Cairo | Interview – The pact concluded on Friday between Haytham al-Manna of the National Coordination Committee (NCC) and Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council (SNC) establishing a framework for unifying the Syrian opposition and its vision of a post-Assad Syria may have been stillborn.
After the pact became public, various SNC members publicly criticized its take on foreign intervention and domestic armed action against the regime, and claimed the SNC is not bound by it. Ghalioun later said what he signed was a draft yet to be approved by the SNC and is not a final declaration.
Al-Manna spoke to Al-Akhbar in Cairo on Sunday about the circumstances surrounding the agreement and his understanding of its provisions.
Serene Assir: Tell us about the pact between Burhan Ghalioun and you, and the conditions around its creation.
Haytham al-Manna: Burhan and I were the only ones who signed it, but the two main groups behind the creation of the pact comprised a total of 15 activists. So the pact is not about Haytham and Burhan. It just so happened that we were the ones who were working on the last phase, and discussing the final details, in order to include the points of view of all those who took part in the drafting over the course of 35 days.
We were planning to complete it on December 26, but we were late for a number of reasons. A number of points in the pact gave rise to big disagreements, at least within the SNC.
At the NCC we are very well coordinated. We know what we want. Most of the time, we would be the ones proposing the ideas, while the other side (the SNC) would modify them. We in the NCC have clarity and an internal understanding on the fundamental issues. We held a conference in September during which we discussed all the main issues the revolution has brought to light. Because of that, the work on the pact was easy for us.
On the other hand, the SNC is a conglomeration of disparate groups. These groups diverge from each other politically. And when they came together they did not do so on the basis of a program. They came together on the basis of the demand for the fall of the regime. Because of this, establishing a program was very difficult for them.
Many of the declarations they have made were taken from our texts. This political and intellectual laziness by some actors, who in turn focused their energy on the media and lobbying more than on building a political foundation, was clear in our discussions.
Because of this we were afraid of co-signing on any issue. But we were eager to hand over the pact to the Arab League before the end of 2011, because that way we would honor our commitment to ourselves and to Secretary General Nabil Arabi.
This created an organizational problem for the SNC. I was aware this might happen. I spoke with my leadership and asked whether I had the authority to sign a pact. I received instructions on what our red lines were, and I acted on them.
Because of this, there was not a single person from the NCC that voiced disagreement with the pact. On the contrary, there was 100 percent agreement.
This was not the case with the SNC. If we look on the bright side, we can consider it a good thing that the SNC is not a homogeneous body. It includes both secular and ultra-religious groups. That’s what the SNC is about. It includes all kinds of thinking. That’s why it is difficult for the SNC to accept the pact as a whole.This is a new kind of pact. The extreme right couldn’t possibly accept it. It is a democratic pact. Among those who disagreed with it are actors who are new to politics. Others are affected by the fact that they have been living in a prison camp of a state. It was difficult for them to even read it.
Because of this I am not surprised by attacks against the pact. I hope those attacks are dealt with within the SNC. At least, there should be an understanding that there is a democratic majority within the SNC that accepted the pact.
SA: The agreement rejects “any foreign military intervention that affects the sovereignty and independence of the country” and adds that “Arab intervention is not considered to be foreign intervention.” What do you mean by Arab intervention.
HM: There are precedents for Arab intervention without casualties, whereas there is not a single example in the history of, say NATO intervention without victims. Syria is a member of the Arab League. If the Arab League cannot help protect civilians through the presence of human rights monitors, then we should be considering the possibility of “green helmets” (Arab League peacekeeping troops) on the ground.
I do not think that lightly armed Egyptian, Tunisian or Moroccan troops on Syrian soil would raise any alarm. On the contrary, I think the Syrian people would welcome them and feed them better than the Arab League does. Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco have neither the intention nor the capacity to occupy Syria, so we have no reason to worry.
Of course we hope that we do not have to come to that point. We continue to urge the Arab League to send the remaining monitors to Syria, and we hope the number of monitors rises to more than 500. I am impressed because people in Syria are dealing with the 150 who are already there as a real force – not as a force with no capacity for real work. They are being shown around and urged to do their work well.
The notion that international monitors would have been preferred to Arab monitors is a fiction propagated by the Gulf-based media. It is simply not true. The simple fact of the matter is most Syrians can’t speak any other language than Arabic, so international monitors would have a hard time communicating with the people.
Similarly, the idea that the Syrian file can be transferred to the hands of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) from the Arab League, as a matter of course, is untrue. But that is the fiction we are being targeted with at the moment.
SA: What if Arab military intervention were to come from the Gulf?
HM: The key problem with that is that the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are not neutral. They have taken a side in the media war, and also in urging for the UNSC to intervene. We have heard more than once that they are willing to take this to the UNSC. This weakens the Gulf’s position when it comes to Syria.
