[This interview was conducted by Jadaliyya Co-Editor Ibtisam Azem and first published in Arabic by Qantara. It was translated into English by Ziad Abu-Rish and Khuloud.]
In the following conversation with Ibtisam Azem, a prominent Syrian opposition figure and Professor of Political Sociology at the Sorbonne, Burhan Ghalyoun, argues that the Syrian revolution has broken the backbone of the ruling regime in Syria. Ghalyun emphasized that the Syrian opposition will not engage the regime in a dialogue that does not lead to a peaceful transition to real democracy. He also stressed that the opposition vehemently rejects military intervention or any use of force, sedition or sectarianism.
Ibtisam Azem (IA): What is your reading of the current situation in Syria several months since the launch of the largest protest movement against the ruling regime?
Burhan Ghalyoun (BG): There is no doubt that Syria is going through a transformative period. We have reached the point of no return after months of peaceful protests and marches, and we must look towards the future. Even the republic’s president himself admitted that there is a need to look towards the future when he said, "I am convinced now that there must be reform."
The future will test the nature of his conviction and its credibility. However, at least the regime concedes that after months of violent and bloody killings by thugs and security forces, the “security path” has reached a dead end. Dialogue must be initiated with the opposition. Now, the regime is manipulating this dialogue, but has no choice but to recognize the opposition.
The goal of dialogue is to transition towards democracy. Leaving matters vague—meaning that people will exchange ideas amongst themselves—is an attempt to confuse the situation and to waste time. I think that the regime is faced with two options today. The first is a dialogue for the sake of serious dialogue, the goal of which should be announced from the onset as seeking to achieve democracy. The second option is to move towards more violent confrontations that will require the regime to use ever greater force. This will lead to protesters gathering in greater numbers and anti-regime masses growing larger. For example, last Friday`s marches were bigger than previous Fridays. I believe that confrontations are ongoing, and we have not yet left the arena of confrontation.
IA: You say that confrontations are ongoing and are actually fiercer than the past. Yet we observe that there is a silent segment in Syria, one that you have pointed out in your article. Who is silent? And what are the reasons for their silence?
BG: I believe that there actually is a significant, not-so-small group of Syrians who remain silent. One of the main reasons for their silence is their concern for stability. Here, we are speaking of businessmen, professionals, manufacturers, and economists. The livelihoods of these people require stability, and they believe that the Asad regime secures this stability.
Now, and this is why I raised this subject, I believe that we are moving towards a new phase during which the silent group is becoming convinced that it is impossible to guarantee stability by returning to the old system. Such a return is impossible after three months of bloody struggle that has resulted in a large number of dead and injured persons, including martyrs. This group is faced with two choices: either to persist in silence and allow the country to further deteriorate and thus compromise their interests or to consider being partners towards democracy and thereby become a contributing factor to establish a new stability. I believe that they will choose, both for rational reasons and out of self-interest, to become partners in a new stable system in Syria. The faster they make this choice, the more sacrifices they will save Syria from having to make, including the possibility of an economic collapse.
This class of merchant stakeholders is important for resolving the struggle, especially in big cities like Damascus and Aleppo, where this critical class plays an important role. This situation will only be resolved if they join the democratic alternative and claim that there cannot be a new stability without a democratic system.
IA: What is your assessment of the fear of sectarian strife in the event of the fall of the current regime? Are these fears realistic in Syria?
BG: I do not believe that Syria is threatened by sectarian strife because there is no Syrian group who believes in a sectarian solution or who has deep sectarian leanings. The Syrian political arena is not devoid of sectarian tensions. However, Syrians want freedom, peace, equality, rule of law, and salvation from an era in which the rule of law was destroyed by the regime of the Ba`athist sect. This sect is the one Syrians have come to hate. Syrians desire a transition from this regime—which has emptied the state and its institutions from any real meaning as a result of its control of intelligence services and the state`s sect—to a democratic system that respects freedoms, rights, as well as people as individuals. I do not believe that there is even the spirit of revenge.
