On 27 April 2012, around the Jadaliyya Co-Sponsored Conference at Lund University (“Contesting Narratives, Location Power”), I sat down for an extensive interview with Haytham Manna`, one of the icons of the independent Syrian opposition and a leading founder of the National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change (in Syria). The interview was long and candid, and addressed several topics, including the current impasse in Syria, the stages and transformation of the uprising, the questions of international intervention and of resistance, the Syrian National Council and its relations with other opposition groups and the Arab Gulf States and beyond, and the relationship between Syria and Hizballah.
The interview was heroically translated/transcribed by Jadaliyya Co-Editor Ziad Abu-Rish.
Bassam Haddad (BH): Mr. Haytham Manna’, could you please introduce yourself?
Haytham Manna’ (HM): I have been a human rights activist for approximately thirty-three years. I was a political leader in the Syrian left prior to that. I had left political party work, but then returned to it indirectly through work regarding the Damascus Declaration. I returned to this [political] work with full force when the National Coordinating Body was created as the largest coalition of political forces, intellectuals, artists, and independents in Syria today. I had to choose between the two positions I held, as I do not have the right to hold both of them. Thus, I stopped my rights advocacy work and stepped down from my role as the spokesperson for the Arab Committee for Human Rights, which I, Monsiff Marzouqi, Muhammad Hafiz Yaqoub, Juliette Dagher, and a group of activists had established. I am now a non-office-holding member of the Arab Committee for Human Rights and a leader in the National Coordinating Body, serving as Vice General Coordinator.
BH: Thank you. Of course, talking about Syria is like navigating a minefield. Can you give us a sense of what is happening currently in Syria during April 2012?
HM: The month of April might have been one of the most difficult months in terms of a lack of clarity as to what is happening. On the one hand, the great powers have reached what can be considered a political settlement, which was represented by the Kofi Annan Initiative. This political settlement combined the initiative of the Arab League, and the international cover of the Security Council and United Nations . . . [interruption]. The fundamental problem that was revealed at the moment the international-Arab political settlement was reached is that this settlement was going to have enemies no matter what its details were. There are those that have become a fundamental party to violence and a fundamental party to the persistence of violence, both in the [Syria] regime as well as outside of it. We have a fundamental problem regarding these individuals and groups: What do we do with them?
The regime has been able to put forth the worst of what it has to offer in the past thirteen months. However, under a great deal of pressure and along with the victims of the military security ferocity, society has begun to put forth the worst of what it has to offer in multiple ways. Here, all the values carried by the youth when it mobilized are being threatened. The youth mobilized against an authoritarian system. Now, we are have those that are speaking of “one party” or [the likes of] Article 8 in the opposition itself. The youth mobilized against corruption. We now have genuine corruption with respect to political finance. In the Syrian cause, there are unimaginable amounts being spent to contain and mobilize the Syrian situation for the purposes of a struggle against Syria.
BH: From where?
HM: From all sides, all sides—meaning that we should not be surprised if one day we heard that Burundi had a hand in the situation. We have put ourselves
f in a situation—the regime has pushed society to say, “Let the devil come.” And here I mean civil society and not the broader society: the people that went out into the streets and sacrificed their lives or put them at risk. The theory of “let the devil come,” which was reinforced with Gulf media, argues for NATO or anyone else to intervene. It is a powerful theory. It created a sense amongst the people that the revolution no longer has the beautiful values it had once carried. Thus, several broad sectors [of the population] began to distance themselves from the revolutionary mobilization.
We are now missing the initial attracting force [of the revolution]. Of course people cannot accept a return to what was before. The political regime that dominated during the past forty years has died in both the hearts and minds of the people. No one dares to even defend it anymore, not even the allies that are benefiting from it. Therefore, the idea now is to choose between reform and change, between reform and removing the regime at its core.
However, unfortunately, there is major confusion here. The reason for this confusion is that the authoritarian regime, whose shadow we have lived under, has done to Syria what Saddam Hussein had done to Iraq with regards to the Da’wa Party. All those that were affiliated with the Da’wa party [in Iraq], like the Muslim Brotherhood [in Syria], were condemned to death. This state-level condemnation, which is symbolic, as it has not been applied for some time, has made the [Syrian] Muslim Brotherhood a movement outside of the state itself and not just outside of the regime. Therefore, many amongst the cadre of the movement make no distinction between the state and the regime. They are not concerned with whether or not the state remains intact because they are, from the outset [of their mobilization], outside of it. They were forsaken by it, and so it means nothing to them. Therefore, a proliferating discourse exists amongst parts of society that is reminiscent of [Paul] Bremmer, despite all of his dangers. There is another discourse that says, “No, the state has employees, even up to and including the assistant of a minister, have been working with the regime for thirty years and still live
s in a rental homes.” Right now, in the opposition, there are those that have beco ame millionaires just in the past three months. So, we have to take it easy, and go step by step. This is not how a revolution should be. A revolution is a group of values. A revolution is the a reaching out to all that is good and has not been polluted. It is also a boycott of all those who are authoritarian and repressive as part of the dictatorial regime. This distinction has been blurred by the increasing role of the external at the expense of the internal, as well as the increasing role of the non-Syrian at the expense of the Syrian.
BH: You spoke about a type of struggle between the internal and the external, or between the viewpoint that focuses on the inside and one that focuses on the outside. How does this occur at the expense of the other, and thus not serve any progressive ideas?
HM: The fundamental problem stems from the following question that can be posed to any citizen: “What are the instruments that govern the future of the Syrian revolution, and are they in the hands of the Syrian people?” The answer to this question defines the nature of the project for democratic transformation, the scope of such a transformation, as well as the limits of the transformation.
The mobilization began in Dar’a, and I always say that it started neither in Istanbul nor in Doha. It started in Dar’a, in the Syrian cities, and in the Syrian regions. Therefore, when it began, it had two key phrases that were clear to all of its followers: It was against “corruption” and against “authoritarianism.” In every protest, we see that the two slogans are interrelated. We see a condemnation of corruption and a condemnation of repression. “Death rather than oppression” was the political expression. But “Rami the thief” was also the expression. There was the political bloodletting that was a function of the elimination of basic freedoms, basic rights, and the concept of citizenship. There was also the economic bloodletting that was the result of the massive corruption that was ongoing. These two processes were obvious to the Syrian youth.
Outside of Syria, the message is not the same. When someone is on Facebook in Saudi Arabia, he cannot speak of issues that highlight the numerous million dollar deals made in Saudi Arabia by speaking about a system of corruption. Many of the businessmen that fund the conferences of the [external] opposition were partners with Rami Makhlouf and disagreed over [business] deals. Therefore, the divide between the internal discourse and the external discourse is being narrowed. The citizen begins to feel that there is something missing, because the citizen is not just speaking about the fall of an authoritarian regime, but also of a corrupt economic system for which the citizen is paying the price.
The citizen is not limited to political and civil rights; rather, citizens possess a whole set of rights that include economic, social, and even environmental. Herein is our problem. There is a fundamental part of the external discourse that takes into account the alliances, balance of regional forces, and international dictates. For example, what is the place of the Golan Heights in the external discourse? It is zero, because they do not want to upset “anybody.” They want to appease [Hillary] Clinton so that she can receive them. There is a broad process of appeasement that is being carried out by the body that was created on the outside [of Syria] so that it may gain recognition. In contrast, these considerations do not exist on the inside. There are a million people who have been internally displaced. The displaced want to return to their homes. The revolution is not just about citizenship for them, it is also about patriotism. There are many such issues. Imagine a leader in the [Syrian] National Council who is from the Golan Heights, but he does not speak about the Golan Heights so that people think he is from Dar’a or some other governorate. This is a function of external alliances and conditions. In this case, the political movement has emerged not to translate the daily struggles of the people, but to translate a different set of struggles that have to do with interests and considerations that are not necessarily in line with the social movement inside of the country.
