Syrian Opposition Leader Ghalioun: Russia and Iran Must Recognize Syrian Peoples’ Right to Freedom

Article Summary
The head of the Syrian National Council, Bourhan Ghalioun, has said in an interview that the Syrian uprising is self-reliant and not dependent on foreign support. Ghalioun called for recognition of the Syrian opposition, and downplayed the importance of sectarian tensions in its conflict with the regime. Interview by Raghida Dargham.

Bourhan Ghalioun, the president of the Syrian National Council (SNC), has noted that Vice President Farouk al-Shara' would not be the president of a [new Syrian] regime, but rather only a [caretaker, presiding over] a transfer of power [to an elected government]. In a lengthy interview with Al-Hayat, [Ghalioun] argued that any negotiations that take place in Moscow should solely focus on how power will be transferred and that the only way to avoid the marginalization of the Alawite community in Syria is for it to take part in the revolution.

He said that the SNC will agree to dialogue with the Iranians "if they issue a statement recognizing the Syrian people's rights, [the need for] a democratic regime in Damascus and [the need to] change the current dictatorship." He expects Hezbollah to completely change its stance after the fall of the Assad regime because it will have no choice but to cooperate and coordinate with Syria if it wants to maintain an image of a positive force in the region...He stressed that there is a need for powerful women's organizations, and that women will not be able to play significant roles and take their rightful place [in public life] by only praying and hoping.

The following is the text of the interview:

Al-Hayat: Let us begin with the discussions [underway] in New York. You have placed a lot importance on these discussions, and on your participation on the sidelines at the Security Council. Do you think that you have given [these negotiations] more importance than you should have?
Ghalioun: I would like to say from the outset that we, the SNC and the Syrian people, are not betting on decisions from within the Security Council, from outside the Security Council or even from the Arab League. A revolution does not bet on a decision. We are betting on the people, on the continuation of the revolution, on the determination of the youths and on their willingness to sacrifice that they have continuously demonstrated until now. [This commitment has been] unprecedented in the history of peaceful revolutions. But we cannot ignore that the battle is also taking place at the international level, where there is potential to strip the [Syrian] regime of all legitimacy. We want to accomplish something [in that area] in order to deny Bashar Assad any hope of staying in power. [We want] to speed up his departure. This is the goal of the Security Council resolution. We are giving it importance to add an achievement to our people's achievements in the streets, neighborhoods, and cities; and today the Shabbiha and the security forces are being kicked out of many neighborhoods.
Al-Hayat: Even the Secretary General of the Arab League has said that you are deluding yourself by thinking the Security Council waves a magic wand. How do you respond to [these kinds of comments]?
Ghalioun: We say that this is not true. We have not placed a great deal of importance on a decision, not at the Arab League nor at the Security Council. But when there is a political battle we do not turn away from it. This political battle complements the real battle that we are fighting on Syrian territory. We are not only fighting battles in international institutions. Our primary battle is in the streets. And I think that our duty, as the SNC, is for us to fight this political battle, help the revolution on the ground and provide a significant international political horizon for the young peoples' sacrifices.
Al-Hayat: You have met with the Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. Russia is inviting you to a dialogue and you are refusing. What happened during your meeting intended to discuss the draft resolution at the Security Council?
Ghalioun: Our position has been clear from the beginning. We want Russia to change its stance and condemn the violence perpetrated by the regime against the Syrian people. We want Russia to recognize the rights of the Syrian people. We want [Russia] to recognize that the Syrian people have the right to freedom, dignity, and democracy. They [the Russians] have made a bit of progress. They initially said that the Syrian [situation] was a foreign conspiracy started by gangs etc. But now, through our discussions and dialogue with them, they have started talking about the rights of the people. They say that they now recognize our version of the story: That a people is fighting for its rights and freedom. But it is clear that they want to resolve the matter through dialogue.
Al-Hayat: But you are refusing the dialogue they called for. What happens after that? You are refusing to hold a dialogue that a major player has been calling for - a country with veto power at the Security Council.
