Afra Jalabi: Syrian opposition debates role of international support and
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.
At The Real News, in terms of our coverage of Syria, we’re trying to give a voice or a platform for a spectrum of the debate that’s taking place amongst Syrians inside and outside the country. Of course, it’s very difficult to connect with people inside the country, especially when they’re critical of the Syrian government, but we will be doing more of that.
But now joining us to give her perspective is Afra Jalabi. She’s a Syrian Canadian who’s also a member of the Syrian National Council. She’s also a member of the editorial board of The Journal of Law and Religion at Hamline University and worked as a columnist in the Arab press for the last 12 years. And she joins us now from Montreal. Thanks for joining us, Afra.
AFRA JALABI, MEMBER OF SYRIAN NATIONAL COUNCIL: Thank you for having me on the show.
JAY: So the debate seems to be pivotingâ€”if you’re talking the debate within the opposition forcesâ€”on whether or not the opposition should be armed. And many have called for thatâ€”Qatar has called for it, Saudi Arabia have called for it. The U.S. seems to be on the fence about it, although you hear from John McCain and the neoconservatives in Congress that they want that and perhaps more. There’s another point of view, which straightforwardly calls for some kind of outside intervention. And there’s also a point of view which is expressed to a large extent by people in Syria in the opposition, if I understand it correctly, the non-armed opposition, if you will, that foreign intervention and external players should stay out of this, and that there may need to be some sort of negotiation with this regime as part of a transition. You’re a member of the Syrian National Council, and at least the official position of the SNC, if I understand correctly, is in favor of some kind of armed intervention and the arming of the opposition. What’s your point of view?
JALABI: Well, I mean, at the SNC, the majority views in the assembly, they feel that the Syrian people have been pushed to their limits. Now we’re speaking about numbers that could be getting to even 10,000 fallen heroes, including many women and children. We’re getting numbers that over 700 children were killed. And recently there has been massacres in Karm al-Zeitoun, a small area, a small village near Homs, and also in Idlib. The Syrian regime is using tactics of terror and trying to build back the wall of fear.
So when you have a situation that drastic, then you would have a huge debate and an intense debate on the best way of approaching this or getting out of this bloodshed and ways to stop the bloodshed. So there are many people who think that if there will not be in the SNCâ€”and many people in the opposition, even on the ground, they feel that if there won’t be intervention, external intervention, then let the people defend themselves. However, some of us, including myself, believe this is a dangerous option, because you have a civilian population that is not trained militarily, and that arming civilians would actually create further chaos.
Then there are other people who say no, this will not be arming the civilians, but rather giving arms to the soldiers who have defected from the army already, in order to protect the civilians, because they have sworn protection to the Syrian people and they’ve found themselves in positions where they have to shoot at the people and they refuse to do that, and they declined orders, and they disobeyed orders to do so and joined the Free Syrian Army
So, I mean, you have all these difficulties, because you haveâ€”basically it comes down to the situation on the ground. You have a civilian population in residential areas, in towns, in villages thatâ€”under attack. You have a regime that has waged full-scale war on its own people. What do you do in a situation like this? Do you leave it in the hands of the civilians? I think this is wrong. I think the international community has to get involved. You don’t put the onus on the people themselves, you don’t give the responsibility to protect [crosstalk]
JAY: But what does that mean, the international community gets involved? ‘Cause we saw when the international community got involved in Libya it gave rise to full-scale warfare and probably thousands more deaths than might have happened otherwise. The Syrian army’s a pretty powerful force. If you’re talking about outside military intervention, you’re talking a major, large-scale war.
JALABI: No, I’m not talking military intervention. I’m saying that perhaps we have not really used our international pressure with the Syrian regime. There could be so many things that could be done that would isolate that regime further. They could be more punitive measures. They could be a diplomatic isolation where there would be a complete withdrawal of the recognition of the Syrian regime. There would beâ€”I mean, we could do things like declare the Syrian regime as a terrorist entity in the world. I mean, you know, many people consider al-Qaeda a terrorist organization for having killed 3,000 people or claiming to have done so. The Syrian regime has killed close to 10,000 civilians. And you haveâ€”according to the UN, actually, you have 230,000 people who are homeless in Syria and outside Syria, and 100,000 of them are wandering or hiding in other cities or in their relatives’ homes inside Syria.
