Q: You founded the “National Coordination Body’’ with the aim of taking part in the popular movement and to represent it. How did this movement emerge? Why did its demands radicalize into overthrowing the regime?
The popular movement is in fact a political revolution, the result of a long political history. The objective conditions have been mounting to transfer the dynamics of this movement from the intellectual space to society at large. We were astonished nevertheless. It was similar to what we had been dreaming of, even though it came about in a different form. The mass movement does not follow routine classifications and preconceptions. It is not a revolution of workers or peasants or organized political forces. This has confused many, for the history of the political movement in Syria is one of organized forces, not of spontaneous masses as in the case of Egypt. The spontaneity of the recent movement came as a surprise to the Syrian people as well as to the regime and the opposition. Nobody had believed in the possibility of such an event. Therefore the regime considered it a conspiracy. The political forces dealt cautiously with it while some sectors of society are still undecided which side to take.
It is a revolution of the middle and lower classes. But the vacuum caused by decades of oppression, isolating the people from politics, led to an obvious organizational weakness of the parties or rather their remnants. Many are even not aware of the existence of these parties and their struggles. Add to this the absence of real unions that would represent their members’ interests. What does exist are mere union skeletons subordinated to the ruling power. These unions do not defend the interests of their members. Independent civil organizations are absent, as a result of the long-term repression.
As a result, the revolution necessarily is spontaneous and unorganized. Despite the regime’s success in weakening or crushing the organized political, civil and union organizations, the revolution burst forth, as the Syrians’ yearning for freedom, justice and the rule law and for an end to corruption could not be suppressed any more. We believe there are two reasons, both deeply rooted in history:
First, the dictatorship and its corruption with all the generalized suppression of any independent political activity or thought; the horror which constantly haunts Syria’s citizens whenever they deal with political issues in their private and public life; the rule on the basis of decrees and orders, which are often given orally and violate the written law; the exceptions from law for those who are loyal to the regime. The wealth of society has been under control of the regime and its cronies. This is what created the feeling of discrimination at the base of the social pyramid: getting stripped of the most basic civil rights, such as the right to employment, housing, travelling abroad, etc. Meanwhile at the pyramid’s peak, there have been scandalous corruption cases around big deals and investments.
Second, the economic policies of liberalization for private capital adopted since the early 1990s. Under the pressure of the World Bank and other international financial institutions, the doors for Arab and foreign capital were opened. After 2000, these policies were further accelerated. The role of the state in the economy receded in favour of private capital. A new partnership between the new economic elites close to the ruling power and Arab and international capital developed. This opening, however, has been selective and sometimes even random. As these changes began to accumulate, the productive sectors were weakened. These structural deformations of the Syrian economy, which already present before, increased dependence on the world market. This came to the detriment of the lower and middle classes, who before had least to a certain extent secure employment and state welfare. Unemployment soared. All that harmed also the sector of capitalists who are not linked to the ruling power. The escalation of class differentiation resulted in the development of elites with fantastic wealth and unprecedented luxury, whereas the living standard of the middle and lower segments declined sharply.
Those two factors have been amplified by the climate provided by Arab spring. It renewed the hope in change and strengthened the confidence of the people in their capacity to change things. The Arab spring provided the example which the Syrians tried to follow. The Syrians do not consider themselves inferior to any other people. On the contrary, they are proud of their cultural history and deep-rooted civilization.
So all elements for an explosion were ripe when the events in Dar‘a provided the spark that set off the revolution. In Dar‘a, all the elements mentioned above converged and led to the explosion of popular fury. Other regions responded by joining a broad protest movement. Revolutionary conditions began to prevail across different parts of Syria. At first, all moved under the motto of reform. At the beginning, the demands were far from radical, if you compare them with the current stage. People hoped that the authorities would respond to the demands for reform. But what happened was quite the opposite. The regime suppressed the movement with its well-known security measures, coupled with the usual accusations: terrorists, Salafi, Palastinians, Jihadi, etc.
The reform demands clashed with the extremely centralized structure of the Syrian regime. We are talking about a totalitarian regime not only towards society at large, but towards its inner structures, organs and institutions as well. Decision-making is the monopoly of the regime’s head. He shares it with a small group of individuals under his control. The fact that the power structure does not allow new attitudes or forces to come up within its institutions deprives itself the flexibility and the capability to adapt to changes. In front of the new developments it thus could only react in its traditional and mechanical way.