Ghalioun: No, we did not reject dialogue with the Russians. We told them that [we thought that it was] an attempt to buy time and block the resolution that the Security Council will be voting on. We are here today to support the Arab League decision and to support the Security Council's adoption of the Arab League decision. We cannot drop all that and go to Russia and hold a dialogue with the [Syrian] regime. Of course we told them that all that talk is meaningless.
Al-Hayat: Is that what you told [Vitaly] Churkin [the Russian Ambassador to the UN]? And how did he respond?
Ghalioun: There was no response. But I told him that if Russia was ready to pass the Security Council resolution - and not veto it - then negotiations may take place in Moscow on how authority should be transferred in accordance with the Arab plan. We have no problem with the location [of the dialogue]. We have a problem with the terms of the initiative. Any initiative - no matter the conditions under which it is undertaken - must end up transferring the authority to the people.
Al-Hayat: Let me make sure I understand you. You spoke with the Russian ambassador on the possibility of finding a formula that combines their approval of the Security Council draft resolution that would entail you traveling to Moscow to hold a dialogue [with the regime]?
Ghalioun: First, there is no dialogue. There are negotiations on how power should be transferred - this is what the Arab plan says. The Arab plan calls for Assad to hand over power to his vice president, and for his vice president to commence talks on forming a transitional government once the killing stops and the detainees are released. [Only then] can discussions begin on how power should be transferred to an elected government. This will not be a dialogue with the regime. It is a negotiation on the procedure for the transfer of power.
Al-Hayat: What if the Russians prevent the Security Council from adopting the resolution? What will you have after you have rejected Russian proposals were Russia to reject the draft resolution? What are your other options?
Ghalioun: Our goal in the discussion is to prevent the resolution from failing. Now, if Russia blocks the resolution it would have put itself in an awkward position with the people. The young Syrian people will raise banners saying that Russia is the enemy of the Arabs and the enemy of the Syrians. I hope this does not happen. But if it happens, then, as I said earlier, our bets are not all on a Security Council resolution. We will continue the demonstrations and we will continue battling the regime. What will bring down the Syrian regime is not the Security Council, but the Syrian people themselves. But we want the Security Council to recognize the people’s right to fight this unjust regime.
Al-Hayat: You also met with [US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs] Jeffrey Feltman. What assurances has he given you with regard to continued US support? Noting that the Europeans and the United States say: "We cannot jump ahead of the Arabs on a draft resolution that is facing a veto." This means that [the Europeans] are hiding behind the Arab Initiative. They seem to fear confronting Russia at the Security Council. What has Feltman told you in this regard?
Ghalioun: We did not discuss with the Americans - not with Feltman and not with [his deputy, Frederick] Hoff - the topic of support, nor who will support whom, nor the fate of the revolution. We are fighting the revolution ourselves; it is us who decide. We discussed with the Americans, or rather, they discussed with us, the options available at the Security Council. And there are two options: The first option is to stand firm and reject any discussions with the Russians and accept the veto. And, for us to accept the Russian veto would also entail repercussions. We would be surrendering the battle simply due to the fact that there is a veto. And of course, in that case we would be giving the regime a chance - for at least two or three weeks - to think that it is free to kill and violate the people's rights and discourage us. Or, we can try to persuade other countries - India, Pakistan, and South Africa - and put a lot of pressure on Russia to cooperate with the Arab countries. We can also work to convince the Americans and the Westerners to adopt a resolution approved by Russia, even with amendments that do not affect [the crux of the resolution]. [We can ask them to consider a resolution] that includes revisions in the text that allow the Russians to save face, but that do not affect the crux of the document. This is what we discussed [with the US].
Al-Hayat: What about your discussion with Feltman about US support for your group and the type of support [they could offer you]? [Did you speak with the US] about how to move forward, [their] fears of arming the revolution and what this could lead to? Could it lead to civil war, God forbid?
Ghalioun: We did not ask for any support from the Americans. We did not speak with them about providing support. We asked the European Union, the [European Union's High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine] Ashton in particular, to set up a fund for material and humanitarian support for the Syrian people. This is what we ask from the Arabs, the Americans and all other people. Our basic policy is self-reliance. What we want is for other parties to make it easier for us to defend our own rights, and [we ask them to] take political positions in international institutions that guarantee the rights of the Syrian people. And I don't think the Americans wish to do more than that.
