By Scott W. Winchell
On Tuesday, August 7, 2012, three SUA staff members met with two senior members of the Syrian National Council (SNC) via Skype in our continuing series on the revolution in Syria. The meeting was arranged by SUA’s Middle East Adviser, Nagi N. Najjar, who once again provided SUA with unprecedented access to top leadership in the fight to free Syria from the clutches of its dictator.
The SNC struggles to get its message out to the world and knows it is being outplayed by regime propaganda, complicit nations like Iran, and much of the world is buying into it. The world is accepting a lot of this propaganda and it is evident in the media, where debunked items are still parroted, most of which is being absorbed as truth due to that repetition.
Heinous acts have been committed, and then blame falls upon the FSA, all arising from meddling forces to convince the world that extremism is the motivating factor behind the uprising and civil war. They see American politicians sitting on their hands because of the impending elections where politics trumps policy and massacres. This allows others to buy loyalty from the Syrians. This open door allows the nefarious to have more sway than the West, at least in the short term.
Initially the group discussed the recent meeting the SNC had in Moscow with Russian Federation leaders. They described that set of meetings as being quite professional, open, and straight forward. Recognizing that the future of Syria must address Russian interests, they met to gauge the sense of how they could move forward in their struggle and were met by a divided message. Several attending the meetings were open to the removal of Bashar al-Assad, but hard-liners like Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov continued to resist all talk of removing him.
The SNC understands from its point of view that Lavrov’s resistance is not necessarily indicative of the country’s overall opinion of Assad, in fact there is a tide of ill-will among many Russians over the angst Assad has brought to their doorstep. The SNC leadership also recognizes that the Syrian people have developed a deep dislike for Russia, and they blame Russia for much of their problems today. This dilemma is a major hurdle the SNC must deal with because any final solution must involve the Russians, and they would like to keep Russia as a friend.
The SNC told us that they believe that the Russians fear one thing more than any other – a Salafist takeover of the country. Despite assurances from the SNC, Lavrov and the hard-liners fear an outcome similar to Libya and Egypt. However, Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Mikhail Bobdanov and Gennady Gatilov are more resigned to the understanding that Assad must go. This division puts Putin in a difficult position because he is fighting dissension, and Syria is one key to his ability to quell some of that dissension. Assad made a career out of buying Russian support, and many are deeply tied to those deals.
In some ways, Putin is very interested in what Israel thinks, and no longer considers Assad staying in charge as the least harmful position in the region. This indicates to the SNC leadership that the once intransigent wall of support for Assad is breaking down. Since the Syrian public has supplanted their anger with Israel and the US with Russia, even the Russians understand they are not negotiating from a strong hand with the people anymore. There is wide spread vitriol amongst the public toward Russia and even the Orthodox Church is sympathetic to the ouster of Assad.
Any form of brinkmanship on the part of Russia risks a total anti-Russian stance by the people, so the SNC expressed the need for Russia to help the inevitable end, and re-earn a once favorable spot in the heart of the people. The Russians have much to lose, though they state that the Port of Tartus is not a priority, the SNC knows it is. With this in mind, they are willing to accept growth in this area, along with its requisite financial and economic expansion.
As the SNC is the de facto political arm for the revolution, they do recognize that they represent many factions, even the less desirable radical wings of the people. As the “umbrella”, they indicated to us that Syria is much different than their Arab friends in Egypt. They were adamant to point out that as a nation; the people are far more diverse, liberal, and secular in Syria. Syrians are very tired of dictatorial powers, no matter from which political or religious stripe, and just want to move on to a peaceful existence pursuing their own ends. The highly educated Syrian society generally pursues entrepreneurial goals, the pursuit of stability and economic success, all quite different than their brothers in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood is much stronger and more fundamentally radical than in Syria.
They understand they must work with the Muslim Brotherhood, but at the same time they are confident the power will be shared in a secular fashion. SUA specifically asked the SNC to define its understanding of Democracy and all its variety, and they were quick to point out that they did not want to be a one-election democracy that was quickly replaced with a more dictatorial government as occurred in Iran. The SNC was also quick to point out that they have been working on a new structure for a long time.