This hardening of the regime came along with a new historic element in the political environment, that is the new media. They provided the communication tools among the activists, enabling them to exchange ideas and to coordinate among themselves. Thus they substituted traditional political communication and mechanisms, which are prohibited in Syria, like press and political meetings. The regime was unable to ban them. Thus the new media could play a major role in revealing the regime’s repressive measures in front of the masses as well as local and international public opinion. This destroyed the policy of hiding the crimes of the regime. So they took place before the watchful eyes of cameras, which deeply disrupted the operation mechanisms of the repressive apparatus. Like elsewhere, they depend on public silence to avoid a public reaction.
Every single case of oppression fuelled further protests, escalating the reactions and radicalizing the political demands. People felt all the more humiliated as their demands were ignored and bloodshed increased. So eventually people came to the conclusion that the regime must be overthrown.
Q: Why has this demand disappeared from your statements, which has enraged parts of the street demonstrations?
This question is right in form but wrong in content. The demand is implicitly included in all our statements. But we did not use the expression literally. To speak of the transition from the present totalitarian regime to a pluralist parliamentary democracy, sticking to Syrian patriotism, actually means to overthrow the regime as well as being concerned with suggesting an alternative. In other words: we differed from those calling for the overthrow of the regime in that we explained and described the system we fight for. Those who are not convinced, should tell us how a patriotic democratic, parliamentary and pluralist regime could be established without overthrowing the current regime.
We later, however, complied with the demand by the revolution in the streets and explicitly raised the slogan of toppling the regime. We can admit that we were at the beginning not successful in translating our concept of change into a simple slogan that suits the mood of a society in revolutionary upheaval like the slogan for overthrowing the regime does. Our political rivals exploited this to the detriment of the interests of the revolution and the people. We overcame this mistake three months after the foundation of the NCB, but had to paying a huge price.
Q: Why was the NCB formed and which currents participate?
For many years, Syrian activists and the political public have been dreaming of building a broad political coalition for democratic change. Various parties on their own or limited coalitions were unable although there was a widespread sentiment for democratic change and for an end of the dictatorship. A first attempt in this context took place in the year 2005 with the formation of the “Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change”, which included many parties and individuals from very different backgrounds. But this attempt failed after two years. Other attempts to create such an alliance followed in 2009, but they didn’t succeed, due to the lack of the necessary political drive. When the uprising broke out in March 2011, it created the required momentum. This is when the “National Coordination Body” came into existence. After three months of extensive and difficult discussions, in which forces and personalities from all the intellectual and ideological trends took part, the NBC was founded on June 30th, 2011. In this process, people such as nationalists, leftists, liberals, enlightened Islamists participated, with Arab, Kurdish and Assyrian backgrounds, representing all the colours of the religious and social spectrum in Syria.
The essential motive for all of us was the formation of a broad political framework that would truly represent the Syrian political spectrum and realize national democratic change. The driving force should essentially be the power of the people and the revolution. The NCB platform was to protect the country against the dangers of a foreign military intervention, of sectarianism and of militarizing the revolution, which would push it into civil war. The initiative rejected the exclusion of any political current, except those who exclude themselves. It demanded to realize democratic change in a way that guarantees the unity of the people and protects national sovereignty. The changes should not be brought about regardless of the means employed and the powers engaged. We have been striving for an historic alternative that would rise from the ruins of the regime.
Thus a political and programmatic differentiation began to crystallize: There were some who vehemently called for change by way of a foreign military intervention, following the Libyan model, discarding any alternative that would replace the existing regime, under the pretext that there is nothing worse than the existing regime. Any alternative would be less bad, despite of the dangers of militarization and civil war towards which certain forces (domestic and external) may push. The NBC firmly rejects this view in principle.
In the first three month after its foundation, fifteen parties and political currents, which constitute the majority of the political parties and groups present on the Syrian political map, joined the NBC. Among them are Arab nationalists, Kurdish and Assyrian parties, various oppositional leftist and Marxist forces as well as enlightened Islamic and liberal personalities. There are prominent intellectual, journalists, writers, etc.
Q: You have been a leading figure of the former Communist Action Party. How do you evaluate the position on the events in Syria of leftist forces in the region and in the world?
The true left in the region and the world has been with the Syrian people and their interests all along. The problem were always Stalinist parties or Soviet satellites. For them, the main criterion is the regime’s position on international conflicts. Whereas leftist principles say that the priority in defining the position towards states and parties should be according to their policies towards their own peoples. We have our critical historic view of this “leftist” deformation. We consider it to be one of the causes for the defeat of the international left which had been established according to the Soviet model while others unfortunately consider it “political realism”. In terms of its emergence, the CWP belongs to the New Left. This left, critical to Stalinism, appeared at a decisive moment in the late sixties of the last century. We remain faithful to this project.