Al-Hayat: Let me stay on the subject of arming the revolution. Do you, as a member of the SNC, fear being held responsible were the situation to deteriorate into a civil war?
Ghalioun: If there is anyone responsible for the situation devolving to a civil war, it is the [Syrian] regime. We have said this more than once, and we have warned the regime that the use of barbaric and brutal violence against the people will lead to conflicts and to the defection of many soldiers and platoons, who would then form an opposing army. That would be the beginning of a war in Syria. I think that there are battles going on now in Syrian neighborhoods and cities between the Free Syrian Army and the regular army. But we are not the party who should be questioned about these developments. On the contrary, we are working to eliminate sectarian tensions and [prevent] civil war. Our main political goal is to save Syria from civil war, internal wars and sectarian wars. We are trying to create a framework that would absorb the tensions and the [divides within our country] as well heal its wounds. We inisist that our role is to heal [Syria’s] wounds, not make them worse.
Al-Hayat: What do you mean by a framework?
Ghalioun: I mean institutions for justice and reconciliation that bring together religious leaders from all communities, and that bring together cultural figures which can intervene and block any conflagrations or sectarian conflicts.
Al-Hayat: Bourhan Ghalioun, [in your own heart], do you feel that there is real danger that Syria is heading toward a destructive civil war, or a war of some kind?
Ghalioun: I believe the sectarian tensions have become very strong and that clashes will occur here and there. We must be realistic. But I firmly believe that the Syrian people are against any sectarian war and will not be dragged into one. The proof of that is that the regime has been trying to push the Syrian people toward civil war - for strategic reasons  - but so far it has failed. And it will continue to fail. The danger lies in that, if the regime upholds [its current] policies, it will destroy the country's institutions, economy and social fabric. [It will annihilate] Syrian civil society and place Syria in a serious state of disintegration and chaos. This would take everything to a whole other level.
Al-Hayat: And then what?
Ghalioun: And then the Syrian elite would have to work to rebuild the country and rebuild the community and the people. This will be a major challenge for the new Syrian democratic elite.
Al-Hayat: Let me try to clarify something. You are with the Arab Initiative. And [Arab League Secretary General] Nabil Al-Arabi and [Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister] Hamad bin Jassem came here and made it clear to the Security Council that this initiative, and the draft resolution, do not involve ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. You support this initiative. Therefore you are not asking Bashar Assad to step down.
Ghalioun: We clearly - and without hesitation - call on Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Al-Hayat: How are you doing this?
Ghalioun: We asked Secretary General Nabil Al-Arabi the same question and he said that we should take the sentence as it is and that its ambiguity is intentional. You interpret it the way you want and they interpret it the way they want. We interpret it to mean that the president will give up his powers and position.
Al-Hayat: Fine. Then you mean bringing down the president, but not the regime.
Ghalioun: [It means] bringing down the president. The regime has disintegrated. The regime, its institutions -  from the [Ba’ath] Party to the security forces - are on their way to collapse. What is happening in Syria is that the regime has buckled before its president. So, you find the supporters of the president, the intelligence services and the security services clinging to the image and presence of the president as the sole guarantor of the regime. In truth, the regime has been shattered. Unlike some countries, I do not fear that the regime will stay while the president leaves. Syria no longer has a regime. There is chaos, and there is a president that is maintaining this chaos in order to stay in power.
Al-Hayat: Vice-President Farouk al-Shara' was in Moscow recently. [Do you care to comment]?
Ghalioun: It is not certain he went to Moscow. It was rumored, but it has not been confirmed that he actually was there.
Al-Hayat: Did you ask [Russian Ambassador to the UN] Churkin about that?
Ghalioun: No, I didn't ask him. It didn't occur to me. I wasn't really concerned about that. But I think that the news of [Shara'] going [to Moscow] has indeed not been confirmed.
Al-Hayat: Do you trust him?... Because the Arab Initiative calls on the president to hand over his powers to the vice president... do you trust Farouq al-Shara'?