JAY: But how do you deal with the critique of that, that, you know, might acknowledge everything you’re saying about what the Assad regime has done, but if you’re going to call the Assad regime terrorist, what you do with the Americans, American government and its role in Iraq, which killed, certainly, tens of thousands of people more? Now, I’m not suggesting, because the Americans did bad things in Iraq, that somehow excuses what Assad is doing. But on the other hand, if you’re going to label one terrorist, then, you know, why don’t you alsoâ€”you could talk about Israel and other countries as well.
JALABI: In fact, I mean, this is the sad thing, because we saw how Syria now has become the subject of the Chinese and Russian vetoes, and we see this happening repeatedly every year with the Palestinians. You have human rights violations in Israel, and the United States comes and protects Israel and vetoes the entire will of the international community and blocks that will from taking place. And so we’re seeing this. And I think the Syrian situation at the moment is exasperating the image of the international community. We have institutionalized dictatorship at the global level. I mean, when you have something like the veto right in the Security Council, you basically have institutionalized dictatorship and you have a situation where the international community is blocked from taking real action to protect human rights and to protect the interests of people on the ground [crosstalk]
JAY: But isn’t the problem part of theâ€”.
JALABI: [crosstalk] protecting their own interests. Go ahead.
JAY: Well, that’sâ€”isn’t that part of the problem is that this international community interested in human rights is kind of a fantasy? There is many countries with their own interests that fish in troubled waters.
JALABI: This is, I think, the real issue that we’re all facing, because the nation state has been able to develop in a way where they established, each nation state, the rule of law, but at the international level we don’t have the rule of law. It seems it’s economic interest and political interest that drive foreign policies.
JAY: What do you make of the criticism that some people have made that outside playersâ€”and in this case we’re talking particularly Qatar, Saudi Arabia, who also playedâ€”the same countries played this role in Libyaâ€”which is they kind of push a militarization of the opposition movement to a level that’s past what would be developed just domestically or internally, and it kind of creates more severe crisis, even though one can put most of the blame on Assad’s regime for the repression of peaceful protesters, but that when you militarize the oppositionâ€”and then, of course, with Qatar and Saudi Arabiaâ€”and United States, probablyâ€”picking its winners, the forces it wants to arm, that it raises this to a level that almost demands some kind of foreign intervention at some point, and in the final analysis actually is worse in terms of the well-being of the people, versus a protest movement that, yes, suffers from the repression but builds its forces over time? What do you make of that critique that external players have militarized this more than it might have been otherwise?
JALABI: Look, I mean, you know, when you have external players, of course they will push their own agendas. But on the other hand, you have a civilian population on the ground that is going through a severe kind of attack at the moment.
JAY: My understanding is there’s a debate in Syria (and I guess with ex-pats outside amongst them as well) whether or not there should be some kind of negotiations, rather than an armed struggle for regime change. What do you make of that debate?
JALABI: The SNC and many opposition groups are very open and willing to do negotiations, but on one condition, that Assad himself steps down. And then the process of negotiation will start, even theâ€”even to the level of accepting that his deputy steps into power and takes over the presidential responsibilities. So I think really what we’re facing now here is an individual despot who is refusing to step down. I mean, isn’t it ironic that you have the entire destiny and fate of a whole nationâ€”of a whole nationâ€”in the hands of one person, hanging in the hands of one person?
JAY: Well, is that really what it is? Or is it the regime and the elite who Assad represents? Is it not they don’t want to show that they’re going to capitulate? ‘Cause if they throw Assad under the bus, it means they’ve capitulated to the opposition. But why make Assad the issue if in fact his replacement will be, essentially, more of the same thing?
JALABI: Because he is the issue, because this is a family situation, it’s a dynasty, it’s a mafia-like family that has ruled the country for 42 years. Eleven years ago, when the father died, the country was handed down to the younger son. There was an older son who died in a car crash before the father died, and Bashar al-Assad was brought back from London after having been there for just a few months to do his ophthalmology training, and the country was handed down to him. In fact, many people don’t know that in a few minutes the Syrian constitution was changed to fit his age, because at the time he was too young to be the president of Syria. I mean, this is how ridiculous the situation is.