After mass affiliation and mass participation, along with the notion that “this movement represents me,” people have moved away from the political movement and towards violence, saying that, “violence represents me” or “the Free Syrian Army represents me.” Rather than have that movement [i.e., the movement whose interests and considerations do note align with those of the everyday person], they believe that at least the members of these latter “movements” are putting their lives at risk. This is in contrast to those that are making a living off the people’s daily struggles. Thus, here we have the immense political confusion in Syria, which is in addition to its isolation. To this we can add the economic crisis that has resulted from the military-security solution that has crippled economic life. Of course there is another big problem: the sanctions. When the regime says that these sanctions have affected the everyday life of the people, they are lying. The sanctions, about ninety percent of them, were personalized. And those that were directed at the country as a whole preceded the revolution. Meaning, the resolutions adopted by the [US] Congress against Syria (as Syria), and not against the Asad family or the centers of power in Syria, were adopted prior to 2011. The US and European resolutions since then were personalized, and we insisted on this.
If you want to ask the Syrian citizen to do everything necessary to survive (i.e., obtain bread, water, electricity, and kerosene) and at the same time make the revolution, we do not need an economic crisis for people to come out into the street. The theory of economic crisis is thus being mobilized against the revolution. This is because people are within a social mobilization and not ousted from it. For people to be able to come home to some comfort and return [into the streets] anew the next day, they need to be able to find the bare minimum means for living. This is why we were against the notion of an economic crisis that would somehow accomplish the task of the revolution. Economic crisis would do the opposite, as it would limit the stamina of the majority of mobilized people. This majority would no longer have the energy to do what we ask of it: to secure its necessities, to meet the challenges it faces, and to sustain mass-based mobilization within the context of a political, economic, social, and military siege. In the face of all of this it would not be possible for the revolution to maintain itself. A revolution is not reactionary, nor is it vengeful. We cannot kill a soldier simply because the regime killed three of our family members, one through torture, and the other two during protests. So we do not descend into such a situation, we need to provide the minimum capacity to breathe. This is why the theory of economic crisis is, in reality, a theory of extremism.
We face two dangers: the first is the exacerbation of the economic crisis, and the second is that of violence. If they combine, then the revolution is dead. For thirteen months, violence has been escalating. That is why we said we wanted Kofi Annan, and when we were asked about Kofi Annan we said, “cease fire.” We need to stop the violence to resume the political discourse. We need to once again consider the political solution. During such a political solution, you can have a discussion with everything on the table. Such a discussion should first be held amongst the various sides of the opposition and then with the regime. This is so as to reach a solution with the least amount of losses. The losses we have endured thus far have been immense, and Syria cannot sustain any more. We need to know how to stop paying a human and material cost that is greater than the human and natural capacity of Syria.
BH: In terms of the regional and international complexities, how do they contradict the spirit of an uprising against authoritarianism? There is a lot of clashing amongst parts of the progressive, leftists, or resistance-supporting camps regarding taking a dual stance that on the one hand rejects repression, but on the other hand sets limit to the price paid for that rejection. What is your take on that problem?
HM: Given my presence in Europe, and my connections to the European left and center, many people confronted me with the question of “where is this going” and “what exactly do you want?” This is especially the case when a segment of the external opposition began orienting itself with what can be called the Libyan model: changing the flag, inviting the [UN] Security Council resolution to invoke Chapter Seven [of the UN Charter], and calling for NATO intervention. In effect, their orientation was asking, “How can we copy the Libyan model?” This orientation was based on the assumption that such an orientation was the only way that the external opposition could become the primary power in the Syria of tomorrow. Everyone was asking us, whether they were communists, socialists, leftists, or green party members, “Do you agree with this?” How does one speak of a revolution that is in need of NATO?
There has been an attempt by the counterrevolutionary forces as well as the Syrian right to confuse the situation and shuffle the papers to create the impression that there are particular allies and particular enemies. The allies are the United States, the European countries, the Gulf countries, and Turkey. The enemies are everyone else. He or she who does not vote with me, is an enemy. Brazil is thus an enemy. India is thus also an enemy. This is despite the fact that short visits by us to these countries changed their positions.
There is no doubt that there are people with an agenda. This agenda is a right-wing agenda, whether Islamist or neoliberal. Its guiding principle is that the primary problem with Syria is its regional and international strategic location and political alliances. The idea here is that by changing Syria’s alliances its problems will be solved. It would transform the Shi’i crescent to a Sunni pillar. Thus we have entered into sectarianism as a primary axis of social struggle in place of civilian rule as such an axis. We have thus also seen a struggle over Syria at the expense of change inside of Syria. Change has been compromised. Democracy as an idea is no longer mentioned. We have a real problem in terms of dealing with people. Freedom has become a slogan. We are in need of spelling out what it is that the democratic project actually entails, and what the definition of a civilian state is. This is a country of twenty-seven components, and they are all Syrian. The primary slogan of the 1925 Syrian Revolt was “religion is for god, and the country is for all.” This is the slogan that brought together the Syrian people, and it was this slogan that eliminated the project of sectarian mini-states. This was the slogan that allowed for the idea of a Syria that is for everyone. This fundamental premise was weakened by the dictatorial regime. There have been various groups that have been marginalized by the regime. Thus the end of dictatorship begins with the end of marginalization, and a return to a program that brings together all the people. There is no program other than that of a civilian state that can bring together all the Syrian people. If we take Arab nationalism too far, we marginalize the non-Arabs, such as the Kurds and others. If we take the Islamic ideology too far, then we do away with approximately forty percent of the people. We have no right to do any of this. For Syria to be for everyone, moderation needs to be embodied through a program of civil citizenship. Such a program is the only one that would allow us to feel that we belong. It is a program that is beyond the constitution, such that it is not just about tactics and strategies. This is an issue that is fundamental to the establishment of Syria. The second republic will either be a democratic Syria that brings together all Syrians, or it will not be at all. If we are going to maintain processes of disenfranchisement, then there is a great risk to both the unity and territory of Syria. Here, we need to hold firm to the values of the revolution that are different than those that are pronounced in war. There is no morality in war.
Today, we find attacks on individuals, but not on sixteen security apparatuses that have shaken this country for forty years. Not one of their names is being mentioned. We find an emphasis on some of the sectarian issues without a focus on the civil nature of the revolution and the civilian nature of the future Syrian state. These issues are crucial. The alternative is to find ourselves in a struggle that is much more difficult than the current struggle between the regime and us. It will be a struggle over our capacity to build a civilian democratic state. And here I want to say that the transition period will be much more difficult than the current period.
Bassam Haddad (BH): Let us now turn to the issues of resistance, the question of Palestine, and their relationship to the position of rejecting foreign intervention. One can oppose foreign intervention on a number of grounds. What is your take on the issue of opposing foreign intervention on the grounds that its [real] goal is the targeting of factions and states that are considered to be [the pillars of] resistance in the region? [I ask this] especially in light of the fact that there are rational reasons to oppose foreign intervention, while at the same time not excusing
e the authoritarian regime in Syria. Alternatively, there are groups that become less critical of the regime by virtue of their rejection of foreign intervention and their belief that there is some form of conspiracy. This latter position obviously leads to several dangers, in terms of both the present and the future. What is your take on these issues, especially given that you were one of the people that opposed foreign intervention, and continue to do so?
Haytham Manna’ (HM): At the beginning of last May , about a week after the army entered Dar’a, the scene was very painful. My father passed away due to a lack of medication. I lost many friends as large numbers of people migrated and/or escaped. My brother went into hiding, before he was martyred. I was in a very difficult personal situation. However, in terms of vision, I launched the fundamental trinity, as I named it, so as not to lose our compass. The trinity is: no to foreign intervention; no to arming and violence; and no to sectarianism. Many people accused me of being heartless, telling me that I was being too theoretical. But then the political movements adopted this approach [of the fundamental trinity]. This was the case even with the Muslim Brotherhood in the early stage [of the uprising]. I had been on a television show with the poet Rawi, wherein he stated that, “we adopt this trinity.” But then they changed their position; many people changed their position. Initially, Ghalyoun and everyone else adopted this trinity.
We held firm to this trinity for two reasons. The first has to do with the national question, which is a very sensitive issue in Syria, and has been the case since we were children. We have a battle before us. The term “natural Syria” is one that six-year-old children hear [as they grow up]. “Natural Syria” extends all the way to Gaza. This is how we were educated. It was not meant in the sense that Palestine should be occupied or incorporated. Rather, it was meant in the sense that an affront to the Palestinian cause was considered a dagger in the Syrian and Arab causes. It was therefore not possible to coldly deal with the [Palestine] subject, or to act as it if one had nothing to do with it. The second reason is the issue of the Golan Heights. Until today, we have one million displaced persons from the Golan Heights. The West and the entire world are sacrificing them, and for what, approximately eighteen thousand illegal settlers? This is an [ongoing] war crime. The settling of a population under conditions of occupation is a war crime. And there is international silence and complicity in this issue. We also have the issue of Lebanon. For example, I have a sister who was not politicized prior to the uprising but is now. She gave her home to a family from the south [of Lebanon] and went to Dar’a. She did not ask them who and what is in the house because it was her duty. For her, the resistance is part of her existence and culture; therefore, you cannot separate the simple regular citizen from these basic rights, because the rights of individuals and the rights of peoples are interrelated. This is part of their collective memory.