Ghalioun: Farouq al-Shara' will not be the president of the regime. He will only be a cover for the power transfer. He will not be president. He is only a means to end the regime.
Al-Hayat: Excuse my frankness in this question because it is harsh. It is said that the Muslim Brotherhood is using you as a front and that you, intentionally or not, are serving it and are controlled by it. Is this true?
Ghalioun: I have always said - since the beginning of the revolution - that I will not take part in any political framework unless it has a minimum of balance, and by balance I mean balance among the [political] currents. In Syria there are varying political opinions. The Islamist opinion is one of them. There are also other opinions: The secular and civil forces. I think that this balance still exists and if it did not exist, we should create it. And I truly believe that no one can fool the Syrian people, who will not allow others to use this person or that [against their interests]. I represent and speak for a very strong - not weak - Syrian political current. It is the current of consensus, the current of compatibility, the current of understanding, and I will not move away from it.
Al-Hayat: We have seen what has happened in other countries where change has taken place. The youths and women went to the ground to bring down the regimes, and then the Muslim Brotherhood came along benefiting extremely well from [the actions of others]. The same can be said for the Salafists. They almost took control of the revolution through the ballot box. And with that, the role of the women and youths was reduced. What is the safety valve that will ensure that this will not happen in Syria?
Ghalioun: The first safety valve are the Syrian people.
Al-Hayat: But, this is what has said about all other peoples too...
Ghalioun: Simply put, the status of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt cannot be compared with that of the Brotherhood in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt remained a strong tight-knit party throughout the previous era. In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood organization is almost nonexistent. They are now rebuilding their ranks, perhaps having started during the revolution. But the youths of the revolution, even though they are Muslim - something natural to all Arab peoples - they do not support Islamism or the creed of the Muslim Brotherhood. Because, in Syria, there is a strong and deep-rooted civil ethic that is supported by a large proportion of minorities that cannot in any way be described as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood choice, and that is certain. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood supporters themselves do not seem to strongly favor Islamic rule. They would prefer to interact with the other [political currents] within a democratic government. It is also not in their interest to try to control [political life in Syria], before or after the revolution. And I think that, were [the Muslim Brotherhood to try and dominate politics] would lead them to suffer an absolute loss. The Syrian public opinion aspires to freedom, not another dictatorship.
Al-Hayat: It seems you need some kind of safety valves against [sectarian dominance of any political system]. Who is working with you to set up these kinds of failsafes? There is real fear [that the situation will degenerate] there is more than one sect, more than one religion and more than one minority in Syria. And the fear is real. Are there any guarantees for the Alawite sect? Are there any guarantees that the Muslim Brotherhood [or a sectarian group] will not dominate the Syrian scene? We would like to address this issue first on a local level, and then within the framework of Turkish-Iranian relations, given the [tug-of-war] taking place between the two large regional powers - one Sunni, one Shia.
Ghalioun: I do not think that the Turkish-Iranian competition is sectarian in origin. It is rather a strategic competition between two powerful forces in the Middle East. And Syria is a highly sensitive and strategic location. And it is natural that there would be a rivalry over it between two major political powers. The question of the sects is another matter. I think that the best and biggest guarantee against the marginalization of any community is the participation of that community in the revolution. And I will go even further. In reality, in Syria there are no sects in the same sense that there are in Lebanon where the sects have special sensitivities and are closed in on themselves. Syria is not a society with different, distinguished, and rival sects living side-by-side. Syria is a national people. Syria is a people who are citizens. There are Muslims and Christians just as there are leftists and liberals and we will not be forming sects and rivalries.
Al-Hayat: We hear that in Iran there are two approaches. One takes into account the possibility of regime change in Syria, in which case [the Iranians would want to] open up to you. The other is actively involved in supporting the regime in Syria. What are your relationships [with the Iranians] now?
Ghalioun: With the Iranians?
Al-Hayat: Yes.
