ending the chaos represented by the absence of the rule of law, the absence of a government, the wrecking of the institutions and the weakening of national, moral and human values.
Al-Hayat What are the options in front of the Syrian regime now?
Ghalioun In my view it has only one option: to submit to the people's will and agree, without equivocations, to transfer power to the people, who would then set up a true democratic system, forever ending the era of oppression and tyranny.
The Internationalization of the Crisis
Al-Hayat What are the chances that the domestic Syrian situation will become internationalized?
Ghalioun The matter depends on the regime, not on the popular protests. If the regime persists in blindly repressing and shedding the blood of Syrians in the thousands, as has been happening till now, there will come a time when the world will break its silence and decide to intervene to stop this humanitarian catastrophe. That moment is fast approaching and the regime is mistaken if it thinks that such an intervention will serve its interests by provoking national feelings that would frustrate the democratic option. The Syrians now see the regime as the only one responsible for the nation's tragedy, including the fall of martyrs from the army, the growing sectarian tensions and the possibility of foreign intervention.
Al-Hayat The number of deaths in the Syrian revolution have exceeded those of the Egyptian, Tunisian and Yemeni revolutions combined. Why is that?
Ghalioun The reasons are the regime's leaders' ignorance and barbarism, and their spiritual, cultural, humanitarian, moral and national bankruptcy. They are behaving exactly as slave traders when the slaves — whom they consider their personal property — revolt. For the slave trader, a revolt is a rebellion from the slave on the authority of the slave master. The value of a dead slave is not that of a free man. In fact it is worthless. A slave has no opinion, no rights and no value. This is why [the regime] calls the killing and maiming of innocent people demanding their rights an internal matter that no outsider, including human rights organizations, has the right to talk about. The regime lives in a different era and acts like a hyena whose only aim is to spread death and destruction.
The banner of freedom infuriates the regime's shabbiha (gangs) and leaders. That banner is making [the regime] completely lose its composure because it represents a complete repudiation of slavery, which the regime's thinking and actions depend upon. When the Syrian regime's security men trample the bodies of the dead and wounded we often hear them say, "this is the price of the freedom you're asking for."
The Regime's Ability to Overcome the Crisis
Al-Hayat Can the Syrian regime overcome what is happening now in the streets, or is it past that stage?
Ghalioun The regime failed to understand the popular movement and the meaning of the protests because it refused to acknowledge that the people it has been ruling at its whim for half a century are not slaves. It has also failed to scare the people with the barbaric violence it has used and is still using against them. It lost its people and the whole world. Today, the regime doesn't know its fate. The regime fell the moment the Syrian people rejected slavery and became free. The regime's existence, its laws, its militias, and its leaders' shrines no longer have any meaning or basis. The Syrians have become free citizens and their stubborn struggle for freedom has turned them into heroes. And this marks the regime's death.
Syria's Relationship with Hezbollah
Al-Hayat What is to happen to Syria's alliance with Iran and Hezbollah if you come to power?
Ghalioun The Syrian people have never let go of their commitment to liberate the Golan Heights and their unconditional support for the cause of Palestine. From that perspective, the Syrian people are not against an alliance with Iran. They have supported Hezbollah without reservation and have hosted on their territory all Arabs fleeing war and sectarian strife. But [the Syrian people] were expecting all those Arabs, despite their alliance with the regime, to support them back in their plight against repression and to advocate the recovery of their natural rights in dignity, freedom and the election of their own representatives. The Syrian people expected them to put their relationship with the Syrian people above their relationship with the mafias that control their allies’ lives and deprive them of their rights. But in spite of that, the new Syria will not be a state of spite and revenge and will consider its relations with everyone based on the national interest and on confronting the challenge represented by the Israeli occupation of the Golan [Heights] and the restoration of legitimate Palestinian national rights.
Al-Hayat What is your analysis of the overall Syrian situation?
Ghalioun Day after day, the Syrian regime is sinking in the revolution's quicksands, and the margins of its political and strategic initiative are shrinking. On the other side, the revolution's roots are growing deeper and the people's determination to continue peaceful demonstrations until the fall of the regime is growing. In my opinion, if nobody from within the regime takes the initiative to dismantle it and extends his hand to the opposition, helping it achieve its demand of a democratic transition, then there would be no way to bring down the regime except through an external force.
The Role of the Arab League
Al-Hayat Is the opposition satisfied with the role of the Arab League in the current Syrian crisis?
