Samir Aita, member of the Syrian Democratic Forum, thinks that the solution in Syria lies somewhere between the Geneva and Cairo accords. He cautioned against letting such an opportunity go to waste, which "might mean that the fighting would continue for a long time to come." Aita strongly criticized Turkey’s role in Syria, which he described as "bad," and he said the spread of extremism had produced a convergence of views between Russia and the United States. He added that any solution in Syria would be detrimental to some internal and regional forces, such as the Syrian regime and Israel.
In an interview with Al-Hayat, he said that "the revolution’s success is, first and foremost, a political and not a military one," and that a military coup was "definitely" a possible scenario for Syria.
Al-Hayat: How was your visit to the United States?
Aita: A delegation from the Syrian Democratic Forum, including Michel Kilo, was supposed to visit the US last week, but many factors led to its postponement. I took advantage of my participation in a conference held in New York to visit Washington and meet with administration officials, in addition to representatives and senators. There is a genuine interest in hearing our views, as well as in the initiative launched by the president of the National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, which we endorsed despite us not being members of the coalition.
Al-Hayat: What is your assessment of the situation in Syria?
Aita: Many of those with whom I met shared my belief that the situation has become very dangerous and that the killing must come to an end. There is concern that Syrian society and the state might crumble, and time is running out before matters slip out of control. The conflict might mutate from an internal and regional one, through Syrian proxies, to one where regional countries get directly involved in hostilities against one another. I told the Americans that Syrian society, through its diversity, coexistence, values and historic view on Islam, is part of humanity’s heritage, and that their responsibility, as an international community, was to prevent its destruction, lest all that remains in the region and the world be extremism and hate, for a long time to come.
Al-Hayat: Is there a military solution to the crisis?
Aita: The only solution is through politics, even if military means were sometimes used towards that end. The Syrian people, through their perseverance and determination, have proven that the military security solution imposed upon them by [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad cannot prevail, and that he can never again oppress them, no matter how intense the bombing and killing become. Furthermore, the revolution’s success is, first and foremost, a political and not a military one. There is no sense in that a resistance movement that evolved as a means of self-defense, will be transformed into an armed conflict between different factions of society, leading to a partitioning of the country in two, and the splitting society in half.
The Syrian regime and some regional countries have caused armed clashes to erupt that have nothing to do with the goals of attaining freedom and restoring dignity. This can be seen in the financing and arming of some extremist movements, or the incitement currently under way between Kurds and Arabs. Victory must be one of a unified people against their oppressor; otherwise, some factions of society might fear the revolution and its successes.
Al-Hayat: In your opinion, what does a solution entail?
Aita: Any solution will have to guarantee freedom and equality for the Syrian people — two goals that they have paid so dearly to attain. The regime must not prevail; Syria should not become a puppet in foreign hands, no matter how friendly these hands claim to be; and chaos must be kept at bay. A successful solution will assure that the killing stops, that a transitional period towards democracy ensues, and that the slogan “Assad’s Syria” be forever forgotten. This should have been a political fight from the beginning, but politics were set aside in order to exhaust society and the state.
The solution lies somewhere between the Geneva and Cairo accords. By Geneva, I mean the consensus reached by the international community on the necessity for a transition of power in Syria. And by Cairo I mean the National Pact agreements and the transitional phase on which all opposition factions agreed. But it appears that, both externally and internally, there exist on either side of the spectrum those who want the fighting to continue until the last drop of Syrian blood is spilled.
Al-Hayat: What are the chances for a compromise solution, in light of the increased militarization of the conflict?
Aita: Any solution must ensure that the fighting and killing stop, that men of honor in the regular and free armies reconcile and unite — and by those, I mean men who have not committed war crimes. A unified command must be established to restructure the armed and security forces. There still is a chance for that to occur, despite it being a hard goal to attain. But the window of opportunity is narrowing. If the chance is lost, then the fighting will continue for a long time to come.
The solution cannot be in the form of a compromise, whereby the Assad family returns to dominate, nor in the form of an agreement between the different religious sects, as was the case in Lebanon. Any compromise must be predicated on receiving international guarantees for the removal of those who monopolized the Syrian state, and a transition be put in action towards democracy, while restoring security to the country.
Al-Hayat: Would you accept a solution that allows Assad to remain in power until presidential elections are held?
Aita: Bashar al-Assad knows well that a president who bombs his people with planes and rockets cannot remain in power. Furthermore, a Yemeni style of solution — whereby Bashar al-Assad is deported but Hafez Makhlouf, Maher al-Assad, Jamil al-Hassan and others remain — is also not acceptable. Furthermore, elections cannot be held while everyone is still armed. All this talk about him remaining until 2014 is worthless.
An agreement must be reached on the mechanisms that would govern the transitional period — specifically the ways by which power would be transferred to a fully fledged government, and the identities of those who would command the regular and free armies until a cessation of hostilities is achieved, and the two sides unite to restore stability and security.
Al-Hayat: Are you willing to go to Moscow?