Ghalioun: As the SNC, we have no relationship with Iran. I can tell you that the Iranians have tried to reach out and open the door to dialogue [with us]. We told them that we are ready for any dialogue with any country - and we clearly recognize the existence of Iran as a [regional player]. But we said that we will not discuss with any party that declares its hostility to our people. We will talk with the Iranians tomorrow if they issue a statement recognizing the Syrian people's rights, [the need for] a democratic regime in Damascus and [the need] to get rid of the current dictatorship. If that happens, we will open dialogue to guarantee Iran's and others' interests [in Syria], and [determine] what those interests are.
Al-Hayat: What do you expect the reactions to be in Lebanon - from Hezbollah for example - during this transitional period or if the regime falls? How do you expect this relationship to evolve, as relations between Hezbollah and yourself are currently very strained?
Ghalioun: As you know, Hezbollah is a political force and it thinks politically. If you noticed, there are significant differences between Nasrallah’s most recent speech and his prior ones. In the prior speeches he used to talk of an American plot and of foreign plots and [militant] gangs (using the same language as the [Syrian] regime). And he accused me of seeking to break off relations with Hezbollah. That is false. I said that Hezbollah, after [regime] change in Syria, will not be the same as before. And now, even before the regime has completely fallen, Hezbollah is using a different language than it was using two months ago. And it will be using a completely different language after the Assad regime falls, because it has no choice but to deal and cooperate with Syria if it truly wants to be a positive force in the region, and not a destructive force . . . .
Al-Hayat: Your other neighbor, Iraq, is not comfortable with the change going on in Syria. [Iraq] is close - not just in geographical proximity, but politically as well - to Iran. How does that affect you? Do you feel that Iraq is hindering [your efforts]? Or does Iraq speak a language that does not harm your efforts on the ground - although it doesn’t support you either?
Ghalioun: Today, Iraq is not one. I think that there are certainly Iraqi factions that strongly support the Syrian regime. Perhaps they are sectarian factions or political factions. However, the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki himself, sent us several messages saying that he wishes to meet us and that he is ready to announce his support for the Syrian people. We said that we are awaiting this declaration of support and that we do not object going to Baghdad to meet the Iraqi government to determine the shape of the new relationship between Iraq and the future democratic Syria.
Al-Hayat: Have you agreed on a date?
Ghalioun: We have not yet agreed on a date, but I am waiting for the situation in Iraq to become clearer. You know that there is currently a political crisis in Iraq. We do not want to get involved in that crisis.
Al-Hayat: Who [which states] will soon recognize the SNC?
Ghalioun: The entire world has recognized us. At the Security Council, we have met all the ambassadors and country representatives. We have met many foreign ministers and the whole world affirms that the Syrian opposition is mainly the SNC. We do not need more than that to support our people in the international arena. We support our revolution and give it an address and a political horizon to complement to the heroic work being done by young people on the ground.
Al-Hayat: I meant, who will recognize you as the alternative to the regime? That is my question.
Ghalioun: They say that states generally do not recognize a council that is not present in the country in question. There is no precedent for a council not physically located in its own country to be recognized as the alternative to that country's [government]. But we do not need that. We are a means to support the Syrian revolution, not an alternative to the regime. The alternative to the regime will come from within Syria and through elections and new institutions.
Al-Hayat: You have met the Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations for Political Affairs.
Ghalioun: Because the Secretary-General was absent.
Al-Hayat: Did this happen at the request of Ban Ki-Moon?
Ghalioun: Yes.
Al-Hayat: What have you requested and what did you achieve in that meeting?
Ghalioun: We ask that the UN play a bigger role at the humanitarian and relief levels in the Syrian situation. And fortunately, the Assistant Secretary-General was a friend of mine from Latin America. I met him in university and together we wrote human development reports for the Arab region. We talked about the development of political life in Syria, and developing the Syrian revolution. They promised us that the UN will work to provide meaningful relief for Syria and the Syrian people at the current stage. And this is what we had been insisting on. We also wanted - and requested - the Secretary-General to appoint a personal envoy who would follow-up with us on the Syrian situation and who would forward all information about the situation and the demands of the Syrian people to the UN.
Al-Hayat: Has he promised you that?
Ghalioun: The matter is to be studied.
Al-Hayat: You requested the Security Council to allow you to attend its deliberations on Syria. Why do you want that? To be recognized? And on what legal basis [have you requested that]?
