[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.
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?