If the family steps down, then the fate of Syria will be different, because then there will be the beginning of the possibility for negotiations and for reform, and then people probably can work with some of the elements of the old regime whose hands have not been bloodied with Syrian blood and who have not stolen that much money. So there would be many people who would be, I think, suitable to replace the current leaders. There are a few leaders [crosstalk]
JAY: Now, there’sâ€”.
JALABI: [crosstalk] the Syrian people are completely adamant about not wanting to see in power.
JAY: And what do you make of the critique of the Syrian National Council that it’s too tied up with some of the external player? Saudis and Qataris are doing exactly what you said could be terrible, which is they’re arming their allies in the opposition. They’reâ€”and they’re openly calling for (and we assume are) sending arms to these groups.
JALABI: Yeah, I know. So whatâ€”I mean, when you have a situation this desperate, so it becomes a vulnerable situation, it becomes a vulnerable context, because the cost to human life is extremely highâ€”.
JAY: The point is, going forward, what’s in the interest and well-being of the Syrian people? And if you wind up withâ€”as you said right at the beginning of the interview, of armed sections of the population in a widespread civil war, I don’t see how that advances the interests or the well-being of the Syrian people. And, number two, I thinkâ€”do you not acknowledge Assad still maintains a significant amount of support in Syria? There’s a civil war going on in Syria.
JALABI: This is whyâ€”yeah. This is why explain to the Syrian people who are actually favoring the armed option that many of us who keep telling them that this is not a viable option, because, first of all, you don’t have theâ€”I mean, you have the Syrian regime army that is armed to the teeth, and it has been waiting for a moment like this for the last 42 years. So, basically, the best option would beâ€”but I’m afraid that perhaps we are beyond that point, but it would be wonderful if people regained their own momentum and the power they had at the beginning of this revolution and go back to the nonviolent means of resistance. And the difficulty is that when you have a situation when you have a population that’s under attack, it becomes very hard for them to think rationally and strategically.
My own suggestion is that you had cities, actually, where they were demonstrating and going out, and without the protection of the Free Syrian Army. And sometimes, in fact, when the army came into these towns and the snipers got on the buildings, the people actually withdrew, they slowed down, and they waited until the army left town, and then they would go back. And so people sometimes were saying, no, look at other towns where the Free Syrian Army is protecting the people and they can continue protesting and the revolution hasn’t died, and these other towns have withdrawn from the revolution, which is not true. They never withdrew from the revolution. What was happening: they were networking further, they were creating flyers, newspapers, local newspapers, and they were coming up with strategies.
So it’sâ€”I think it’s extremely important for the people to realize that they need to rely on their own civic disobedience and on strategies, on civil strategies of disobedience to topple this regime. And then the way the international community will come to help them would be a cherry on the pie. It would be a different kind of intervention. It would not be an intervention, as you rightly pointed out, where other powers will be driving the agenda of the Syrians.
But this is why we need to support these groups inside Syria whose voice is being drowned now by the armed options or by the militarization options, because people are saying this: we are dying and nobody is hearing us out. What you want us to do? We need to defend ourselves. Whenâ€”and when they defend themselves, the situation becomes exasperating. So it has become a vicious cycle of defense and attack.
And, in fact, the areas where the Free Syrian Army went and in fact were devastated and were shelled, yes, for a few days the Syrian people in those towns or cities, they experienced security because the security forces and the thugs no longer abuse them and they no longer walk on their buildings, or, you know, snipers no longer arrive in these towns.
But what happens? Something worse. The army arrives and it starts shelling residential areas, as we saw in Baba Amr. So it’s extremely frustrating for people like me to make people understand that the armed option is not going to work. In fact, it’s giving the Syrian regime itself momentum, because that’s where its power lies, in violence, in terror, in arms, and our power lies in our morality and in our ethics and in our ability to dismantle the sources of power of this regime. But, I mean, you know, you know what’s happening on the ground. When you have people dying, it’s very hard to organize and to regroup in moments of despair.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.
JALABI: Thank you.
JAY: Thank you very much for joining us on The Real News Network.
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