Abdul-Hakim Bashar is the president of the Kurdish National Council of Syria (KNCS), an organization that gathers 15 Kurdish parties. During an interview with Al-Hayat, he expressed his confidence that the regime of Bashar al-Assad will eventually fall. After his meeting with US officials in Washington last week, Bashar told Al-Hayat that the Obama Administration “welcomed” the positions of the KNCS. Work is also underway to reach an agreement regarding a decentralized political system that is best for all minorities in Syria, with the Alawites in particular. Bashar talked about the Assad regime’s futile attempts to communicate with the opposition, and said he opposed any foreign military intervention to end the crisis.
The following is the interview conducted in Washington by Omar Hossino and Ilhan Tanir, authors of The Henry Jackson Society report, “The Decisive Minority: The Role Of Syria’s Kurds In The Anti-Assad Revolution.”
Did you discuss the “Joint Declaration” that the opposition seeks to issue in its first meeting with the Obama administration? Is political decentralization a condition for the Kurdish National Council of Syria to join in the declaration?
We shared our opinion on the declaration with US officials, and stated that it should recognize the separate identity of the Kurdish people in Syria. We have also sent a clear message to the Christian, Druze and Alawite communities, that change in Syria is in their best interest. Additionally, this declaration should form the basis of a new constitution after the fall of the Assad regime. It should also be formally guaranteed by the international community and the Arab League.
Fear is one of the reasons behind the non-participation of the Alawite, Druze and other minority communities in the revolution. This is why we need to give them guarantees so that they are not fearful of what may happen in Syria after the fall of Assad. The Kurdish National Council of Syria wants this document to be clear and without superficial generalities to reassure the Alawites and the Druze about their future.
We will continue to advocate for political decentralization until the end, and we are convinced that a decentralized political system reassures all parties in Syrian society that the future will be to their liking. It also encourages them to participate in the revolution. I will not tell whether we will treat this issue as a condition or not, but I will say that we support it. Any agreement will no doubt have to be attractive to multiple perspectives.
The vast majority of Alawites strongly support the regime, with the exception of some intellectuals and other personalities. Once the Alawites are separated from the regime, we will overthrow it. This can only be achieved by providing the guarantees and protection represented by a decentralized political system. The Alawites fear that the Sunni Arabs will come to power after the regime is toppled, and seek vengeance against them. In fact, under a decentralized political system, they will have privileges in their respective regions. In the absence of such a system, the conflict in Syria will be tough and long, especially in the regions populated by Alawites or other minorities.
Are the Alawites afraid that the majority may impose ideological tyranny over the minorities?
Yes, this issue has led to a real conflict. The Alawites are accused of propping up the current regime, under which they have enjoyed special privileges in Syria. This is why they need to get some guarantees. Only those who are known to be committing crimes against the Syrian people and their rights should take full responsibility for the regime’s crimes. Anyway, it is the judiciary’s responsibility, whether they are Alawite or not.
Was the US response positive regarding your position?
Yes, we told US Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman in our last meeting that we expect the regime to fall if a decentralized political system is established. He replied that they are pleased to hear that.
How can they be pleased to hear your point of view and politically recognize the Syrian National Council (SNC) as the legitimate face of the opposition, when they know that the SNC has rejected all forms of political decentralization?
I guess that they would actually change their opinion in this regard.
Did you ask them to change their minds?
No, we asked them to contribute in unifying the opposition.
By drafting a political memorandum.
What exactly do you want from the US? Do you need their help to draft such a document?
We want them to pressure the Syrian National Council, the Arab League and all parties who have ties with the US, so that it becomes possible to easily conclude a joint document that guarantees the rights of Syrian citizens in all regions in the future.
During the meeting, did you feel that the US is ready to exert pressure on these parties?
The US did not explicitly express their readiness to exert pressure, but they understood our attitude. After we met with some officials at the White House and the State Department, US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told us that they are satisfied with our position regarding the situation in Syria.
Hasan Abdul Azim from the National Coordinating Committee and Burhan Ghaliun from the Syrian National Council have previously refused to consider the establishment of a federal system. However, the two bodies declared their support for a decentralized republic in Syria. The following sentence was found in the hacked SNC e-mail account: “We gave the Kurds everything we can, and now they need to change their attitude.” What do you have to say about that?
Actually, this is the problem. We need to get rid of the term “we gave them.” The members of the SNC are not the governors of Syria. Since we are looking for a new social contract that brings together all segments of society into one homeland, we cannot use the terms “we gave them” or “they gave us” in the new Syria. I am not asking Burhan Ghaliun, the Muslim Brotherhood or Hasan Abdul Azim to give me my rights. I am asking for the rights of the Syrian people. We need a document that gives all segments of society their full rights. We are not requesting anything from anyone, these are our rights.
Burhan Ghaliun has given his support to a decentralized system, but for the Kurdish National Council of Syria, mere expressions of support for a decentralized political system is not enough. Would you please explain the difference?