In the Gulf there is a campaign against the Iranians. This might mean that the Gulf countries might try to turn Syria into a battleground against Iran. But we refuse to become the victims of a war by proxy. We want democracy and freedom in Syria; we do not want to be used by any other power for their interests.
It is worth clarifying that once the regime has fallen we will want to develop good regional state relations not only with our Arab brothers, but also with Turkey and Iran.
SA: There are those inside Syria who are at the forefront of the revolution who are calling for Western military intervention. What do you say to this?
HM: The pressure on people is so strong that it has created what I call the Party of Let the Devil Come. It’s simply not constructive. I was in Iraq two weeks after the US invaded. I requested a meeting with (the then-head of the US Coalition Provisional Authority, charged with supervising the occupation, Paul) Bremer. I told him I wanted to know what he would do to ensure Iraq was reconstructed, after the US destroyed it. He said, “It’s not our job.”
We don’t want anyone to destroy our country. We’ve never seen a situation where Santa Claus appears, saves a country from a dictatorship, and then waves goodbye peacefully and leaves. We understand the pressure on the Syrian people is immense – but Western military intervention is simply not a solution. We need to be able to face the Syrian regime’s violent discourse with rationalism.
In addition, we need to bear in mind that foreign powers are not speaking in a united voice on Syria. At one point, France and Turkey were cooperating to send in aid to the Free Syrian Army through the Turkish border. Now France is using Lebanon’s borders for this. As such, the changing nature of foreign states’ relations among each other affects the reality on the ground in Syria. It’s good for the Syrians to feel that there is international solidarity with their cause, but going from that to calling for military intervention is quite a stretch.
SA: What suggestions do you have in order for the Arab League monitors to be able to do their work better?
HM: When Richard Goldstone went to Gaza, the Israelis made him wait at the border for eight hours. Others were refused access altogether. The work of every human rights monitor is difficult and problematic.
If we deal with the monitors with patience and humanity, we may make some progress and ensure the entry of more. If we look for errors or shortfalls at every step of the way, that’s all we’ll find, and we may even end up contributing to the end of their mission. You can’t expect the monitors to work this way, under pressure from every side. We need to decide whether we want the monitors to succeed in their mission or not. If we do, we need to find ways to help them. I don’t want to judge anyone, but I think we just need to make sure the Arab monitors’ presence yields positive results. The monitors are making a sacrifice at the end of the day by just being in Syria – we can’t start off their mission by showering them with accusations.
SA: What has been the response of the opposition inside Syria to the agreement you signed with Ghalioun?
HM: As for the NCC, I am the only member living outside Syria. The rest of the body’s membership is all inside Syria. I also tried to travel to Syria as frequently as I could, even if that meant I was put under surveillance by the regime. The last time I visited Syria was in July 2010.
The SNC’s members are all outside. They are, in a way, the council of exiles. What we would like the SNC to understand is that the struggle is not a media struggle, or a competition among balloon organizations. The real struggle is on the ground.
SA: Tell us what you know about where the Syrian revolution stands right now, and what you would say to those who say even the stability of the regime is preferable to foreign intervention.
HM: The Syrian revolution has risen because of the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of people. The vast majority had no prior experience in politics. Each day, their presence on the street acts as their schooling and training.
But for the revolution to succeed we need three levels of involvement. Of course we need the massive popular mobilization. But we also need people with historical legitimacy to be involved. In Tunisia, the revolution succeeded partly because people who had already been dissidents for years, and who had a proven political track record, got involved.
Secondly, we need leadership on the streets. We need people like my martyred brother, Maan Eludat, who was a union activist before he was killed. These leaders are now either in prison or dead. This is part of the reason why the Syrian revolution is experiencing chaos. We need people to keep check of what is happening in the absence of authority, so that we develop a revolutionary consciousness that helps the country get rid of corruption at the micro-level, for instance. Without leadership, we face the danger of having the revolution hijacked by street thugs.
In Homs, the most important leaders are currently cut off from the world. Of course, that is what the regime wants. It is because of this absence of leadership that we are witnessing the spread of sectarian revenge killings.
On the other hand, what needs to be made very clear is that the lowest recorded number of people killed on the back of Western military intervention was in the Libyan case. As an observer in the International Criminal Court case on Libya, I can confirm to you that 52,000 people were killed in the war there. There is not a single positive example in history of Western military intervention. In Rwanda, the humanitarian corridor established did nothing to stop the genocide.
We will not be forced to choose between cholera and the plague. After all the sacrifice and advances made in the struggle against the regime, we won’t step back now. We don’t want either occupation or the regime. Some play on the idea that the regime is protecting the minorities. This is an absurd idea, because the revolution is based on a citizen-building project by a people that has risen.