Ayman Abdul Nour is a university friend of Bashar al-Assad. After Assad became (Syria’s) president, Nour served as his adviser and promoted him as “the man who will modernize Syria and end corruption.” But early on he realized that dream would not become reality, and Nour abandoned ship.
In 2004, he left the Assad team, and in 2007 he left Syria. Since then he has been in the United Arab Emirates, where he manages the “syria4all" website, an important source of news about Syria. To ensure that the website stays equidistant from all groups, he hasn’t joined any opposition group but acts as the chairman of Syrian Christians Union for Democracy. He spoke to Taraf about Bashar and the opposition.
Taraf When did you meet Bashar al-Assad?
Nour In 1984. I was studying civil engineering and he was studying medicine at Damascus University. A mutual friend organized a birthday party, actually a dinner for four people. We met here and saw each other after that, until 2004.
Taraf You served as his adviser in that period.
Nour Yes. Until his brother was killed in 1994, Bashar had nothing to do with politics. Nobody expected anything from him in politics. But he received much training and worked hard after his brother’s death. I joined his team in 1997.
Taraf What was your job?
Nour He had to be introduced to the people before he took over as president. Basil was a charismatic person, media reported about him, but Bashar was an unknown. We devised a campaign for him. The first theme was that Bashar was going to fight corruption. The second was that he was the leader to bring high technology, Internet and cellular telephones to the country. We were saying “If you want a modern life, elect Bashar.”
Taraf So, you were one of Assad’s image managers.
Nour Yes, in a great hall of smoke and mirrors …
Taraf Did he really want to do those things?
Nour When Bashar took over in 2000, he really wanted to make reforms. We believed in that. We were constantly coming up with proposals. At the beginning he was acting fast to implement those. But we noticed in a year or so that the reforms he wanted to implement were either to strengthen the regime or make money for his cousin Rami Makhlouf. The reforms were not real.
Taraf There is a view the Assad regime protects minorities. Do you share that view?
Nour No. That was our invention. We were saying the regime was protecting them to get their support. The population (of Syria) is about 10% Alawite. Other minorities were needed to support the regime. When Hafez al-Assad took over in 1970, Christians comprised 13% of the country. Now they are not even 6%. The regime was successful in kicking them out of the country. In many towns they were a majority. Now they are small minority. The regime is responsible for spoiling the ethical and the social fabric of the country.
Taraf Is there tension between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria?
Nour There was no problem until the revolution. Six months after peaceful protests began the regime realized that it cannot solve the problem. In a meeting of the Crisis Management Unit, they made a plan to compel the people to take up arms by engineering a sectarian conflict. Thus, the minorities would be forced to support the Alawite [regime]. They killed many Sunnis. Ninety percent of the army and Shabiha militias were recruited from the Alawites.
Taraf Is what is happening today a sectarian war?
Nour Time is working against the country and a sectarian war is becoming more real by the day. Russia will benefit from a prolonged war. They signed a secret agreement with Assad that provides for an independent Alawite state. People are tense, and the quantity of hatred and anger between the sects is increasing. If this goes on like this for four, five or six months, I believe there will be a sectarian war which will be a disastrous.
Taraf Exactly what did the Russians agree to with Assad?
Nour Russia supports Assad’s rule over the country because it wants to keep him under its control. But, if they can’t succeed in keeping him in charge, they will support Assad in efforts to set up an independent Alawite state. Putin went to Israel two months ago to discuss this plan. Israel supports the plan. If an Alawite state is set up, then Russia would be its godfather. It will have a major say in that state and could expand its naval base. Israel will also profit from this arrangement because it would no longer be the only country for people of a specific religion in the region. There will be an Alawite and a Sunni state. There will also be a Kurdish state. Moreover, Russia would be scoring a major point over the US.
Taraf How will that work?
Nour Russia will say, “We now have significant control in the Mediterranean, which we don’t need but you do. OK, how about we give you the Middle East and in return you give us the southeast Pacific, India and China, which we need but where you are influential.”
Taraf Some respected international institutions are saying that Syrian opposition groups are also violating human rights. What do you say?
Nour First of all, after 40 years of oppression, imprisonment and torture by the opposition is not organized. They have no culture of democracy. Second, many al-Qaeda members were released from jails to carry out terror acts and so that the regime could tell journalists, “Look we are fighting al-Qaeda. To support the opposition is to support al-Qaeda.” In some incidents, Shabiha or other regime militants pretend to be the opposition. Fourth, many common criminals were released from prisons so that they can go back to their criminal acts. Now the regime says, “They’re from the Free Syrian Army.” The regime is trying to mar the image of the opposition.
Taraf What is the strength of al-Qaeda or radical Islamists in opposition groups?
Nour Al-Qaeda members were in prisons. The regime set them free to create Syria’s al-Qaeda. I can assure you that they can’t survive in Syria after Assad because most of them are not Syrians. They have no support from the people. Moreover, there are no mountains where they can hide as in Yemen.
Taraf What should the international community do to support the opposition?
Nour There is an urgent need to protect the people from the heavy weapons of the regime and Shabiha. International forces should establish no-flight zones or safe areas or let the Syrians do it. This must be done or more civilians will continue to be killed. In the meanwhile, we are grateful to Turkey for what it has been doing. They are undertaking tasks more than they can afford. In the post-Assad period, Turkey will occupy a prominent place in the hearts of Syrians.
Taraf How many Syrians are there in Turkey?
Nour Davutoglu gave us figures in a meeting. There are 92,000 people in camps and 40,000 live outside with their own means. Davutoglu says Turkey is not doing this to help Sunnis but to protect the people from massacres. There are Christians in the camps. They have churches and schools.
Taraf How do the ones outside the camps live?
Nour They are surviving somehow. Some businessmen moved their plants from Aleppo to here. Among them there are also some who moved here even though they are regime supporters. They couldn’t defend themselves against the Free Syrian Army in Syria. Not only the opposition, but regime supporters are also coming here. They are afraid being abducted or killed.
Taraf Like the society, the opposition too is fractured those in Syria, those outside, liberals, Islamists … Does this mean that the clashes will continue after Assad is toppled?
Nour True, the opposition is fractured. But this is democracy. In Turkey you have at least five major political parties. There has to be divergent views. The West and the US are making a mistake by telling the Syrian opposition to unite. First of all, their own oppositions are not united. Second, we have no culture of working together in Syria. Third, we can’t work with an opposition group manufactured by an intelligence outfit. Fourth, last month all the opposition united and signed a declaration in Egypt. There is no division now. Let everyone understand this.
Taraf What about Kurds?
Nour Kurds too signed the declaration but there are issues about definitions of local administration, federalism and autonomy. The problem is about a few words.
Taraf But those few words are crucial for the future of the Kurds.
Nour Of course. But we can never concede anything from the unity of Syria.
Taraf Can there be a federation in Syria or autonomy for the Kurds?
Nour What is being debated now is extensive powers for local administrations in all the regions so that they can make decisions on many important issues.
Taraf As in Spain?
Nour As in Spain, in Germany.
Taraf Does Turkey agree on this?
Nour Yes, it does. But some Kurds want more. And the regime gives plenty of weapons to that group, that is the [Democratic Union Party] PYD. Nowadays, they are almost independent. They have their own checkpoints; they collect taxes and suppress other Kurdish groups. They are even pressing hard on the Kurdish National Council made up of 15 parties and threatening them. Now are they are talking of elections for their assembly.
Taraf How much support do they have from the Kurdish people?
Nour Hard to cite a figure but they have strong support from the people.