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The Plot Thickens: Ghalyoun's “Ill-Conceived” Statements in the WSJ Interview

[Burhan Ghalyoun. Image from unknown archive] [Burhan Ghalyoun. Image from unknown archive]

[For the text of the interview that the Wall Street Journal conducted with the head of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalyoun, click here] 

Leaving the problematic statements about Iran and Hizballah aside, in whose interest is it for the head of the Syrian National Council (SNC) to talk about how the (possible) future Syrian leadership will or will not pursue its right to restore the occupied Golan Heights territory from Israel? Is this what occupies the minds of protesters who are being shot daily by the Syrian regime? Is this something that will give them an edge in their pursuit of their basic political and other rights inside Syria? Even if statements about the Golan are appropriate, why should such declarations let aggressors off the hook so prematurely, so unnecessarily, so irresponsibly, and so recklessly, by emphasizing ill-conceived “liberal” and “feel-good” language? And where did all this positivity suddenly emerge about Syrian-Western relations? 

Most importantly, why should the strategies of a potentially democratic Syrian government be announced before the appropriate conditions for such a representative leadership are met? What if most Syrian citizens want to keep all options on the table for restoring their land and other rights in the future? On both related counts, Ghalyoun (can we still say “poor Ghalyoun?”) and the Syrian National Council sound very much like the Syrian regime: They are both (practically, in the case of the Syrian regime) giving up certain options for restoring occupied Syrian land, and they are both less concerned with the democratic process. Even the enemies of the Syrian people and Syrian rights are baffled, if pleased, at this seeming “political immaturity,” to use a euphemism.

I spoke with Ghalyoun on several occasions in the past, recorded several long interviews with him, and spent quality time with him late at night in hotel lobbies while participating in conferences. And his record of statements on such issues goes against what he says today on a number of issues. What gives? 

The question here is the one posed at the outset. Who benefits from such pre-mature and ill-timed statements? Can we continue to act as though Ghalyoun, the scholar, has been thrown into this position and is essentially a mumbling politician unaware of statements’ political consequences? Is this simply about political acumen? Or is there something else going on that has little to do with political immaturity or acumen? 

Either way, Dr. Ghalyoun, while all men and women of conscience are behind you in opposing the Syrian dictatorship, the Syrian people will not allow you or the SNC to determine the fate of occupied land with a defeatist and subordinate attitude. 

To Burhan

Consider these two statements from the interview:

Ghalyoun: “The current relationship between Syria and Iran is abnormal. It is unprecedented in Syria's foreign policy history.”

Ghalyoun: We are banking on our special relationship with the Europeans and western powers in helping us in reclaiming the Golan as fast as possible.”

So, if a relationship between two nations (Syria and Iran) is unprecedented, it becomes “abnormal;” but if a nation (Syria) is colonized/exploited by another (France), and its government and people are maligned in the press of other nations (the “West”), and if these nations support (fund) and protect (UN Veto) the occupier of Syrian land, they deserve a "special relationship" in the eyes of the new Syrian National Council. Congratulations Burhan on this new and exciting language, logic, and principle. Why can’t you steer the Council in the direction you have always believed in: dual criticism of local authoritarianism and western hypocrisy in the name of the same principles you jotted down for decades?

Moreover, Ghalyoun states above that the SNC is “banking” on the “western powers” to help reclaim the Golan, presumably through international law and diplomacy. Really, Burhan? If a student of yours wrote this in a paper you would probably get an eye infection reading it. Since when did anyone with an ounce of historical knowledge rely on western powers to respect international law and human rights when it comes to the Middle East, and Israel in particular? When it comes to international law or the United Nations and Israel, the United States behaved like a rogue state for decades, vetoing dozens of UN resolutions against Israel’s international law and human rights violations. Germany is now subsidizing the sale of nuclear-head capable submarines to Israel for nukes that Israel supposedly does not have, while Israel is in constant violation of nearly every important human value possible. You expect these decades-long law- and rights-crushing actors suddenly to help Burhan Ghalyoun’s SNC restore the occupied Golan Heights, and, mind you, “as fast as possible?” It is like expecting the Taliban to push a feminist agenda in Tora Bora, or Israel to treat its non-Jewish citizens equally, or Saudi Arabia to enforce freedom from religion.

One more remark, though many can be pulled from this first interview with Ghalyoun after heading the SNC. In an interview with Jadaliyya Co-Editor Ibtisam Azem, Ghalyoun asserted the “three no’s” of the opposition’s local Coordinating Committees in Syria:

"The goal is democracy and the "three no's" are: no to military intervention; no to sectarian strife; and no to the use of arms in any way." [From a July Jadaliyya Interview. See full text here]

In this fitting WSJ interview, the latter “no” found no home. It was dropped like one of Burhan’s decades-long political principles. Dare we hope this was a slip?