Bashar Burhan Ghaliun said that he supports a decentralized administrative system; there is a big difference between a decentralized administrative system and a decentralized political system. A decentralized administrative system currently exists in Syria as a local administrative system.
Is a decentralized political system a form of federation without using the word “federal?”
No, the decentralized system gives powers to local councils, but it does not necessarily have to be federal. It is based on the distribution of political, economic, social, educational and administrative competence between the central government and local administrative councils regarding specific matters as stipulated in the constitution.
What strategy are you going to adopt to achieve a decentralized political structure?
I think that even if we do not adopt any strategy, the opposition will eventually arrive at the same conclusion we gave. I hope it will not be too late. They will certainly realize that a decentralized political system is a solution in Syria, because if the regime falls, the Alawites will be unable to guarantee their rights without one.
Has the Assad regime contacted you?
They have more than once, and they asked us to meet with them twice, but we refused. The first time, five of our members were invited, and the second time the entire Kurdish movement was invited. Vice President Farouk Al-Shara suggested to meet with the opposition, but we also refused to do so. We may agree to have talks with the regime, only if all the components of the Syrian opposition agreed on it. The Kurds will not hold any dialog with the regime on their own. We’ve already made this decision.
What would the borders of the provinces look like under a decentralized political system? Like the current borders of the fourteen governorates of Syria?
It is too early to talk about these issues. Today, we need to discuss the general principles that will prevail in Syria. The new document will be considered a preliminary principle, the application of which is to be determined. This should take place in the presence of experts and administrative and legal researchers in order to put these issues in a legal framework.
It was said that the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government Massoud Barzani affected the KNCS’s point of view regarding a decentralized political system after his meeting with [Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip] Erdogan, would you please elaborate on this?
Our position has not changed much. We've got a political plan for the transition phase. However, it is impossible to fully accept our plan, the SNC’s plan and the National Coordinating Body’s plan. We need to reach an agreement that enables the entire opposition to defend its point of view. If we don’t reach an agreement on a decentralized political system now, we will do so in the future. However, we have many demands, such as a decentralized political system, secularism, constitutional equality between men and women and freedom of religion for all Syrians. Once we start drafting our constitution, it should be the foundation of a new Syria that guarantees the rights of all. However, the KNCS is aware that it is impossible for us to have all our demands fulfilled at once. It is our desire to reach an agreement with the various components of the opposition.
What are your ties with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)?
At the beginning of the revolution, we signed an agreement with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party on behalf of the Kurdish movement in Syria. When the Kurdish National Council was first established, they took part in the dialog. However, they withdrew at the last minute before we set up the Kurdish National Council of Syria. There are some differences between us on several issues. In this regard, the KNCS decided to form a dialog committee with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party to build bridges of understanding on key issues, or at least to avoid any conflict.
What does the KNCS think about the Free Syrian Army?
We are a peaceful revolution and we do not support any transition into a military phase.
We heard that some Kurdish battalions are united under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
This is not true.
But what of the video-footage confirming this?
On the Internet, we can find a large number of videos that have nothing to do with reality. Massoud Barzani has stronger ties with us than any other Syrian Kurdish party, and at the same time we are against arming the Syrian people.
Do you support any form of foreign intervention?
No, not at all. Once we have a political document that clearly guarantees the rights of the Syrian people in all regions, everyone will take part in the revolution and the regime will fall. The Syrian regime appears to be unable to extend its authority over all of its territory. This document would also separate the Alawites from the regime. If the Alawites have assurances that they will be living in freedom and dignity after the fall of the Assad regime, they will certainly abandon it.
The formation of the Free Syrian Army wasn’t the result of a political decision. They are Syrian army officers who defected after they refused to kill civilians. While the Free Syrian Army is just a name outside Syria, internally it represents multiple groups with multiple affiliations. We fear that these groups under the banner of the Free Syrian Army will become militias in a civil war, just like what happened in Lebanon and Iraq.
As for foreign intervention, we do not want to destroy Syria’s economy or military capabilities. The Syrian army and its weapons are the source of our nation’s strength, and any foreign intervention will certainly destroy them. We believe that a joint document which provides all parties with guarantees is the shortest and most secure way to topple the regime and save Syria in the long-term.
Do you oppose the establishment of any Turkish buffer zone inside of Syria?
Yes, we oppose the establishment of a Turkish buffer zone.
What can Turkey do?
Turkey is a country bordering Syria, and we would like to establish good relations with them. However, we believe that Turkey’s role in the Syrian revolution has not been positive. They have been supporting just one group, thus dividing the opposition in general. Moreover, Turkey does not want to provide the Kurds with any constitutional guarantees in Syria.
We met with Turkish officials and we reminded them of their fears at the beginning of the Kurdistan experience in Iraq. Now, the two sides have become friends. The same story could happen again. We, the Kurds, live along the 1500 km border with Turkey. We may become true political and economic partners and these regions may become safe for Turkey.