The Syrian regime was actually to the left of the Arab regimes in general, concerning the national issue as well as in some social issues. But often this was only the surface of politics but not in depth. Although being very pragmatic, the regime for its own benefit was eager to remain in this position within the official Arab range. As the whole Arab scene shifted to the right, the Syrian regime without hesitation shifted with it, but was keen to stay on the left wing at the same time. It made continuous efforts to maintain good relations with Latin America, China and other Asian countries to use these relations when it needed them.
This situation changed with the beginning of the current popular revolution, especially when the repressive practices of the regime became obvious. What we see is the core of the regime’s policy which it has been practicing secretly for decades. Its foreign policy, admired by some leftists and patriots, was used as a cover. They were deceived, but as the truth comes to the light of day, the regimes looses its friends and allies one after the other. They are joining the ranks of those who see the necessity to respond to the people’s demands.
It is really astonishing how the regime covers its ears and goes ahead in escalating oppression and brutality. The regime is tightening the noose around its own neck by hardly sparing friends and allies, accusing almost the whole world of conspiring against it and embarrassing the closest of its allies, it is pushing them away.
Q: Since its creation, the NBC has been haunted with accusations that it intends to negotiate with the Syrian regime and that it is less determined than the demands of the mobilisations.
All these accusations come from political forces historically characterized by a mentality of accusing their political rivals of treason and thus excluding them. They also applied this method against dissent among their followers. Actually, people are today revolting against this very culture. We are talking of the method and culture of the totalitarian regime itself. It is understandable that the regime’s decade-long monopoly over political life and the media left strong marks on the public consciousness as well as the political culture. Certainly very serious efforts are required to overcome this culture of accusing others of treason and gratuitously excluding them. We must create a more democratic political culture and behaviour.
Many Arab and foreign political forces and media outlets helped to spread those accusations. They were eager not to give the NBC a chance to defend itself. We were not astonished that we were attacked by foreign forces who are looking for a successor for the regime as well as other forces who serve their interests and have no regard for the national sovereignty of Syria or for the interests of the people and the revolution, because they simply follow their interests. But we did not expect the Syrian political forces to fight with those methods whoever differs from their line. We view them as part of the backwardness and the culture of tyranny. They represent the past which we should leave behind sooner or later and not a part of the revolution and its representation. They are in fact part of the anti-revolutionary forces and of the same nature as the regime itself – although they oppose the Assad regime.
The NBC with respect to its program, its culture, its practice, is the real democratic opponent to the regime. But contrary to the others, it insists on an alternative, a truly democratic regime which responds the demands of the people and the revolution. The NBC refuses to mortgage itself to foreign forces under whatever pretext or theory. It firmly rejects any change which threatens the country with foreign occupation or which mortgage the future of the Syrian people to foreign forces or to those who push the country into civil war. And we reject certain “projects for change” that actually lead to an alternative to the present dictatorial regime which will be no less dictatorial, but could actually outperform it, which would not be less backward, but perhaps exceed it.
This is the reason why the NBC is being fought, besieged and the attempts to distort do not cease. All those who defame us are following only their egoistic interests at the expense of the Syrian people’s interests, its revolution and democratic future, and perhaps its social unity, national sovereignty and social peace.
The persistence of the NBC’s stance for months was the guarantor to expose those false accusations. The regime has been calling for “dialogue” for months, but the NBC is refusing to talk to the regime and has been repeating its own demands: stop the killing, withdraw the army, release the detainees, prosecute those responsible for the crimes and for corruption, all this for the sake of preparing a climate that allows for a political process to deal with the legitimate demands of the people and that leads to the replacement of the dictatorship with a democratic parliamentary pluralistic government. All global and regional powers and voices who join the regime’s appeal for “dialogue” receive the same answer from the NCB. So all those accusations are baseless.
Both the regime and its opponents (who are of the same brood) are pushing the country towards a foreign military intervention, civil war, disintegration of social unity and sectarian conflicts. Meanwhile the NCB strives for a democratic regime, rejects foreign military intervention, sectarianism and militarization.
Dialogue in itself is not a problem, as long as you stick to your principles. It is one method of struggle which might serve the revolution’s goal at a certain stage, depending on the balance of forces. You can sit at the negotiation table with a friend, an enemy or a rival, and remain radical and true to your goals and acting to realize them. Or you can surrender and raise the white flag on the battlefield without dialogue as well. All this has happened many times in history in many parts of the world. Rejecting or accepting dialogue is a measure neither of radicalism nor of strength or weakness. The measure and proof is in how you act and what positions you adopt at the negotiating table and away from it, in order to serve your goals in the best possible way.