Aita: The Democratic Forum periodically meets with Russian officials to explain its point of view. The Russians also hold consultations with all factions of the opposition. But the solution mainly requires that the Americans, Russians and other members of the Security Council agree and build upon the guidelines set in Geneva. Our responsibility and goal is to contribute in determining the elements that would comprise such an international agreement, until a solution is born. The main issue, in our opinion, is for Russia and the United States to commit to the fact that the end of the crisis will come in the form of freedom and democracy for all Syrians, while pledging to protect the fate of Syria and the Syrian people from the manipulation of regional countries.
Al-Hayat: The initiative launched by the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, is built upon the premise of negotiating with Syrian vice president Farouk al-Sharaa. Do you think the regime’s response will be favorable?
Aita: Khatib’s initiative first became public through a comment he posted on his social-networking page, which was preceded by a post about him feeling fed up with the machinations inside the coalition and on the part of the international community. The Syrian people welcomed the initiative and pressed for its adoption, which compelled the international community to accept it, despite the fact that it contradicted the coalition’s founding statement and the espoused positions of some countries that support it.
The strength of this initiative stems from two things: First, it embarrasses the regime in font of its internal and external supporters. Second, it affords Khatib a leadership role, not because he postulated the initiative, but because he did not retract it after other coalition members strongly attacked it. But its content needs elaboration, which we, in the forum, are contributing towards.
The regime is compelled to respond, for its military attacks are failing one after the other. The most important aspect of this initiative is that it negates Assad’s logic of refusing to recognize the presence of an opposition to his rule, as he did in his last speech, which was preceded by his revocation of the supposed reforms and constitution that he himself ordered enacted, and the justification he gave was that consensus must first be reached on a new National Charter that would give birth to a new constitution.
Al-Hayat: What is the alternative if Khatib fails?
Aita: The failure won’t be Khatib’s. It will be the international community’s failure to stop the slaughter of the Syrian people, and prevent the conflict from becoming a regional one, although it is the Syrian people alone who will pay the price.
Al-Hayat: The Americans are wary of the spread of extremism. How is this issue being handled?
Aita: The regime in Syria encouraged violence, sectarianism and extremism in the hopes that they would help it remain in power and prolong its rule. There are also some countries which urged extremists to go to Syria and later armed and financed them in the hopes that they would undermine the regime’s forces. But by doing so, these countries fell into the regime’s trap aimed at transforming the nature of the conflict, and thus extended the regime’s life.
The United States knows who is financing and arming the extremists. All it has to do is include these entities, be they private or governmental, on the list of those supporting terrorism. It is noteworthy that this fear of extremism brought the United States closer to the stance of the Russians, who claim that it was born from their fear of extremism spreading. We must make it clear to both of them that they are fostering extremism and destroying Syrian society and its uniqueness by prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people.
Al-Hayat: What are the chances of it becoming a regional crisis if a solution is not reached?
Aita: The risks are real, as can be seen in the developments underway in Iraq, Lebanon and even Turkey. The possibility of the crisis spreading regionally was among three scenarios that were seriously discussed during the conference that I attended with American Middle East experts in New York.
Things are not only taking a turn for the worse between ethnic groups — Sunni-Shia, Kurd-Arab-Turks, equal right advocates-Sharia Law — but also among regional countries whose interests strongly conflict, even between entities who stand on the same side vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis. There are then those who would lose their wagers if Syria stepped closer towards a solution, who would not hesitate to regionally inflame the crisis if they were not prevented from doing so by the world’s major powers. The Syrian regime is certainly among them, as is Israel.
Al-Hayat: How do you characterize the Turkish role?
Aita: Bad. Despite everything Turkey is doing for the Syrian refugees. Turkish leaders have squandered unique historical opportunities. They first sided with the regime against the revolution, then with one of the opposition’s factions instead of trying to unite them. They later allowed extremists to enter Syria through their borders instead of thwarting them, then turned a blind eye to the economic looting of northern Syria by mafias headquartered on their soil instead of preventing them from doing so.
I really hope that Turkish leaders would reassess their policies, already unpopular among their own constituents, because a united Syria can afford them a different perspective, for it reflects the Ottoman heritage better than present day Turkey does — in the sense of religious, ethnic and national diversity all rolled up into a united country. Lest we forget that Turkey and Iran both share the same Islamic heritage with Syria and the remaining Arab countries.
Al-Hayat: Is the idea of a military coup on the table today?
Aita: Definitely. But how can any plotters find common ground with factions that have always accused the regular army of being ethnically biased? In truth, many positive developments towards freedom can occur if the opposition, as a whole, made it clear that its agenda for the future included all Syrians regardless of their affiliations. The opposition must abandon its illogical slogan of wanting to overthrow the regime and all of its figures and symbols, for figures and symbols are very pervasive in Syrian society.
Al-Hayat: If you were given international guarantees, would you return to Syria anytime soon?
Aita: International guarantees are meaningless in this regard. For we have seen how [the opposition member in the Coordination Committee] Abdul Aziz al-Kheir was arrested upon his return to attend the international guarantees conference. The place of all opposition members is by the side of the people in their time of suffering. We should all return just to spite the regime; what could it do, after all? In the current absence of such a collective return, the main issue is to properly decide upon its proper timing, and how such a return might benefit the people’s cause.