They would not name anyone they felt would emerge as the new leader of Syria, but rather focused on the need to establish unity, and allow the people to speak. What they fear in naming possible successors is outside interference being applied. If no one knows who is emerging, then they control their destiny. This also allows them to shake all branches of the tree – to see what falls their way. The last thing they need are more strings attached to purchased loyalties.
They understand the concept of a “mob-ocracy” as seen elsewhere creating the tyranny of the majority. They were quite firm in that regard. They spoke of the many factions that had or will declare themselves the transitional government of the future but cautioned these factions to considered attaining legitimacy first and foremost.
Legitimacy in their eyes stems not only from the will of their people, but from the international stage. The SNC has almost completed their “Day After Project”, and an Arabic version is due to be released this month. Right now, they have a very large group across the globe working on these plans, and groups such as the GCC have been quite supportive.
In that plan, they address five key aspects:
They stressed that they are comprised of many more minority groups that must not be sidelined, but rather welcomed into the dialogue. The sense of the council is that Syrians will fight against any one group forcing its position on others and that excludes any type of theocratic government, let alone another dictatorship. They well remember the mistakes of the past, especially when France tried to separate the peoples into four separate entities that ended up in the emergence of the Ba’ath Party in 1963.
They recognize that Islam is a strong unifier, and that cries of Allah hu Akbar emanate from the mouths of all, but they describe that more as nationalistic cry than one of religious fervor. They fear extremism most, and pointed out many examples they have learned from. The Salafists, fanatics as they referred to them, will not be tolerated by the people. Despite life under a heavy handed government, the last thing they want is another version of that.
The End Game
The SNC members described who was left in the regime, and who the defectors are, and how that impacts the end game for Assad. The regime is now down to its elite forces, those who are desperate to protect themselves from revenge, and the desire to hold onto their positions of wealth and power. These are the people very unlikely to defect. The ones who have defected are primarily those who were conscripted into the armed forces, as military service was mandatory under the Assad Regime. Defectors are easily trusted because many were ill treated; and had to work very hard to escape with their lives and that of their families.
The Assad regime is famous for kidnapping family members to force loyalty, especially among the political class and diplomatic corps. A recent example of this deals with the Finance Minister of the regime. Mohammad Jlailati had attempted to escape according to our SNC and FSA sources, but was re-captured by regime forces, placed under house arrest, his communication devices were confiscated, and then he was forced to make a media statement denying the whole episode.
Additionally, the regime was rife with secret cabals and everyone watching everyone else to find ways to gain favor from the regime. This has now fallen apart, and Assad is left with his trusted Shi’ite brethren only. One other major reason for the number of defections was the fact that soldiers had to watch their own neighborhoods being shelled and shredded. When it became known which area was to be hit, soldiers would leave to preserve their own families and loved ones over the regime’s orders. Until now, no Alawites have defected; when that changes, they now it will be the end, the most dangerous time of all.
When asked about anticipated next steps the regime may employ in their desperation, they saw little in the way of surprises. They did acknowledge that Iran would stay to the bitter end, and as we see from recent meetings with Assad, they have declared that they will not allow him to fall. The do see Russia capitulating soon though, out of necessity. However, the SNC does fear that the conflict may spread into a regional conflict, but they were confident that neighboring states would not allow this, including Russia. It sounds a bit academic, and maybe even naïve, but they do have a point – right up to and until Iran makes the next chess move.
The two members of the SNC reminded us in conclusion how this all started – peaceful uprising, mostly by the youth, not the ideologues. They assured us therefore that extremists will be easily neutralized. Throughout this entire ordeal, the “cost of change” has been the greatest fear. Initially, that cost was comfortable as peaceful protests, and it was the regime that forced the hand of change by attacking and killing its own people. Dictatorial existentialism is seared into their psyche as a people, and all they wish for is to join the community of nations as a productive peaceful society at peace, even with its neighbor Israel with whom they are prepared to trade peace for land, with assurances and security from the US in place to seal a deal.
With these laudable intentions, we asked them why the western nations were holding back. The answers were three:
Stay tuned, much more to come from our daily interaction with these senior level contacts and sources.
NOTE – Denise Simon, SUA Research and Analysis Director was part of the team, in the five way 90 minute interview.