Ghalioun: As an observer. But it seems that there is no precedent for that either. They told us that only countries may attend Security Council sessions and that nongovernmental organizations may not attend.
Al-Hayat: Let us go back to the issue of Islamists and women. In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, women and young people participated in the revolutions on the ground. However, when political change took place at the ballot box, women were isolated and there were slogans denouncing [women's] rights. What guarantees do you, Bourhan Ghalioun, have for the Syrian women who are with you in your struggle, especially given that the Muslim Brotherhood is on the rise, when you have only one woman in the SNC leadership? What are you doing [about that]?
Ghalioun: Transitioning to a democratic system and democratic society is not a [prepackaged deal]. It is a battle.
Al-Hayat: Why don't you start by allowing women to participate in the decision-making process from now?
Ghalioun: The battle should be fought by the people themselves. Factions of the population will fight for it and we will fight for it. History is not prefabricated. Revolutions are not prefabricated. The people must organize themselves. The women must organize themselves. There should be strong women's organizations. Women will not be able to play their roles and take their place only by praying and hoping.
Al-Hayat: What is preventing you, as SNC, from including women amongst you, in a way where half of you are men and half of you are women. What prevents you from doing that?
Ghalioun: What is preventing us is the traditional, poor, and vulnerable structure of political organizations that have been 50 years underground. And there are very few women underground. Fighting a dictatorial, tyrannical, and totalitarian rule for 40 or 50 years has transformed parties into male organizations. This is a reality and needs to be acknowledged. Now is the time for action and [teamwork]. Of course, all members of the parties [working with us] are males unfortunately. But this is the reality. We cannot deny reality. We should try to change it. We should fight to change it. And we are fighting within the SNC to change it. But mainly, it is society that should strive to change the status of women. I leave no occasion without expressing my opinion on the subject and on the need that women be given a much bigger chance.
Al-Hayat: The issue is not about chance. The issue is that women have the right to participate in the decision-making process, especially during a revolution. This is not a gift to them. You in the SNC certainly can have more than one woman in your ranks, but you are satisfied with a handful of women.
Ghalioun: But my dear, Syrian parties do not have women in them. This is the truth. But, yes, this is no justification to exclude women. We know that. We don't want this to be this way, and things should be different.
Al-Hayat: What are your personal ambitions?
Ghalioun: My personal ambitions are to achieve the objectives of the Syrian revolution and return to Syria as an ordinary citizen. I may or may not go back to my university. But most likely, I will return to my university as an educator and academic, and talk and write about this experience, in which I am proud to participate. And I am proud of what the Syrian people are doing.
Al-Hayat: The Free Syrian Army is receiveing support and arms, and the revolution is arming itself. Who is providing you with these weapons? How are these weapons coming? Is it only through the black market, or is it also through the Turkish-Syrian border?
Ghalioun: Neither this nor that. My information, and that is not propaganda, is that most of the weapons used by the Free Syrian Army are Syrian weapons, meaning that they are taken from the Syrian army, sometimes from the Syrian people, and sometimes from Syrian army defectors. There may be some - as I understand it - coming from Lebanon or elsewhere, but only in a limited way. But this is not the decisive [element]. In truth, the decisive [element] is the disintegration of the Syrian army. The people are buying Syrian rifles. They gain control of arms depots and use them.
Al-Hayat: Do you fear the arming of the Syrian revolution?
Ghalioun: I do not fear the arming [of the revolution]. I think that this kind of arming - the arming of the defecting soldiers who are protecting the demonstrations - are an absolute necessity in the absence of any protection for civilians. They are doing part of the task that the international community failed to do to the peaceful protesters and civilians. That is not what I fear. What I fear is that these new military forces not be organized in a way where they are accountable to political decisions. Their actions should be organized, and in the future - after the fall of the regime - they should not become armed groups not subject to an organized political will. This is dangerous; it will lead to chaos. Therefore, at the SNC, we have established relations with the Free Syrian Army and are helping organize it according to a hierarchical military structure where means of decent life are provided to its soldiers and members so that they eventually become the nucleus of the new national Syrian army, and not mere militias that may clash in the future. This is what is required.

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