Particular individuals, groups, and media outlets have certainly played a role in destroying this consciousness. Just as an example, and only three weeks after the start of the uprising, Al-Arabiyya was giving airtime to several Syrian individuals that were claiming that Hizballah elements were fighting in Dar’a [on the side of the army]. I mean, come on. We all know each other and what is going on. We know the Lebanese and the Syrians. They even started talking about snipers that do not know how to speak Arabic because they were coming from Iran and elsewhere. This was the beginning of the insertion of the regional [struggle] into the Syrian mobilization. This went on to such a degree that people who were supportive of the resistance, as well as opposed to both authoritarianism and corruption in Syria, were now against the resistance.
There was now a separation between the civic and the national. This was a separation that was advanced by organized media, various regional factions, and a number of Syrians. One way or another, they succeeded in creating a situation wherein resistance and rejection were considered nothing more than tools at the disposal of the regime for the purpose of bolstering its nationalist credentials. This is with the full knowledge that Hamas does not need the Syrian regime for the purpose of legitimacy in Palestine nor does Hizballah need Syria for the purpose of legitimacy in Lebanon. Hizballah does not legitimate itself from outside of Lebanon, for its first source of legitimacy is Lebanese, and only secondarily can one speak of supporting elements [like the Syrian regime].
Consequently, the first battle for the National Coordinating Movement upon its inception was the combining of the civic and the national. We are not the enemies of resistance—
—a very important one—is that we are waging our struggle on the basis of good relations with neighboring states without prejudice. Therefore, we are not here to replace Iran with Turkey or Turkey with Iran. We have a neighborhood forced on us by circumstances beyond our control. You can change your wife by divorcing her, but you cannot change your neighbor. It is therefore important to have good neighborly relations that are balanced across all. We are not here to wage a war on behalf of anyone. We are not revolutionaries at the beck-and-call of this or that project. If the West sabotages the Iranian nuclear issue, then it will not be by means of the Syrian citizen or the Syrian martyr. The Syrian martyr is not going [out into the streets] for the sake of stopping the Iranian nuclear program. The Syrian martyr is going [out into the streets] in order to bring down the authoritarian regime. There can be no confusion or mixing between these two goals. Proxy wars through the Syrian people will be at the expense of the Syrian revolution.
This was our program and the battle is difficult. This is why the media was incredibly focused on the presence of foreigners—but what foreigners? When we look closer we find people coming from al-Ramadi in Iraq, whether they are Iraqis or Saudis carrying Iraqi papers. We even find Libyans and people from other parts of the Gulf. We found corpses of Egyptians and the Maghreb. Unfortunately, the door into Syria was opened for Islamists and Jihadists. All of this, while the talk is about Iranian infiltrators and Hizballah fighters inside Syria.
One issue is that we are opposed to any non-Syrian presence in Syria, irrespective of from where it may come. We are asking for the opposite: border control. We are asking that all Arabs and non-Arabs that are on Syrian soil leave the country safely because we are going to struggle so that they have no legal protection in the event that they do not know the land, do not abide by a cease-fire if one were to occur, and do not submit to a political settlement should one be reached. They are therefore a fuel in the sparking and spreading of violence. They must leave the country. As I have said numerous times, go home and return from where you came. You are harming the Syrian revolution and you do not have a role to play in it. The evidence of this is that we know who is responsible for most of the explosions that have occurred, in which most of the victims were from the Syrian people.
A second issue is the need for a balanced Syrian policy. We will not cut off relations with Russia or China in order to become prisoners to relations with the United States. No, we will have balanced foreign relations and balanced economic relations. If the Japanese cadres are the better ones in terms of technological advancement in Syria, then we will collaborate with Japan. No one will tell us whether we have the right to do so or not. This is a very fundamental issue.
The primary locus of the success of the civilian democratic Syrian revolution is in the sovereignty of it decision-making. It is important that it possess a sovereign decision-making capacity. We must not sacrifice our independence so that we can determine whom we deal with and how. If this first form of independence holds, then it is possible for the second form of independence to succeed. If we sacrifice the first form, then we will pay the price for [forgoing] both [forms of independence].
BH: There are those that say there is no longer a revolution in Syria and that it has transformed from an uprising against authoritarianism to something else. They say that it has been hijacked, and in very simple terms has been transformed to something much more sinister. How can a Syrian, or any other human being for that matter, make sense of the situation she is watching: one wherein the uprising has been transformed and the regime continues to survive? How can one reconcile these two situations? Surrender is unacceptable, but it is as if one’s hands have become tied. Even those that are living outside, who cannot do anything in any situation, have become preoccupied with this situation to the point of paralysis: they cannot support what is happening while at the same they cannot support the alternative. It is as if to support the revolution is to support foreign intervention.
HM: There are NAWADHIM that we have learned from history. The first of these is that revolutions are spontaneous movements, or earthquakes within society. However, and in spit
re of all of this, it is also a cumulative process that is stored, so as to become a resource for the people. For example, fear will not return to Syria. Another example, the concept of obedience and the old order cannot be reconstituted. Neither can the notion of surrendering decision-making to others. These issues have played an important role. [Interruption as someone walks into the room] These issues are accomplishments from which we cannot retreat, neither in the collective consciousness nor through a political decree. The second set of issues has to do with the mechanisms of transition and who will be involved. No one is speaking of what can be called “the older order” any more—the old order has ended. As I’ve mentioned earlier, even the champions of the old order can no longer defend it. A third set of issues has to do with the internal social level of analysis. There are fundamental transformations that cannot be undone. There are hundreds of thousands of Syrians that have entered the political realm and civic consciousness. Before, they had nothing to do with these [realms and consciousness]. All they cared about then was visiting family and friends. They did not bother with anything. Today, these hundreds of thousands, whether we like it or not, will be shaping the new political vision of the country. This political horizon is first and foremost an internal one that was forged within social mobilization and not outside of it. Secondly, this political horizon will not accept marginalization. These elements are the reassuring ones.
What is left is the question of transition. I believe that transition today, because of the foreign intervention, has become much more than the people can take because of the violence. Here is the importance of ceasing all forms of violence. This is why I went to Moscow and Beijing: I went there to find people that can pressure the Syrian authorities to stop the military-security solution. Stopping this solution is very important. For thirteen months, the level of violence has been increasing. It has to decrease and return to a base level for us to be able to speak of revolution once again. Revolution is not the carrying of weapons or the killing of soldiers. Revolution is a change in morality, conduct, and institutions. All of this requires the return of civil peace. The absence of civil peace means that it is the rifles that are speaking. In this case, to find a politician is to look for a warlord. In this situation, a warlord is much more useful to a researcher or journalist in understanding the situation than any political commentator might be. Certainly, there are those in authority that have not been polluted by authoritarianism and corruption. There are those that we can call servants of the state. These are the people that served the state, but not the regime. Some of these people will naturally be part of the process of change. How can we choose the Syrian capacities, which are to be found in different places, so as to have a transitional period under a unified government? This, in my opinion, is the preferred solution for exiting from this situation with a minimum of losses.
BH: How can someone accomplish this, especially since there is a large division? There are people that have retreated and no longer want to support the current path of the Syrian uprising. There is no longer a clear goal that one can support, even if that person is opposed to the regime as well as foreign intervention. And there are a lot of people that hold this dual position, even if there are more of them on the outside than the inside. In practical terms, what can a Syrian who does not agree with the trajectory of the uprising do in the face of all of this?