Ghalioun After the outbreak of the Arab revolutions, the Arab League is more lost than it has ever been. They are suspended in a vacuum until the Arab situation is stable and understandings between the Arab countries, which are no longer connected through any common political notion, are reestablished. That will not change with the appointment of a new secretary-general, nor with the ideas of that secretary-general. Before the Arab League can recover its role and become a new and effective Arab League, the will of the rebellious Arab people must become clearer and that will has to be congruent with the will of the regimes. Also, the regional situation and the balance of forces have to stabilize. If in the last month the Arab League has become active in supporting the popular revolt and the opposition in Syria, that is because, in the middle of the confusion, a small number of diplomatically active states succeeded in imposing their views and in breaking the wall of paralysis that has characterized [the Arab League's] behavior for many months.
Al-Hayat Why until this moment there has not been an effective Turkish role in what's happening in Syria?
Ghalioun I think Turkish pressure has been effective in making the Syrian regime accept some cosmetic concessions, but Turkey cannot change the regime's behavior if the regime insists on doing what it's doing. What's going to change its behavior are the heavy sacrifices of the Syrian people. They are the only ones who can do that.
Al-Hayat Can the Turkish model be an example for the Arab Islamist movements?
Ghalioun If the Arab Islamist movements adopt the Turkish model on the issue of freedom, then that will be a great service to the Arab democracy project — and I hope that that happens, because many Islamist movements do not deeply understand the concepts of freedom, citizenship and the civil state where there is no discrimination among the citizens and the religions, which all have equal rights and obligations.
Problems in Arab-Iranian Relations
Al-Hayat What do you think are the causes of the problems in Arab-Iranian relations?
Ghalioun There are several causes for the dispute between most Arab states and Iran. One is that the two sides have different approaches to domestic and foreign policies. Another is the Arab fear of Iran's expanding influence in some Arab areas — political, strategic and sectarian. Another cause is the dispute over the UAE islands in the Gulf that Iran invaded. And another cause are the international alliances that impose various strategic options on the parties. The solution lies in starting a systematic Arab-Iranian dialogue to overcome these differences and open the way to collaboration. That should have started a long time ago.
Al-Hayat How do you interpret the repeated Iranian threats to the security of the Gulf?
Ghalioun The main problem lies in the absence of a general nationalist Arab security framework — with the exception of the unanimity on rejecting Israel's occupation of Arab lands — and the absence of the concept of national security in all Arab countries.
On the other hand, within that large vacuum in Arab strategic thinking, the Iranians have developed the concept of Iranian national security involving an Arab axis connected to Iran and stretching from Iraq to Lebanon. So, in Iran's view, maintaining Iranian national security requires Arab division and the enhancing of [Iranian] political, military, human and sectarian influence in some Arab countries on which [the Iranians] can depend to strengthen their position toward major world powers. This is how Iran is helping transform the Arab world, or parts of it, into an arena where Iran can show its regional and international strength in front of the West in order to gain certain special advantages.
Al-Hayat Does the Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement conflict with the security and stability of the Gulf?
Ghalioun I do not see any conflict. I believe that achieving Arab national security — meaning collective Arab security — cannot be done without an agreement over regional security that includes the Arabs as well as Turkey and Iran, and instills confidence in all neighboring populations: Arabic, Turkish, Iranian and Kurdish. We have to move in that direction until we defuse the conflict and pave the way to building a common regional development project. And for us Arabs, who are scattered and torn and missing a collective project, the main responsibility falls on preparing the conditions for the success of this cooperative project. But the success of this security and development project in the area does not only depend on the Arabs. The other parties also have to contribute. And the price of cooperation is respecting the people’s rights and their national interests, and recognizing the right of the Syrian people to live in peace and under the authority of an elected government. That is a condition for any progress in that regard.
[End of Interview]
Bourhan Ghalioun, saw that all revolutions go through a period of relative chaos because they represent a break with the past, and the revolution that devoured its children and resulted in bloodshed in the streets of greater Paris is the same one that gave birth to the democratic Europe that we know and where the highest seats are occupied by the people — whether as part of the political process or as part of the official leadership. Without [the French Revolution] we would not have seen the political, social, economic, and moral developments that we are seeing today. Revolutions are bloody because they overturn established forces that have been serving the interests of particular groups and classes. Those on top do not easily give up their privileges and positions; and thus when the oppressed people revolt on their conditions and make efforts to change them, they will sacrifice dearly to achieve their demands, freedom first among them. They will not back down no matter the sacrifices, because the price of backing down will be much greater than the price of pushing forward till victory. We see this happening in a number of Arab countries. In Syria, the people are doing all they can to change the regime, and the regime is not shying away from committing any atrocity to preserve the status quo.