There are minorities within these sects who hold sectarian grudges and understandings. However, the majority of Syrians and members of all of the country’s sects want to get rid of a regime of violence, revenge, and murder. They want to replace it with a modern, civilian political system within which people feel that each human being, along with their rights, is respected and is equal to others. If we look at the revolution’s slogans and at the behavior of revolutionaries, we see that they have thus far resisted all sectarian incitements. This confirms that the Syrian people want unity, freedom, and a civilian state. They have also rejected to carry arms, while not engaging in sectarianism. Those who call for sectarianism are few, and we do not know if they are “planted” by the regime.
IA: What is the role being played by the Syrian opposition? To what degree is there coordination within it, especially between those members who are in Syria and those who are abroad?
BG: In terms of the opposition outside of Syria, large organizations with political weight are a new phenomenon. The opposition abroad is the product of Syrian expatriates who feel that the situation has changed and they now have a role to play. They are eager to play a role in Syria, and they do not have established or consolidated political viewpoints. They are attempting to be a political force that supports the Syrian revolution and helps move the country towards democracy. They do not represent a danger, and they are not divided. However, they do not possess political experience. They organize themselves by means of different conferences. But this does not at all represent a danger. Those abroad also do not compete with the domestic Syrian opposition, so there is no problem in this regard.
As for the domestic opposition, it has fallen short until now and has been slow to organize itself. It is organized into two main groups: the Damascus Declaration group and the National Democratic Gathering. Each group includes several political parties. These groups are the organized domestic Syrian opposition. In addition, youth coordinating committees (tansiqiyyat) today form the backbone of the entire Syrian opposition. Youth are organized within the framework and context of the work and mission they are carrying out: the organization of marches and protests, while also confronting the violence of the regime. They have matured politically. An important document published by these local coordinating committees is until now the best written statement issued by any Syrian side, including opposition political parties. The Union of Coordinating Committees has issued a similar statement, but in lesser detail. It includes over eighty percent of the coordinating committees. Furthermore, the organization now has official spokespersons.
Opposition parties still require more initiative, meaning they are beginning to become organized, as we saw in the Damascus Declaration; they have started holding meetings to activate themselves. Additionally, the Democratic National Gathering has resumed its different movements. I believe that they are getting ready to work as an organized opposition. What they lack is experience and an official spokesperson who knows how to handle daily developments in order to comment on events and direct these movements. This will happen in the coming phase. What is more important is that there are no divisions inside the opposition. There is no competition between its different parts. Everyone believes in the "three no`s" that I mentioned earlier and have one goal.
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. I believe that there is much agreement among the opposition, although there is a lack of expression of unity in the its stance as a result of the lack of experience and pressure due to state security apparatuses. As you know, a large section of the opposition’s leadership is in hiding; another section, like Najati Tayarrah, is imprisoned; and yet another section lives underground and does not dare walk in public to avoid being arrested. So a part of the opposition’s problem is the severe repression practiced by the Syrian regime upon it.
However, I believe that today’s regime is in a defensive posture. It attempted the impossible and now, with a broken backbone, cannot continue with its policy of repressing the opposition. On the contrary, some regime members have started to search for an exit through formal dialogue. However, even those who do not enter into formal dialogue will find themselves confronted by an opposition, with all its components, who refuses to agree to anything short of the goal of attaining democracy. The issue, naturally, is not one of dialogue. The issue is how we can peacefully transition to democracy to spare our people from new casualties.
IB: Let us touch upon the topic of external and international pressures on the ruling regime in Syria. In your view, how can these pressures affect the course of things in Syria?
BG: To start off, Syrians will determine the fate of Syria. The opposition is betting on the power of Syrian youth and their readiness to make sacrifices, which is no longer a matter of debate. The international position in support of condemning the Syrian regime in the United Nations Security Council, as well the opposition by China and Russia to this, is of course important. But this remains secondary. Its importance is for the Syrian people, who are fighting a savage regime, to feel that there is international pressure and international action. Also important is for people to see what is happening and know that crimes do not go without punishing those responsible for them.
In my opinion, the main message of support for the Syrian people has been issued. Europe has taken a clear stance, even if the Security Council will not pass a resolution condemning violence by the Syrian government. The United Nations Secretary General and other leaders have also taken a critical stance. A part of what we want with respect to international pressure is present in current European positions. In any case, there is no opposition force calling for military intervention.