HM: I support you completely. There is a large portion of people that retreated once the uprising took up arms. However, none of them raised the white flag [and surrendered]. None of them moved over to the camp of dictatorship. None of them even took up the project of practical reform that has been put forth by the regime. They all remain within the project for democratic change. We are now in a situation where this project has been obstructed. So we can unblock the situation, and remove the obstruction in the face of the project. This is why they are all in support of the Kofi Annan Plan. There is a majority of Syrians that support the Annan Plan and are trying in every way possible to find a political solution. Those factions that are opposed to the Annan Plan, including some of our friends, do not realize what the failure of the Annan Plan means. Today, there is not a non-violent program for democratic change. There is [only] a violent program for civil war. There is, however, a peaceful program for democratic change, which is committed to a return to the non-violence of the revolution. Non-violence is the only guarantee of Syrian unity.
BH: There are those that would hear what you are saying and respond with the claim that there can be no political solution so long as the regime exists. They would say that it is not in the interest of the regime to share power; therefore, the uprising took up arms, but that this is of little use, given that the regime is stronger. When you speak of a political solution, while at the same talking about the regime having practically ended, how do we reconcile these two facts? Why would the regime commit suicide so long as it is not forced to do so?
HM: There is no suicide. I believe that there is somewhat of a Darwinian trajectory: parts that no longer have a function will become extinct. The problem is with the function of dictatorship, which can no longer continue. This is the source of instability for the authority, which can overcome the entire system, meaning that the entire state can be destroyed if the notion of a military solution persists. There are no winners in the military solution, not in the regime, nor in the opposition. We need to remember this one thing: violence is what caused a crisis of confidence in the revolution on the part of society, and it is what caused a disjuncture between the authority and society. This is the basis for why it is important to stop the violence. This is why we should oppose violence. It does not even serve the purposes of those that seek a role in the Syria of tomorrow. It serves no one.
I would like to say one thing: There is not a single Syrian, irrespective of his position, that will benefit from the weakening of Syria any more than it has already been weakened. This will only mean that we will become prisoners to international aid and to those non-democratic forces of the Gulf States, who wish that there will be a fiscal crisis. This is why they are not diligent about a cease-fire. Their role increases as Syria becomes weaker. It is on this basis that we need to be diligent in keeping Syria strong. This is why, since the launching of the National Coordinating Body for Forces of Democratic Change, we have called for a civilian democratic Syria that is strong. We know that a weak Syria will remind us of Sudan prior to [the rule of Omar] al-Bashir. We are in need of change that is actually able to encompass notions of development, awakening, and the state of law. We need to be able to be proud of the Syrian revolution, one that can be a beacon for others. This is why we need a political solution. It is a matter of economy with respect to violence and human capacity. The political solution we are struggling for is the child of previous experiences. The revolution is made more extreme and more sectarian with each stage of marginalization of the political solution. In whose interest is the increase in extremist and sectarian rhetoric? Can Syria be built with extremism and sectarianism? I do not think so. It is on this basis that I believe the Annan Plan, irrespective of whose name is attached to it, is important in so far as the fundamental issue is concerned. This issue is the marginalization of violence for the sake of giving political discourse its rightful place. Only then will there be a Syrian majority that is against the resumption of violence in any shape.
Bassam Haddad (BH): If you would, Mr. Manna’, could you tell us about how things started and where things stand now in Syria?
Haytham Manna’ (HM): It could be said that during the beginning of events in Tunisia, specifically on 26 December , we began to feel that there was a much broader mobilization occurring than just that which was occurring in Tunisia. At the same time, we were not able to know what trajectory it would take. On 26 [December] I received a protest permit in the name of the Arab Committee for Human Rights for a Tunisia-related protest in Paris. It was a very large protest. After the New Year, we were visiting the family of a Tunisian martyr, and the discussion revolved around whether the uprising was a Tunisian one or an Arab one. When the mobilization climaxed in Tunis, we began to speak seriously about Egypt. I was convinced that nothing would happen in Syria before Egypt. Perhaps this was because we, in Dar’a, felt orphaned after the death of [Gamal] Abdul-Nasser—Dar’a is a Nasserist town. Meaning, the majority of its people were Nasserists during that time in 1970. When Nasser was lost at an early age, it was therefore as if the world had collapsed. Therefore, there was a need for something to happen so as to undo this situation. When the pharaoh actually fell, that is, when [Husni] Mubarak fell, all the variables changed. This is the point at which a serious conversation began around what should be done in Syria.
I recall the statement we issued on 8 March calling for change. This was before the major mobilizations. At the time, we were communicating with each other quite intensely. We even sent some people to Egypt to look into what had happened. The entire focus was on whether Syria could become part of the [regional] Arab mobilizations. At one point, I was giving a speech in the south of Tunisia, and I stated that “[Mohammad] Bouazzizi’s last will and testament was calling for a revolution from the sea to the sea,” and that it should not stop. In reality, the youth in Dar’a did not disappoint. They chose their own way, method, approach, and slogans. There is something beautiful about what transpired in Dar’a beginning on 18 March . This is a date that was not recognized on Facebook. A number of dates were called for on Facebook, and they all failed: 4 and 5 February as well as 12 and 15 March. On the eighteenth, a date that was not mentioned on Facebook, hundreds of protesters came out into the streets. From this perspective, the conspiracy theories [about the uprising] are quite laughable. Everyone hoped that things in Syria would change, whether they were listed on Facebook or not. But it was society [itself] that determined the course of that change.
All the slogans that were chanted on the first day were reflective of forty years of authoritarian rule. ‘Atif was a symbol of both the security apparatus and the corruption. As a border area we had to deal with Law No. 49, whereby you needed a security clearance to build, rent, or do anything in the area. This security clearance was transformed into a commodity, and the security officer became a merchant. There were lots of similar issues. Let us say you were a citizen that wanted to leave the country and go work in the Gulf. You would need to pay a certain price to get a travel approval. Consequently, repression and corruption were mixed. Similarly, the slogans condemning repression and corruption became mixed. This is when the word dignity [karamah] emerges, which condemns both. This is why we called it the “Dignity Uprising” from the very first day. After screaming “indignity rather than death” for forty years, people were now coming out and screaming “death rather than indignity.” This is the meaning of dignity: a rejection of both corruption and authoritarianism. The ways in which a number of values came to the surface and could wash away the (im)morality of the regime was a beautiful thing.
Despite the repression and persecution, the early days were thus days in which people were developing new morals. This was most embodied in the issue of solidarity. One example of this solidarity is the call that was issued by the people of Dar’a when they began to be attacked with live ammunition. The call requested the help of those in the Houran region, and people from those villages came out to support the people in Dar’a and stand with them. The people of Dar’a would come to the entrance of the town to welcome those that were arriving. This was a celebration of dignity. This was a celebration of change. This was a celebration of the right to stage a sit-in. In fact, the sit-in was a microcosm of what had transpired in Tahrir [Square]. It was a sit-in with speeches, whereby people would be introduced to one another and listen to one another. In spite of the arrests, repression, and everything else, people were beginning to discover one another. At the same time, there was a lot communication between us and them in evenings over Skype.
I was fortunate, as my brother was part of the leadership of this mobilization; therefore, did not feel estranged from this mobilization. I felt as if I was inside the town, especially because he was loved very much as a result of not having any particular political affiliation. He was a young man and considered himself a leftist, but he had long left [formal] political work; however, he joined the uprising from the very first day. Therefore, I was very much surrounded by the atmosphere of the uprising. Despite being in touch with others, his arrest felt like a dagger stuck me, in the sense that it deprived me of the detailed description and intimated trust that he and I shared with respect to ongoing developments. He insisted that he stay, even though many people left Dar’a on 24 April . People would show up on television claiming to be in Dar’a when they were really in Irbid [Jordan]. This was the game of the eyewitnesses that were outside. [My brother] Maen wanted to smell the scent of the soil so as to continue struggling. He had no inclination to leave, even though it would have been very easy for him to do so. He was persecuted quite a bit. He was arrested once and then released. He was arrested a second time and then released again. Even so, he insisted on staying until the very moment he was martyred. He was assassinated by the security authorities. This obviously represented a particular stage: one of sacrifice. He used to sing a song with his younger comrades. Some of its lyrics were: “We called on them for reform– They responded to us with arms–There are no gangs in Hauran–Neither Brotherhood or Salafis–We are fed-up with rumors and lies. Even soap operas.” I do not have the complete song memorized, but each group of people would change the lyrics to reflect the people’s response to the [regime’s] propaganda about the presence of gangs.