Where is the Syrian National Council Going?

The Syrian people have suffered decades of domestic authoritarian rule and now have paid a human toll of thousands of bodies. After all this sacrifice and heroism on the streets of Syria, is this their fate? To end up having their territorial rights confiscated by a body that seems more beholden to its guarantors—or to expediency—than it is to them?

Perhaps this is not about Ghalyoun at all; and probably not about the SNC altogether. Surely it is not about the interests of the Syrian people. But, should this trajectory of foolishness, dependence, and/or infantile approach to politics by the SNC continue, the books will register that a brutal Syrian regime was (might) be replaced with a lousy and incompetent, and certainly not autonomous, leadership.

Functional reasoning aside (i.e., the idea that we should observe who was pleased by Ghalyoun’s statement and deduce it was they who instigated or imposed such declarations), one cannot but grow even more skeptical about the autonomy and integrity of the SNC—and surely time is the best judge. Many of us have criticized Israel for creating the same monsters it complains about in territories it occupied and that Israelis must recognize the link between the brutal structural conditions it imposed for decades on Palestinians and some of the Palestinian responses to the occupation. But most of these individuals in the SNC live outside Syria and have not been as scarred as their fellow citizens who had their mouths and political will shut for decades.

And this is Burhan Ghalyoun, perhaps the cream of the SNC. Where, then, is the Syrian National Council going? 

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13 comments for "The Plot Thickens: Ghalyoun's “Ill-Conceived” Statements in the WSJ Interview"


In the US, we say this person is "not ready for prime time"...will someone please remove this gentleman's foot from his mouth??

Mark Edward Croy wrote on December 06, 2011 at 07:44 AM

Mr.Haddad, you surely have the right to express you your views, no matter what, but you do not have the right to call the SNC as "fool". If you really find it competent, join them or establish a council yourself!! Do you think the Syrians who are fighting against dictatorship, pain and aggression will accept a retarded , authoritarian and a "lousy " leadership as you call it?? no, they will never, and believe me, they will always revolt against any ill-behavior. خلص مرحلة اليأس وا لاستسلام ولّت. و إن لم تؤمن في قوة الشعب ، فالشعب يؤمن بقوة نفسه. سلامي

Manar wrote on December 06, 2011 at 10:31 PM

Dear Manar,

I used the word "foolish" to describe the trajectory of making irresponsible statements "lacking good sense or judgement" (the dictionary definition of "foolish"). I think these statements lacked judgement (to be very kind, because a lot more can be said--even by some of Burhan's friends). If you think the statements were fine, or that they were not foolish, that's fine. We can disagree.

I support the Syrian uprising but I am not a Syrian citizen, so i can't join or form a council. But i do not support those statements made in the interview, and actually used to distinguish between the SNC and Burhan Ghalyoun.

I agree with you on the last point. I hope the Syrian people will never accept authoritarianism or incompetent leadership. My fear is that the SNC might not produce what the Syrian people want, and might actually invite trouble if it subordinates itself to non-Syrian interests in terms of its occupied land and regional policy. This does not mean that the uprising against authoritarian rule should stop. All stages have their challenges. The challenge now is to end authoritarian rule. But that does not mean we cannot criticize the SNC. On the contrary, we MUST criticize it and we have the absolute right to do so. Otherwise, why bother get rid of authoritarian rule?

Bassam Haddad wrote on December 07, 2011 at 01:16 AM

So, Bassad,have you now admitted that "their own devices" of "opposition" really mean nothing and they are going to be a fully owned subsidiary of NED and Saudis? Or are you waiting for MORE? You will get it, believe me.

MEC, I know that in USA one could not be a successful politician without being a smooth lair. Sure, BG is still not smooth and sometimes tells the truth about the "opposition". But the best lairs could not change the truth - SNC and BG are puppets of imperialism and lackeys of Zionism.

lidia wrote on December 07, 2011 at 01:45 AM

Dear Mr Haddad, I think that we should consider Mr Ghalioun's comments as nothing more than "realpolitik". Mr Ghalioun is addressing the critical issue through which the US and many in the West see Syria and the prospects for future engagement with a post-Assad Syria - through the issue of Israel. You may not like it, and it may not be morally or legally right, but in many of the corridors of western power, the primary question which will be asked is what does a new Syria mean for Israel? So, I would give Mr Ghalioun the benefit of the doubt. There is a long journey from today to that post-Assad future.