We want assistance with legal issues pertaining to human rights and the reporting of rights’ violations. We ask Western countries to put pressure on the Syrian regime to allow the entry of foreign and Arab journalists and an external free press to monitor what is happening on the ground and to break the media siege that the regime is undertaking. Also important to us is the entry of human rights committees to investigate existing crimes and killings. This will happen. For example, the Syrian regime has started, after much pressure, to allow the International Red Cross to enter into some areas in Syria. Human rights organizations need to be able to enter into all parts of Syria to see the regime’s crimes, publicize them, and thereby deter the regime from committing such crimes.
IA: What is your assessment of the role played by neighboring regional powers, especially the role of Iran and Turkey?
BG: The regional situation is more important to us than the international situation. The regional situation is the one that will have a greater effect on the Syrian situation. With respect to the regional situation, I mean the role of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. These countries have a major role to play. Perhaps what is limiting progress on this front are misunderstandings between these regional powers. Iran wants Syria to remain a bridge to Lebanon and a central axis in their policy of opposition to the West. Turkey wants Syrian stability because the Turks have made Syria a strategic ally and are the ones with the largest economic interests and investments in Syria. Also, with respect to Arabs, Syria is an important part of the Arab rank and file. Therefore, the Saudis are afraid that transformations in Syria will reflect negatively on them.
I believe that when the circumstances mature, which will be soon if the situation in Syria reaches an intractable point, the solution will be a regional conference with mediation by these powers for the purpose of finding a solution. This is what makes me say that there is no danger of a civil war or a military intervention. Because there is so much competition and opposition between various regional interests, no one country can enter Syria or take a position without taking into consideration the positions and interests of other countries. The regional situation may be to our advantage and not necessarily against us. Syrians must not fear a regional solution, because it could create balance. Therefore, I would say that the decisive factor is a Syrian one, and it lies in winning over the hesitant silent group. I believe this will happen soon since the current regime no longer provides it with stability, which is what secures this hesitant group its economic interests
IA: What is the role of leftist forces in Arab countries? And what is your assessment of the role of intellectuals in these countries with respect to the Syrian revolution?
BG: The left is no longer an effective force in the dynamics of such transformations. There is a powerful dynamic at play, and it is not subject to this side or that side. The role that the left can play is to mobilize the Arab elite to support the revolutions, including Syria’s revolution, and not remain unbiased. In other words, I see a big role for Arab intellectuals, even though they–like the opposition–have not moved quickly. This is especially the case with Syrian intellectuals. Some have signed petitions and the like. But this is not enough. A part of them remains poisoned by the idea that the regime is the foundation for an opposition and resistance to Israel, even though Rami Makhlouf, one of the regime’s pillars, stated that the security and stability of Israel is tied to the stability of Syria’s current regime.
I believe that intellectuals will contribute more moving forward, since the fig leaf has fallen. It has become clear that this is not a rejectionist regime. Nor does the regime say that it is a rejectionist regime. The regime is actually begging Israel and other states to secure its existence so as to secure their interests.
IA: How do you view the role of Palestinians, including those in refugee camps, in light of what is currently happening in Syria?
BG: Contrary to some impressions, the camps and the Palestinian people present in Syria and other parts of the world are sympathetic to the Syrian revolution. Of course, there are organizations or sides working under the Syrian security apparatus, as in the case of Yarmouk Camp where several victims died. But the incident there was an affirmative indicator of Palestinians’ support for the Syrian people. Syrians do not feel that the Palestinians in Syria are guests or refugees and do not treat them as such. They are a part of the Syrian people.
Palestinians and Syrians will be one hand. There is no danger for the Palestinian cause in the shadow of a democratic Syrian system. The Syrian people are closest to the Palestinian people, and they are more protective of the Palestinian cause, the Golan Heights, and Arab solidarity than the current regime whose leaders have made the country feudal and do not care for anything except for protecting their own interests and existence.
[Click here for the original Arabic version of this interview.]