There were a lot of people that wanted to settle scores with the regime. That is why, from the first day of the mobilization in Dar’a, people were communicating [with Dar’a] to see what role they could play. But there was no role to play. There are those that condemn me for bringing up the issue of arms, but there were people that were willing to offer anything, including funds and arms. The people that came out into the streets on 18 March  came out absent of any idea of interference by anyone else. They had the idea that they did not want anyone to have a hand in what they were accomplishing—this was the idea of self-dignity. Authoritarianism thrives on the lack of self-reliance. It thrives on corruption. We did not want to be beholden to anyone that [threatened to] stop their support. There was an intentional attempt to convince people that breaking the barrier had no value. This was done through arrests, torture, and death. Many of the victims were under the age of nineteen. The idea that they were trying to propagate was that all that had been accomplished could, in one way or another, be defeated by the security apparatus. Nevertheless, they failed in their attempt.
This is when the real danger began, as the mobilization spread to other areas, some of which contained sectarian agitation. This was a very sensitive issue. There were areas which featured reactions to a variety of forces from the previous period, whether they were sectarian or authoritarian. One can take pride in the fact that after thirteen months there is not a single sectarian incident in the governorate of Dar’a. This cannot be said of other regions, where there is sectarian agitation and sectarian reactions as a result of the authoritarian period, which then erupted during the social mobilization.
The central issue is the way in which a non-violent civilian movement was attracting the people. To give one example, there were about forty thousand people that came out to Dar’a on Fridays to participate in protests. There were no religious meanings, just a general civil understanding. The banners were clear: “We do not want the Brotherhood or Salafis, we want national unity.” The talk was about social justice and democracy. The talk was about a pluralistic civilian state. These were all slogans that were part of the protests, along with the insistence on non-violence. One of the slogans was “non-violence even though they kill a hundred every day.” People were expecting that on a single day a hundred people would be killed. We understood that the regime would reach deep down and give the worst that it has to offer. We were confident that it would not be able to drag us onto its playing field, and herein lays the root of all of our problems. This is where the external element finds a role. The media attempted to direct people in a direction that was far removed from the spirit of the revolution. When Dar’a was besieged, water, food, and oil were cut off. Yet, nobody starved because solidarity was at its peak. When [the regime] began targeting trucks coming into Dar’a, people from neighboring areas started transporting wheat to the town on donkeys. Consequently, they were not successful at besieging Dar’a, and the non-violent struggle was able to persist. The regime would target all the moderate elements of the mobilization. At one stage, the football field was filled with prisoners. Schools were also filled with prisoners. Most of those arrested were the most moderate of people and the ones with great capacity to affect public opinion. Those elements of the mobilization that were most extreme, either in rhetoric or ideology, were not arrested for several months. In addition to leaving them alone, the regime released a large number of criminals.
All of these issues need to be noted of in order to understand how a situation of revolution and revolutionary morals was transformed to that of a struggle between the revolution and the counter-revolution. We do not know who will emerge victorious from this struggle. The original and primary elements of the social mobilization had particular demands and were carrying a particular message. They understood themselves to be embarking on a historic mission. I would joke with the youth when on Skype with them, telling them that they were being written about in Japan. They would respond by telling me “they will write about us on the moon.” People understood they were doing something beautiful and that what was coming was going to be better. We wanted to be finished with dictatorship. They were learning democracy. Everyone was getting a turn to speak in public. For the first time people were giving speeches in the Omari Mosque. Sometimes those giving speeches would be killed by a sniper while being surrounded by tanks. Despite all of this, there was a women’s protest in Dar’a every day of the siege.
These are important facts that need to be remembered. People cannot just remember the revolution as a bunch of armed groups. This was a later development and not the initial state of the revolution.
BH: When did this later development begin?
HM: This second stage began with brutal events and reactions to them. We cannot describe these events as anything other than that they were without moral boundaries. They cannot be defended. The primary events were those surrounding the idea of the shabbiha [thugs]. This is the idea that there would be a group of people who would be paid to undertake dirty acts (i.e., persecution, torture, assassination, etc.), but not in the name of the army. The phenomena of shabbiha—which was very similar to that of the baltagiyya in Egypt—carried with it the seeds of all that can be called the security savagery. The security apparatus hired these thugs to do in the streets of Syria what they themselves were doing in the basement [underground security prisons] of Syria. People were now witnessing the torture of human beings in public squares. They were seeing how a woman could be denigrated and killed. These incidents were limited, but they we lessons. There was a belief [on the part of the regime] that developments could be stopped by such acts. This terrorism was captured in images and distributed by security personnel who would then sell the images for fifty dollars. But the fact is that they were distributing the images as part of their orders, and then making fifty dollars off of them [from those that would pay them for the images.]
However, what happened is that instead of being afraid in the face of these killings, people became prepared to kill. The idea now was that “he who is willing to do this to me, I am willing to kill.” This was especially the case in parts of society that were affected to their core. For example, there were families that lost four members out of five or six. Who is going to constrain the remaining siblings and tell them that they do not have the right to kill and seek revenge because we want to build a just society? We used to actually say this, but how are you going to control people’s emotions and actions? How are you going to control the emotions of a man that returns home to find his mother crying over the death of his siblings and he is yet to do anything? So the initial reactive events were individual acts. Sometimes they were committed by people that had nothing to do with the social mobilization but who were avenging the death of their siblings.
Here is where you have the beginnings of shooting [at the army and security personnel]. But this was only at a ratio of five percent to ninety-five percent. These events could not be spoken of in the face of a military-security plan against a revolution. But this is the period that provided the pretext for a broad deployment of the army. Nevertheless, this deployment led to more incidents like that of the Jisr al-Shuhur. We know that the people of the town asked those responsible to leave because the punishment would be collective. There is little to do given the repeated assaults [by the regime] and the fact that we are in a society where there is no deep culture of non-violence. Jihad is part of our culture, irrespective of the distinctions between different parts of jihad. This is when the idea of taking up arms first began to emerge, and hence be endorsed by various ideological groups. We have all paid the price for this. When the idea [of taking up arms] first emerged, it did so amongst some religious figures that were non-Syrian. Several Egyptian Salafis would call for jihad. These calls first began amongst non-Syrian religious figures, in Egypt, in the Gulf, and then amongst Syrians living outside of Syria. These groups of people encouraged the idea of taking up arms.
The rational line of argument, within the social mobilization as well as the external opposition, attempted to describe these developments as self-defense, and to limit armed operations to self-defense, rather than extend them to offensive maneuvers against the army. But the one thing that cannot be controlled is a rhetorical exchange through rifles. In fact, when communication is through rifles, the political discourse becomes marginalized. People that took up arms to defend themselves did not possess the political discourse that could address the actual issue of taking up arms. We thus cooperated with the regime in the same problem and crime. This crime was that of killing politics and replacing it with the military-security solution. This is when the conflicts amongst the ranks of the revolution and the political groups began to emerge. On the one hand, there was a side that insisted on non-violence. It considered the transition from non-violence to war mongering (irrespective of what name it was done under, whether it be self-defense, the reigning of gangs, or what have you) as playing on a field in which the regime is very skilled. Each revolution and war has its own morals, which differ greatly. In war, you do all you can to secure victory, as the ends justify the means. In revolution, you need to create new morals, which requires a complete break with the (im)morality of authoritarianism and corruption. You cannot practice bribery in a revolution, but you can do so in a war. You are willing to take money in war, even if it comes at the expense of your political independence.
The replacement of the rationale of revolution with the rationale of war has made us complicit in the practices of the regime. We are now in search of political money. We are now in search of financial resources. We have started to look for the ally that can provide us with the most arms, irrespective of whether they are democratic or not. The question now is who is willing to supply me and what do they have to offer. Whether or not that ally is Saudi Arabia has little bearing on the matter. The nature of this ally’s political system and the relationship with its people are no longer of import. These are not the morals of a revolution. A revolution is in solidarity with the downtrodden and oppressed in all places. The French revolution shook all of Europe because there are no borders to revolution. What happened in Syria is that the resistance to oppression, through the rational of war, has turned the revolution into one group fighting another group to take power. It is quite possible that neither the function or role of authority will change. There would only be limited change in creating a separation between different institutions. It is possible to bring down the regime, but it should not be done by replacing it with another regime. This is what there is to fear, and this is what has caused us to lose a large number of people. The revolution was a major force of attraction for a large segment of our society. Now it is a group that is capable of causing people to be afraid. [Hillary] Clinton is now in a position to demand assurances for the safety of Christians and minorities whenever she meets with factions of the opposition. It is as if we represent a threat to those groups. Certainly, it is not out of genuine concern that she makes these demands. But it is partly a result of our own mistakes, whereby people now believe this is not a civic revolution, but rather a Sunni revolution. Some have taken up slogans that terrify even the progressive Sunni to the point where she no longer wants the revolution or her Sunni identity. It drives one to say: “I do not want my Sunni identity. I am a citizen. I am a regular Muslim just like any other Muslim, irrespective of sect. We have always learned in school that there is one Islam and that we are all part of it. We have one book for everyone.”