Q: Is the SNC the objective opponent to the regime, given latter’s inflexibility regarding dialogue?
It is not possible to speak of the SNC as a uniform mass. The Council comprises both forces who want a democratic liberal regime and forces who are very far away from that. There are some strict Islamic fundamentalists, some openly sectarian people, others are individuals who are hard to classify, and some simply follow their narrow personal interests. So far the record of the SNC does not indicate that it is a valid model of democracy – neither in its program nor in its practice. There rather is a real concern that the dominant forces of the Council do not see democracy as anything but a slogan which must be used to take power. Afterwards they might adopt a regime that has nothing to do with democracy, a pattern that may turn out to be just a reprint of the book of tyranny, issued in a different ink but with a clearly tyrannic content. In this light I do not see on what ground they pretend to be the objective opponent of the regime.
Q: Some question whether the NBC represents the mobilisations. What do you think of representation? Every popular movement needs elites that spearhead it. Is it necessary to follow the mobilisations politically and in spirit?
When the masses take to the streets, then we can speak of direct democracy. The people express themselves directly without authorizing or mandating anybody to speak in their name. Therefore it is correct to say that the NBC does not represent the mobilisations. But the same is true for the SNC and any other political elites. The narrative of representation which has been circulating recently is a media and political game with certain aims.
When a mass demonstration says this or that individual or force “represents us”, then the true meaning of the phrase is that these masses at this moment lay their hopes on that individual or force. The phrase “represents us” here does not mean that the people on the street authorize this individual or force to speak in their name or act on behalf of the masses. This is different from the case of the leadership of a party which represents its members and its programme and from a member of parliament who represent their electorate who voted for them on the basis of a specific programme which they submitted. There is a “pact” between the members and the leadership of a party, between a member of parliament and their electorate, that warrants these agencies with the capacity to represent and defines their authority and period. As for the revolting mass, there is no such pact between them and those who claim to represent them. The masses might withdraw their confidence, admiration and the status of representative as fast as they granted them. This is the nature of direct democracy and its mechanisms.
Of course, political forces, parties and personalities strive to win the public’s sympathy and confidence with principled or unprincipled means, which might include flattery, fraud and deception. History is full of such examples. Some people of principle may disdain this and bet on the rightness of their stances and their conformity with the interests and needs of the public. They hope that the public will discover their credibility and thus they will win its respect and confidence so that they can become reliable representatives. In this case, the struggle to win the public’s confidence is a long persistent battle whose most important weapons are truth, continuity, faithfulness to the people and success in communicating with its constituencies. This is the way we as the NCB try to follow.
As for claims that “we want what the street wants and say what the street says’’: This attitude reflects an attempt by political elites to flatter the mobilisations by pretending to give up their directing role (perhaps due to their inability) in hope of instant popularity. This is vulgar populism which has nothing to do with responsible behaviour of a political vanguard.
* Abdalaziz al-Khair is a leading member and a spokesperson of the NBC. He is a well-respected senior leftist activist with a long history.
Abdalaziz al-Khair was born in 1952 in Latakia. He studied medicine at the University of Damascus and graduated in 1982. He was a leading member of the Communist Action Party and editor of its newspaper “The People’s Call” which was widespread in Syria in the early 1980s. He was persecuted for his activities and had to live underground for more than ten years. He was arrested and tortured in 1992, and sentenced to 22 years of prison. He was considered a prisoner of conscience and international campaigns were calling for his release. He was set free in November 2005.
In 2007, Abdalaziz al-Khair participated in founding the “Left Assembly”, which included the Communist Action Party, the Kurdish Left Party, the Body of Syrian Communists, the Marxist Democratic Assembly and the Coordination Committee of the Members of the Syrian Communist Party – Politburo.
He joined the NCB, which was founded on June 30th 2011 and includes 14 political parties, 4 party initiatives and various independent activists and symbolic figures of the Syrian opposition.
** The interview was taken from Al-Adab magazine (www.adabmag.com/node/458) with the kind approval of its editor. Al-Adab means “literary arts”. It is the most prominent Arabic monthly journal of literature established in 1953 by Suhail Idris, the father of the current editor, Samah Idris. It introduced practically all leading Arabic authors, particularly authors of modern poetry.
The interview was slightly abridged and translated by activists of the Anti-Imperialist Camp.
Views expressed in interviews do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Anti-Imperialist Camp.