NOW Lebanon, 7 September 2011

Yassin Al Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer and political dissident who is wanted by the Syrian regime for his pro-democracy activism and has been in hiding since the popular uprising—and the government’s subsequent bloody crackdown—began this spring. Saleh already knows well the kind of retribution the Syrian government doles out to dissidents, having spent 16 years in jail for his involvement in the pro-democracy movement before being released in the mid-1990s. But he has kept up his activism from hiding and writes regularly for Al-Hayat newspaper about the situation in his country.

NOW Lebanon spoke to Saleh about the Syrian opposition’s activities and how the ouster of Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi will affect their morale and strategy. 

What does Moammar Qaddafi’s downfall mean for the Syrian people and regime?

Yassin Al Haj Saleh: For many Syrians, Qaddafi’s fall represents something that they look forward to emulating in Damascus. It gives them great hope in bringing about change in Syria and, maybe, in allowing their case to receive greater world interest.

I think that Qaddafi’s fall is a bad omen for the Syrian regime because it normalized its rule by taking advantage of the steadfastness of Arab rulers and the plans made by some of them to bequeath power to their sons. Following the fall of Qaddafi, and those of [Tunisian President Zeineddine] Ben Ali and [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak before him, it emerges today as the greatest rogue and “unnatural” regime of all. Therefore, it must end.

Do you believe that the West will try to shift its military operations toward Syria? Why?

Saleh: I think this is unlikely in the near future. The West’s approach to regional issues is based on stability rather than on democracy. Western forces have turned with excruciating slowness to exerting pressure on the regime as it emerged as an ever-increasing threat to stability and as it became apparent that Syria would transform into a melting pot for chaos that would extend to the whole region.

Moreover, the West does not have any immediate interest in intervening in Syria, and no significant Syrian forces are requesting such an intervention.

A Western military intervention may be possible in one case: If the regime starts committing broad-scale massacres with victims in the thousands. In this case, such an intervention would acquire a humanitarian aspect and may be accepted by larger swaths of the Syrian population.

From my part, I hope that nothing of the sort happens, not only to avoid numerous victims, but also because Syria would lose its independence, and Syrian society would be violently torn apart in the event of a Western intervention.

How are Libya and Syria similar to one another, and how do they differ?

Saleh: The Syrian uprising is essentially peaceful, whereas many Libyans turned to weapons early on. The Syrian regime is more established and essential within the Arab and Middle Eastern system than Qaddafi’s regime, which did not have any friends. Libya has a lot of good-quality oil and is very geographically close to Europe, whereas Syria has [not very much] oil and is geographically close to Israel, which occupies Syrian territory. This makes the Syrians sensitive to the West and to Western interventions, and this will rise again to the surface once the Syrian regime falls.

Now that there are talks about the formation of a  Transitional Council in Syria, what do you think of it? How can it be representative?

Saleh: The council that was declared last week in Ankara is not as representative as it should be, but this might be the least of its problems. It was established without the knowledge of many people whose names were mentioned as council members, including myself. And this cannot be. Things should abide by logic, and what is being inadequately built will not work.

Nevertheless, this bears witness to the feeling harbored by many Syrians within the opposition and the uprising, whereby the uprising needs to have a political face that represents it, speaks and potentially negotiates in its name. This representative body would take up the political leadership of the uprising and address the threats of political void in the event of the regime’s fall. This would also help project Syrian affairs on the regional and international levels.

In what way do the Syrians need a transitional council today?

Saleh: They need a political leadership or an “alternative” to cover for it during the transitional period following the fall of the regime, or to act as the unified political reference of the opposition and the uprising. However, the multiplication of initiatives, all of which failed to achieve reasonable unanimity, was detrimental to all of them, and, rather than providing an alternative, seems to have deepened the feeling that there is no such alternative.

To what extent are calls for arming the Syrian opposition true?

Saleh: You mean how important and useless are they?

I think they represent worrying indicators to the influence of the Libyan model, to the fact that patience has run out and, of course, to anger vis-à-vis the regime’s persisting repression and killing of protesting Syrians. These calls are still marginal and isolated, but they are likely to muster additional support if the regime continues on the same path, especially given the rampant feeling across the country that the Syrians are left to their own devices, and that the Arabs and the world left them at the mercy of a regime that knows no limits when it comes to violence.

In my opinion, this call is dangerous because it means drifting toward a terrain where the regime possesses a certain advantage; hence, it is tantamount to sacrificing peaceful protests to the benefit of a costlier and less fruitful armed activity. This goes without mentioning the blow to the moral superiority of a peaceful popular movement calling for freedom in the face of a killer regime. Furthermore, it will narrow down the uprising’s social base and will push armed people to the forefront. Violence is elitist and minority-related, whereas the current uprising is social and democratic.

For all these reasons, armament will eventually spell the end of the uprising without providing any guarantees that the regime will be brought down.