This is where the fear of ideology and arms comes in. Ideology strikes at the Syrian whole, and harms the unity of Syrians in their battle for citizenship. It strikes at our ability to coalesce around a singular political program, while at the same time having differences as manifested through [different] political parties. This battle [for citizenship] is one in which the founding act must bring together everyone so that each person has a stake in the Syrian state and is not marginalized, either by its constitution or by its political functions. These are very important issues that were sidelined by particularist slogans, alliances, and even formations. The problem is, when, for example, twelve people consider constituting a formation of sorts, while at the same time fearing that there might be someone of a different sect or religion among them. Out problem began when what I call the counterrevolutionary elements infiltrated the social mobilization, at the expense of the primary elements of the Syrian revolution. When this happened, we started to hear slogans and words that even religion forbade, such as “damn your soul.” The soul is something that emanates from God, in both Islam and Christianity. So even in religious terms, there are slogans being advanced that are unacceptable.
The emergence of this problem in the context of a political struggle splintered the ranks of the social mobilization between two ideas: that critique was forbidden, and that critique would serve the revolution. Thus the logic of pragmatism and Machiavellian politics started to mesh with what I called “the logic of war rather than the logic of revolution.”
BH: Approximately when did this transformation occur?
HM: Certainly, by the end of the month of Ramada it had gained a lot of strength. Before this, it was present, and I had written about it. But by the end of Ramadan, there was a group of politicians, that I would call “a group of gamblers,” who took it upon themselves to make promises to the people and set specific dates. They made claims to the effect that the regime would fall in thirty days or two weeks. These are the people in the leadership of the [Syrian] National Council.
During the first of Ramadan, there was a pleasant gathering, wherein people were saying that the Eid would be a dual holiday this year. Then my brother was martyred on the eighth of Ramadan. When people came to pay their condolences, I told them that, “it seems we will not be celebrating any holiday.” They insisted that, “we will make-up for the martyr with two holidays. The regime will fall.” We need to monitor the regime, peruse its authoritarianism, and set limits for it within the rationale of our political understandings. Popular struggles are similar to floods. If you set up damns, you can harness the energy and make electricity. But if you do not take advantage of it, it simply runs off into the sea and becomes salt water. Our mission as political leaders is to figure out how to translate this popular energy into political gains, so that popular struggle translates into gains for the people. No one was talking about transition; they would simply say they wanted to bring down the regime. Of course we will bring down the regime, but there will be a transitional period whether we like it or not. If the regime falls, not everything will change. We do not want to bring down the regime in the [Paul] Bremmer way, by dissolving the [entire] state with one order. This is not how it is done. This is not what a revolution is.
It started as an attack on dialogue. Nobody wanted a dialogue. Of course the regime had a fundamental role to play in this, as it deformed the meaning of dialogue. It wanted to orchestrate everything and have the opposition simply fill in the halls. This is not dialogue.
BH: This was all before the establishment of the Syrian National Council.
HM: Yes, of course. The Syrian National Council began as an idea amongst a group of people. I do not know [exactly] who was behind it. They did, however, go to Istanbul with ample funding and the like. They put in work for about two months. They would pride themselves on showing us the criteria for members of the Council. I told them that according to these criteria Bashar [al-Assad] could become a member. The early phase of the Council would illicit more laughter than seriousness from me, because I believed that everyone who wanted to copy the Libyan model was estranged from the revolution rather than being part of it. Their actions would cause us, as a revolution, to pay the price. When the revolution regressed on a number of signposts, it was because of these people. Their starting point was to not have faith in the people, and therefore they believed in NATO, foreign intervention, and Turkey. They had every idea except that the people could free themselves. They are the ones that propagated the Libyan model, including changing the flag. Out flag is not Hafez al-Assad’s flag, nor is it Bashar’s [al-Assad]. It is not like the Libyan Qaddafi flag. Our flag is the flag of unification. The making of our flag is one of the most important events in Arab history: Syrian-Egyptian unification. This is the case whether we like it or not. With all due respect to those that carry the independence flag, it is a flag that has three stars. If we recall, when there was only one star represented, it represented the Statelet of Damascus and Halab. To this was added the Arab Mountain and Druze Mountain, what were called the Allawi Statelet and the Druze Statelet. So this flag has a sectarian history. Still, we carry the flag, and we claim it as an important part of our history. Now, forty years later, we have an experience called the Syrian-Egyptian unification. This is the only merger between two Arab states, with the exception of the Yemeni experience. We should not erase this history. Nevertheless, we held up the Libyan model as something to be emulated. This is why the first name of the [Syrian] National Council was the [Syrian] Transitional Council. This was a Libyan copy. Then the group felt somewhat ashamed of this fact and changed its name.
BH: You said that the Council transformed the revolution. But just a little bit. Again, you said that this transformation pre-dated the Council.
HM: The transformation occurred before the Council. I am saying that the Council made the situation worse by exacerbating developments. When Idlib was besieged and bombarded, for example, the people fled for refuge to Turkey. When you spoke to those refugees, they would tell you to let the devil come and save them. They did not want to live the rest of their lives as refugees like the Palestinian refugees. In other words, people began to produce a discourse that, on the one hand, sprang from prolonged struggle with the authoritarian regime. You are fighting dictatorship and believe it has not yet been shaken. It might not have been shaken in your personal, social, and political awareness, but it has been shaken on all fronts. Unfortunately, the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences demonstrated how the head [of a regime] gets cut off. So for a lot of people, so long as Bashar [al-Assad] was still around, nothing had changed for them. This is despite the fact that they had accomplished a lot. The Syrian revolution changed everything. It changed fundamental givens. It politicized hundreds of thousands of people. Where are these people going to go? No dictator in the world can govern over these people. It is over. Limits have been set on the dictatorship. Most of the people that used to defend it can no longer defend it. This is all a result of the accomplishments of the youth of the Syrian people. There has been a Syrian miracle. These people that have given so much, including more than fifteen thousand martyrs, over one hundred thousand persons that have “visited” a prison more than once (a third of which are still in prison), and approximately fifty thousand injured (forty percent of which might have sustained life-long injuries). These sacrifices were not made in order to sell five square kilometers of safety zone to Turkey, or for the sake of not knowing the future of Halab and Idlib in a new international agreement. We cannot sacrifice our primary independence for secondary independence, or one that we do not know of the borders and limits; democracy itself is no longer mentioned, not on Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiyya. It is no longer important to them. How many elections have happened in the history of Qatar? There was only one referendum, and not a single election. But now they want to establish democracy on our behalf? The same is true of Saudi Arabia. Does the Kingdom of Silence now want to establish the Republic of Silence?
The problem here is an existential one. The people revolted and made sacrifices for the sake of values: republic, democratic, and civic. These cannot be done away with in the interest of any ideology in the world. Gulf states are funding and mobilizing sectarian television channels to fan the flames of sectarianism in Syria.
Part IV A
Bassam Haddad (BH): Can you talk to us about the development of the Syrian National Council, their attempts to cooperate with the National Coordinating Body, and what became of those attempts?
Haytham Manna’ (HM): In my opinion, there are those inside the Council that would be better suited to answer this question. As for me, I can speak to the issue of the relationship [of the National Coordinating Body] with the Council, since I was involved from day one. There was a six-person Istanbul Group that met to discuss and debate the establishment of a [Syrian] Transitional Council along the lines of the Libyan model, which was exactly what it was called at the time, how it was envisioned, and why it was funded. This group attended a meeting with us that was organized by Azmi Bishara in Doha. We had a discussion wherein they proposed what it was they were trying to do. However, they were a minority in the meeting, which also included the National Coordinating Body, the Damascus Declaration, and the non-Muslim Brotherhood Islamists, even though had wanted the Brotherhood to attend. Unfortunately, not a single representative of the Kurdish community was invited, and I blamed Azmi [Bishara] for this fact. In this meeting, we reached an agreement that we called the Syrian National Coalition, which was a front designed to bring together the various Syrian political forces around the highest common denominator. So, in one way or another, we reached a certain level of agreement. At the time, Burhan Ghalyoun was a member of the National Coordinating Body and also presented himself as a member of the Damascus Declaration. So when each person introduced himself, he introduced himself as a member in both groups.