Nour wrote on December 07, 2011 at 02:49 AM

"The so-called Syrian National Council, formed in Istanbul, and its leader Burhan Ghalyoun ... are trying to present their credentials to the United States and Israel,"

Miriam wrote on December 07, 2011 at 12:44 PM

Part 2.....sorry but I accidentally hit "enter" unintentionally....and would have prefaced that quote I submitted with this comment....that the fact that this academician selected as head of SNC in Istanbul reminds one of certain aspects of the Libyan "transitional national council" or NTC's early stages...along with the fact that he granted his early US profile to the Neoconservative Wall Street Journal....can only be seen as concerning sign of USreal's "strateegery"...there are unmistakeable fingerprints all over this. Raising the issue of Golan is but one more symptom of the prognosis...

Miriam wrote on December 07, 2011 at 12:54 PM

It is interesting to see how academics professionals read too much into interviews and analyse personalities and motives and offer conclusions based on those readings. I see this as healthy in some regard. On the other side, one wonders how accurate such readings are in light of an ever more globalized world that does not function that same way anymore. Interests are extremely intertwined and complex. I call for patience and not to over-read the interview. I may not agree with every position in the interview, but I assure you its not a conspiracy by the wall street, its not buying into the interests of the west or east; both are worse than the other. He is not writing down the future foreign policy, stating preliminary direction is not foolish. This direction was based on grassroots support and confirmations, I assure you.

Ammar Kahf wrote on December 07, 2011 at 03:36 PM

I see that supporters of BG and SNC use 2 ways to defend him (and not only here) 1) What BG says means nothing serious because he is not in power yet 2) anyway, BG has support for it in Syria

Both are great defense arguments, sure.

Regarding " grassroots support" for whole selling Syria to Zionism, I would nevertheless like to see more proof than "I assure you". I do no doubt that SOME Syrians would agree (just as Abbas and his ilk agree), but how many of them?

Some of the supporters, though, just roll their eyes and say that BG should not open his mouth at all on such topics yet :)

lidia wrote on December 08, 2011 at 12:55 AM

مستر حداد،

إذا المجلس الوطني السوري هو كلو خارج سوريا ، فأنا هلق تذكرت أنك عمتكتب من "باب عمرو" !!

دعوا السوريين يرسمون حرياتهم و طريقهم بأنفسهم .لا نريد أساتذه و باحثين و محللين و حملة الشهادات العليا أن ينظّروا على الشعب السوري. و من الآخر يا أستاذ،"الشعب السوري عارف طريقه"

رامي wrote on December 08, 2011 at 08:42 PM

استاذ رامي

اعتذر بالبداية على ضعف كتابتي بالعربية

شكرا لمداخلتك. اخشى انّك لم تفهم قصدى. انا لم اقصد انه لا يحق للقاطنين بالخارج التحدث عن السياسة السورية او العمل عليها او حتى انتقادها. كنت اقول ان الاغلبية الساحقة من ممثلي المجلس لم يتاثروا بالسلطوية المحلية عبر العقود، فلا نستطيع ان نستخدم هذا كعذر لكلام عاطفي، غير موزون، انفعالي، إلخ

انا أنتقد فقط بعض كلام الدكتور غليون بخصوص الجولان و السياسة الخارجية لانه ليس للسوريين مصلحة في هكذا كلام يهضم الحق المشروع للسوريين بالارض، و يتطلع إلى السياسة و الحكومات "الغربية" التي طالما (عفوا) "دعوست" حقوق العرب و لا سيما السوريين.

انا لا انظّر يا رامي، و لا "اتفلسف". اذا كنت تعترض على فحوى ما اقول، فاكتب ما تريد، وربما استفيد. و لكن، اذا كنت تظن انه لا يحق لي ان ادلي برأيي، فما الفرق بينك و بين النظام يا حلو؟

Bassam Haddad wrote on December 10, 2011 at 01:51 AM

Fascinating description of the statements made by the head of the "National Council."


One should learn this new romantic rebuke. May be next time, one may use it, if not to describe what Natenyahu says, but his friends in the Palestinian Authority.

Give me a break. This is not even 'dialectic.' You are trying to represent someone who went to the US to offer his wares for sale - that is his country, in honest terms. He was patted on the back, and told: "Go on. Continue - and we'll see."

I am new to your site. But I am somewhat less convinced, so far, it really stands up to its pretense of its name!

Hermann Helmholtz wrote on December 17, 2011 at 02:31 AM


If a statement that covers treasonable undertones - like giving away of a part of his country gratis to Israel - is merely 'ill-conceived,' would straight treason be 'ill-considered,' or 'badly-thought out'?

Where does the dialectic start and 'political' massages begin?

Hermann Helmholtz wrote on February 03, 2012 at 05:56 PM

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