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„Assad is provoking civil war and foreign intervention“

Interview with Wajdy Mustafa, Syrian leftist oppositionist

18. June 2011
by Wilhelm Langthaler

Wajdy Mustafa, 51, has been member of the Communist Union and as such served a total of 13 years in Syrian prison. A few years ago he settled in Europe as a political refugee. Now he was elected into the consulting committee of the Antalya conference from May 31 to June 3, the main coalition of the Syrian democratic opposition.

Q: Who promoted the Antalya conference and what is its outcome?

There have been already several different conferences of the Syrian opposition or parts of it. For example some of the Muslim currents organised their own events. The idea was to stop following separate agendas but to try to reach the broadest possible unity for democracy in Syria. The main promoters were the left and liberal forces around the Damascus Declaration (DD) but the attempt of unification worked out.

Out of 31 members of the consulting committee 4 members each are from the DD,  Muslim Brotherhood, the Kurds (who are predominantly leftist) and the tribes. The remaining 15 are independent personalities including also all confessions.


Q: Reports said that Adbul Halim Khaddam and Rifaat al Assad were not re-elected. On what ground?

Actually they were not there and had been excluded beforehand like many others because of their direct relationship to the USA. As you can read in the final statement of the conference we strongly refuse any foreign military intervention in Syria as these people tend to call for. We do not want to repeat the very bad Libyan experience.


Q: But isn’t there Turkish involvement, financing as some of the opposition forces want to follow the Turkish model?

No, there was neither political nor financial involvement of Turkey. But it is true that Turkey aspires a stronger regional role which could be strengthened by her involvement in the Syrian transition. On the other hand some of the Islamic forces and also among the Sunni people there is the call for Turkish support. In some demonstrations there were already slogans for Turkish military intervention – which we refuse.


Q: Not only the Assad regime claims that there is Saudi and Salafi influence in the rebellion which will eventually favour American interests, or at least that the MB controls the rebellion?

There are two currents within the Muslim Brotherhood or the Islamic movement at large. The more liberal and democratic one which is enthusiastically part of the Antalya conference. They respect the diversity of Syria and call for democracy and not for an Islamic state. They oppose Western intervention as we agreed upon in Antalya.

And there are the pro-Saudi groups which met in Brussels as Muslims only. They compete with the Antalya coalition. They might be connected to the US via the Saudis and the Gulf states .

Actually there is nobody who controls the movement and even less from outside! Yes, thirty years ago the MB controlled Aleppo, Homs, Hama etc. But now there is a new generation. Their main aim is democracy even if many of them call themselves Islamic or Islamist.

By the way the Sauds in the last period were very cautious. They did not go against Assad although that might change if the international tide turns against his regime.

The US itself has no forces on the ground. The USA and the old colonial powers France and Britain are very unpopular in Syria and you will have a hard time to find direct supporters for them.

The sectarian efforts of Hariri were channelled via his personal friend Khaddam. But Khaddam is out of the game. So their efforts are insignificant.

Their only card is via Turkey which, however, follows her own agenda.


Q: How do you explain the democratic turn of the Muslim Brothers?

They have a very negative record in the past for sectarianism and atrocities committed on that ground. But the changed also accepting the Syrian reality that nearly half of the population belong to national or confessional minorities. The Assad regime has been projecting that the only alternative to them would be a confessional rule by the MB. But this is absolutely not true. They themselves expect a maximum of 15% of the electorate. Neither the tribes nor the capitalists follow the Islamists. In some demonstrations in Sunni areas people even distanced themselves from the MB. This is Syrian reality which parts of the Islamist forces eventually have been ready to acknowledge. This is the reason why the democratic wing of the MB was formed and finally accepts a secular state as expressed in the Antalya declaration.


Q: On the other hand the Western media is voluntarily reporting claims that there is Iranian and Hezbollah’s involvement in the repression.

I cannot confirm this but I doubt it. What I heard myself is that bearded soldiers were involved which is forbidden in the Syrian army. This gives ground for speculations. Politically Teheran is fully on the side of Assad as the loss of the regime would be a severe setback for them.


Q: What is the prospect of the Syrian revolution?

Unfortunately the severe repression against the democratic demands of the people proofs that the Tunisian or Egyptian way is blocked by the regime. They are convinced to go to the end in drowning the popular revolt in blood. They did say so several times and I know that it is true.

As the movement cannot and will not give up, Assad’s refusal to meet the democratic demands means that his regime is dragging the country deeper and deeper into civil war. We want to avoid this by all means. So we call on the people to strictly stick to peaceful protests. But nobody wants to victimize himself. The people draw their lessons from the permanent massacres and it is also legitimate if they defend themselves.


Q: There are reports that there is a split in the army. Isn’t it possible to go for an insurrection with support by democratic forces within the army?

For the time being there are only individual defections. You should also take into account that the regime has built the army according to sectarian criteria to maintain loyalty. While the majority of the conscript soldiers are Sunni according to their population share, the officers’ corps is predominately Allawi. You can see that the sieges on the rebellious towns is laid by special units were even most of the soldiers are Allawi. Assad does not dare to use normal soldiers as he fears mutinies.

The organised forces of the opposition are very weak on the ground. The MB as well as the left has been driven out by decades of severe persecution. We are faced with a spontaneous revolt which for the time being is unable for such a highly organised insurrection.

But with time the regime will be weakened. There are signs that some elements of the business elite are thinking of switching side, not only in the Sunni but also in the Allawi milieu. It is possible that at a certain point the regime will implode.


Q: But this could provoke a foreign military intervention?

It is one of the main points of the Antalya declaration to oppose any foreign military intervention. And I do believe that the Western powers will not dare to intervene as the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people from all political trends refuse this. We do not want and we will not end up like Libya.

Also Russia will oppose it which maintains a naval base in Tartus.

But what is possible is Turkish interference. Not a full-fletched attack but a limited intervention in the border zones under the guise of humanitarian help. We oppose this but many will welcome it. Among the Sunni people Turkey got a good reputation as it is more democratic and economically successful. They definitely prefer an Ottoman project to the old colonial powers.


Q: And the danger of an Israeli aggression?

Israel has no reason to intervene. They want stability and therefore are against the democratic movement. Assad is better for them.


Q: What do you plan as your next steps?

Regarding the Antalya coalition we will soon elect an executive committee.


Politically our main task outside is to increase the international pressure on the regime. We want to bring Assad before The Hague’s tribunal.


Q: But isn’t that exactly the logic of the spiral international escalation which will pave the way a military aggression from outside?

This is a dilemma. We need foreign pressure which weakens the regime and lead to the necessary defections. We cannot watch passively while Assad is slaughtering our people and dragging the country into civil war which we want to avoid by all means. What we can contribute from outside is to isolate the regime and thus render the political costs for the repression higher. But I repeat: we refuse any foreign military intervention.


Q: Would you call the Antalya coalition anti-imperialist?

It is a democratic coalition. There are liberal forces inside which we cannot tag as anti-imperialist. And take into account that the Syrian people get killed in the name of anti-imperialism. An example: The Communist Party allied with the regime recently staged an anti-imperialist demonstration while it evades supporting the democratic demands of the people. What kind of anti-imperialism is this? You will understand why the people are fed up with this type of anti-imperialism.


Q: The democratic rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt took place also because there is tremendous poverty caused by neo-liberal capitalism. How does the Antalya coalition deal with the social problem?

There is the very same social problem in Syria. But Antalya it built on an exclusively democratic platform. We are not in the position to cope with these problems now. If the democratic aims are achieved, there will be new conflicts and new coalitions.


Mid of June 2011