We were all trying to find a solution, and we did, in fact, establish an agenda. We then put it on paper to send it to the [Muslim] Brotherhood. Thereafter Shuqfi Abu-Hazim, who represented [the Muslim Brotherhood] movement, agreed to it. So we had established a broad-based agreement. Fifteen days after this, there was the Halboun meeting in Damascus, wherein we were trying to establish an organization (be it the Syrian National Coalition or otherwise) that would be able to absorb the largest number of Syrians possible. This is where we began to feel that there were those that wanted the launch point to be in Istanbul [rather than Damascus], that they would do everything in their power, including going at it alone, to undermine any other attempt, or would withdraw from the group if they failed to undermine an alternative plan. We felt like there was a program that could be called the Istanbul Program. We felt that there were those that were leading it and others that were funding it, whether people liked it or not. There was an incremental attempt to get various elements to join this program. Eventually, there was a process that resembled putting together a puzzle, whereby the outline was understood and the goal was to fill in the pieces: Islamists, leftists, the Damascus Declaration, etc. The difficulty emerged with the attempt to deal with the National Coordinating Body, because it is difficult to fit an elephant into a small Volkswagen.
What did they think was going to happen? I mean, we all knew each other. Three people were with the Salvation Front of Khaddam. They stopped the struggle when the [Muslim] Brotherhood stopped the struggle, and then they left the Brotherhood. There were others whom we did not know. Theirs were names that did not have any historic or political weight. Nevertheless, they were striving to lead the country and the people. I say this with all humility, but the project was much larger than them. Nevertheless, it appeared as though there were groups that wanted to create an [opposition] program with small players. This is the nature of our crisis in the [Syrian] National Council.
The make-up, preparation, and imposition of leadership did not proceed according to a real representative democratic formula for Syria. But nearly all external actors supported this formula. So we were faced with one of two choices: we could boycott this program, which would mean the end of unity among the opposition, or we could deal with it at face value and attempt to bring the program in line with a national civic democratic project. Some said they would try to change things from inside, and so they joined the [Syrian National] Council. The National Coordinating Body took the position of dialogue and refused to accept this formula as one of consensus. The choices of who got what position were no better than when Hafiz al-Assad would appoint his ministers. It was done in the same way using the same method; using even the same style and discourse. They were claiming to be the sole and legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, even though Article 8 [establishing the Ba’th Party as the ruling party in Syria] was still part of the constitution. What is the difference between them and the regime? We started to speak like the regime. We started to act like the regime. We even started to be funded like the regime. Where are the differences?
This is why I personally rejected any integration between the two groups and opposed even the idea of integration. I believed that this idea would corrupt the entire opposition. At least this way there would be opposition factions that would maintain their political independence. It is simply not possible for an organization wanting to arm a population in a neighboring country [i.e., Syria] to not be under the political control of the host country [i.e., Turkey]. We were insistent that there remain independent political factions so as to make up for the weak points of that segment of the opposition being propped up by external assistance. The alternative is that we all fail.
I do not have the right to accuse people in the Syrian National Council of treachery. However, I do have the right to plainly state that their political decision was subject to their political funding. Their political decision was subject to their political alliances and the search for recognition no matter the expense, and even at the cost of a discourse that sought to appease the Israelis and the West. It is not my mission to take on the Iranian nuclear file or Hizballah. My mission is to secure a democracy, to succeed in a democratic battle that will change Hizballah and the Lebanese framework. Once Syria sneezes, all of Lebanon will catch a cold. If democracy takes root in Syria, the entire sectarian system of Lebanon will fall. However, if a sectarian system is established in Syria, Lebanon will forever stay a sectarian system. For three thousand years, Damascus has affected Beirut, whereas Beirut, even if a lighthouse, did not affect Damascus. This is our history and geography. It is just like the case of Bahrain. Our brothers there have amazing horizons, but they will not be able to change Riyadh. This is the kind of discussion we tried to have with the [Syrian Nationa] Council from day one.
When the Arab League Plan came along, we set up a plan of action. At first, the [Syrian National] Council hesitated, but then it went along. The [Syrian National] Council did not like the Arab League plan, but they were told they had to accept it. This is what happens: you tell them to do something, and they do it. Out of good fortune, pressure was placed on them to accept the plan, and when they did, we began to negotiate with them for thirty-eight days. The dialogue was very serious and very beneficial, at least on our end. There were times that they would travel for twelve days at a time and we would not find anyone at the meetings. We would find ourselves in Cairo sitting by ourselves. At some point we felt that we were chasing after a dialogue and were ready to quit. However, there was pressure from the Arab League that both sides had to accomplish something by the end of the year so as to be taken seriously as an opposition. We were eventually able to reach an agreement on a text. It is not a text that I would consider exemplary, but it is one that brought the parties together. Until today, there is no text that has brought people together like this text [that we produced]. No matter what happens, the [Syrian National] Council is going to have a problem with the National Coordinating Body, the National Platform, and all the other groups that were not able to be part of the [Syrian National] Council.
Under these circumstances, we reached an agreement on a final draft of the text. But because of the travel of Abdel Aziz al-Khayyir and Raja al-Nasser, I had volunteered to represent our group. On the other side was Burhan Ghalyoun, who was in Cairo. So we signed the text. I had the authority to sign on behalf of our group, as did Abdel Aziz al-Khayyir and Raja al-Nasser, because our leadership already set the red lines. So, my respect for these red lines [and that of the agreement] allowed me to sign the agreement and brought on board the entire [National Coordinating] Body. Not one person in the [National Coordinating] Body came out and said they were against Haytham Manna’, because we respected the general agreed-upon line of the National Coordinating Body. We were one language, one rhetoric, and one program. This is what makes the National Coordinating Body unique.
Unfortunately, the other side shredded the agreement in a number of ways. After twelve hours [from signing the agreement], Burhan [Ghalyoun] denied the entire process. That is how we reached the state in which we arrived.
BH: How did this abandonment of the agreement occur on the part of the Syrian National Council?
HM: I want to mention something specific. My entire life, I did not like recordings. One time, I was talking with Munsif and he said that we should record our discussions to make the moment permanent. He pointed out how beautiful it would be for us to look back at this moment after fifteen years and see how activists, political figures, and human rights advocates came together during the revolution. In all honesty, I was for recording the discussions, because I had no faith in the other side. I felt that the last concern of the other side was to reach an agreement. They were meeting with us because they had to, not because they wanted to reach an agreement. They adopted the approach that they were building the state, and if people liked it they could join, and if they did not they could just not be a part of it. We were told that we could be the [Syrian National Council’s] first opposition since we were so keen on democracy and democracy includes opposition. It was the Arab League that had pressured them into reaching an agreement with us. But after we reached an agreement, several people came up with different excuses to backtrack. One person claimed that the leadership had not authorized Burhan [Ghalyoun].
I believe there were non-Syrian parties that did not want there to be a Syrian agreement.
HM: What I know is that Burhan [Ghalyoun] met with Hamad bin Jasem in Paris less than twenty-four hours after [the agreement was signed].
PART IV B
HM: [Unclear] . . . It cannot be said that this was his writing. Any writer, even if writing in a hurry, writes with a measured tone.
BH: You mean, a text denying that there was an agreement.
HM: Yes, exactly. He said that he was in support of foreign intervention by air and sea, but not by land. In other words, he was weaving together an explanation for supporting foreign intervention. In my opinion, these are all details.
The fundamental issue is that a decision in favor of unity amongst the Syrian opposition was not taken, and therefore this agreement had to be torn up. Otherwise, at the very least, the text could have been presented as a draft (if not a final agreement) to the [General] Syrian Conference. So, there clearly was a disagreement over the Syrian Conference with respect to the question of opposition. This is the bigger issue, not the text, as it can be changed. We signed the text as draft agreement that can be discussed at the General Syrian Congress. If it were to be decided at the Conference that the text needed to be amended, then we would have amended it. So there is no problem on this front.
In addition, the manner in which the text was attacked was one and the same as the manner in which one would attack the basis of cooperative [political] work. It was not just about attacking individuals or organizations. This is why we have not sat down to try and discuss another text. It has been four months of killing dialogue. This is because there is a theory on the part of some states that the Syrian National Council is the end all and be all, and that unity must occur through it. This is the theory of inclusion, whereby people that want to be included need to enter the organization. This way, the fundamental structure, the leadership, and the affiliation ratios remain the same. This is the root of our problem. Our problem is that the structure is undemocratic, our leadership has been selected for us, and now, even our role within it has been defined for us. This is why I say, “no.” There is no way this will be the form of our unity. Quite the opposite: this is precisely what will tear apart the opposition. It can be one of several groups within the opposition. It can take up to and no more than a third of the seats in the Syrian opposition. But it cannot exceed a third of the seats, because the non-Syrian influence should not extend beyond a third of the seats. This is a fundamental issue that speaks to the future sovereignty of the revolution. There are people that are not responsible for the positions they advance. We know this and so do they. These positions might be forced on them, but they will not be forced on us.
These are very important issues. Unfortunately, the Syrian citizen was made to understand something different and take up other slogans. They were told that a no-fly zone would splinter the army. They were told that there needed to be a humanitarian corridor, knowing full well that such a project has never been successful in human history. I was in Rwanda. One of the things that sets me apart is that I have been to every crisis zone, with the exception of Somalia. I have been to Kashmir, Peshawar, the former Yugoslavia (both Kosovo and Bonsnia), Gaza, Iraq, and many more. I did not learn about them on television. So when someone tells me we need observers like they had in Kosovo, I know the truth of people who made a few dollars off NATO and did nothing but stay in their hotels. Is Kosovo really the example? This is shameful. Those of us that know something about the issue know that the humanitarian corridor debate was for the sake of French cooperation, that the French government was trying to protect. This humanitarian corridor protected government employees more than it did [local] families. It would be a travesty to have a humanitarian corridor like that. We know very well what the historical realities are of these slogans and buzz words that people are using.
This is why we took a stand to stop the stripping away of the independence of the revolution. The revolution’s external orientation is accomplished in two ways: first is NATO, or Turkey, or whatever country-led intervention. We know when interventions begin, but we have no idea when they will end. This is especially the case given that the solider that enters Syria is not going to be a US solider, but a Turkish soldier, whose life, like that of the Syrian, is cheap. It will not make a difference whether Turkey loses six hundred or three thousand soldiers. We do not want to enter conflicts over sovereignty with a neighboring state with which we lack a good relationship—this will lead to a hegemonic relationship.
This is the issue around which there was a confrontation within the opposition, and where differences widened. This is when we started opposing the naming of Friday protests like the “Friday of Tribes.” This is when people started talking about foreign intervention, no-fly zones, and humanitarian corridors. There were no longer any social or political slogans. Nobody was talking about democracy. Not one head of the many security branches was cursed, criticized, or mentioned in a protest. The mission was transformed into how to justify and encourage foreign intervention. This was all done with Gulf backing, skewed media, and little awareness. All of this affected us, and caused the revolution to take a step back in favor of the counter-revolution.
Our problem developed and was complicated in parallel with our moving away from the fundamental principles toward issues that were not originally present. Let me give you a simple example: In five months of revolution, not one person told me to go to the European Union or the International Criminal Court to ask for this or that. In Tunisia, they were suggesting such a course of action after fifteen days. In Syria, people did not have any notion of a need for foreign intervention—it was implanted. This is why I argue that the idea came from above and not below. It was implanted from above and not an outgrowth of the people themselves.
BH: Why was this idea able to persist? The majority of the opposition in Syria is supportive of intervention. Is it possible that Syrians were so easily convinced in the manner you are describing? Is it a matter of conviction or one of despair and revenge?
HM: It is everything. There is despair. When someone says the regime will fall in thirty days, on the thirty-first day, he will feel like he did not accomplish anything, despite the fact that he sacrificed and struggled a lot. But you also have people who sell illusions. You know you have a problem when someone says, “a thousand NATO troops rather than one communist,” with regards to foreign intervention. They still think the communists are in charge in Russia. But more so, that someone will also claim that only fourteen homes were destroyed by NATO in Libya, going so far as to say that he saw it with his own eyes. This is the demagogy that was dominating the media. It influenced people at a time when they preferred illusions to the political reality. However, they are beginning to recall that the Coordinating Body had previously said that no good would come out of turning to the UN Security Council. They started to recall our previous positions when they experienced the fact that nobody was responding to their calls. Even their call for a humanitarian corridor was met with the reality that there is no party that is prepared to create that corridor. This is when they returned to rational calculations.
Today, there is a return to the idea that the revolution has to be politically rational and within the realm of the possible. They understand that revolution is an incremental rather than spontaneous process. All of these issues mean that we are currently standing at a new crossroad with new assumptions. The first of these assumptions is that violence can be nothing but a vehicle for extremism and sectarianism. It cannot be a vehicle for democracy. This is the biggest lesson we have learned from the past thirteen months. Democracy requires the distancing of violence from the political process. I believe that if we are successful in instantiating this requirement, we will be successful in moving towards a democratic alternative. However, if we are not successful, then the choices ahead of us are clear: sectarian struggle and regional wars.
BH: Most of the protesters believe in foreign intervention and are supportive of taking up arms. How does one deal with this situation, wherein on-the-ground people that are taking to the streets hold such positions?
HM: There is one issue that no one can do anything about. For example, you can never narrate the story of Baba Amro as it really occurred. No theoretical framework or scenario can capture the misery that occurred there. Therefore, reality is a more reliable source than books. The reality today is twofold: First, the notion of foreign intervention is no longer at the forefront of the minds of those that chose to take up arms, and consider arms as central to the balance of horror between themselves and the regime. They have a preference of receiving arms themselves rather than foreign intervention, because they no longer have faith in such an endeavor. Second, these groups are going to experience serious setbacks if a cease-fire is successful. This is why the most important aspect of our work right now is to maintain pressure on the regime, because it is the party that introduced the military solution. If a cease-fire is successful, the social base of support for violence will retreat. If it is not successful, then certainly a new set of questions will have to be explored, including what alternatives are there to the Kofi Annan Plan.
BH: Let us discuss one final point, about Hizballah and their support for the Syrian regime. Not everyone that is taking a critical stance against the authoritarianism of the Syrian regime is ready to withdraw their support for Hizballah and their resistance function. How do we explain this fact, given that Hizballah is understood amongst its supporters to be a principled party that has supposedly taken a position against repression? How do we support resistance while at the same time holding Hizballah accountable for their support of the Syrian regime? From what I have read of your writings, I get the sense that you have a similar position to mine wherein I think we should be critical of Hizballah’s support of the regime, but we should not equate Hizballah with the regime. How would you define your position?
HM: First of all, we need to remember the very important fact that the Syrian crisis is complex. Therefore, it is the combination of a number of calculations and equations. This is why it has persisted until today. It is not easy it establish a transitional period without taking into account both the nature of the state and its alliances, as well as the need for redefining the separation of powers within the state so that it can become a democratic state. I cannot judge people on the basis of a single relationship. There are alliances and animosities that might not continue if things should change. However, the role that the revolution in Syria wishes for itself in Lebanon and Palestinian cannot be a reactionary role. It must be a role that is commensurate with a great state as well as a progressive and enlightening project for the region. Like I have said, a democratic Syria means the fall of the sectarian system in Lebanon and not only in Syria. In this sense, there must be a deep and mature relationship with the various Lebanese factions and the social elements of Lebanon. We cannot allow Syria to be a part of the struggle between the March 8 and March 14 movements. We have commonalities with all the sides, and there are certain issues we cannot disagree on with those that resist Israel. Our liberation project is ahead of us and not behind us, as the Golan Heights remain occupied. Therefore, we cannot shelve the resistance issue. At the same time, resistance cannot occur in the absence of alliances. We need to understand that relationships with resistance groups will continue, whether they be the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hamas, Hizballah, or any other faction that in one way or another represents a symbol of resistance in the face of Israeli aggression.
We need to move away from a demagogic treatment of the issue to a rational one that builds toward a long-term future. We also need to ask others to consider a long-term strategic relationship with the democratic Syria of tomorrow.