Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'Combat has the upper hand'

Haitham Manaa, chair of the National Coordination Committee Abroad and a veteran Syrian opposition figure, explained that the regime could still be brought down by peaceful means, writes Bassel Oudat in an exclusive interview

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Haitham Manaa

A leading figure in the opposition to former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad and to his son, current President Bashar Al-Assad, Haitham Manaa, chair of the National Coordination Committee Abroad (NCCA), fled Syria in 1980 after being pursued by the country's security agencies because he belonged to a banned left-wing party.

Since then, he has lived in exile in Paris, becoming an activist defending prisoners who have been detained for their opinions but never abandoning his opposition to the Syrian regime. Today, he thinks that what began as a peaceful uprising against the Al-Assad regime has become thoroughly militarised, though he still believes that the regime can be overthrown by peaceful means.

The security solution employed by the Al-Assad regime has meant that the use of arms has spread to the opposition forces, Manaa said, and that in the absence of negotiations seeking a political solution the fighting would continue.

A ceasefire would be the "fundamental condition" before any discussion of the crisis could begin, he said, and negotiation with the regime could not begin in the absence of the NCCA's four conditions, shared by other opposition groups: the withdrawal of army forces, release of prisoners, permission for peaceful demonstrations, and prosecution of those responsible for the killing.

In his exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Manaa said that a ceasefire, including by the armed opposition, was a "fundamental condition that must be met before thinking about any political process. We cannot proceed to negotiations without meeting the NCCA's four conditions. Without these, the battles will continue."

Regarding the need for the armed opposition to observe any ceasefire, he said that "these days we are only talking about combat, and we have forgotten the democracy and freedom for which we have lost the lives of 25,000 martyrs. Violence is now part of a process, but it cannot be an end in itself or a solution to the crisis. The solution must be a political one, and we are trying to restore a respect for politics and for peaceful civic struggle."

"We are now talking about war in Syria and no longer about a revolution. This means bringing death and destruction to Syria and an end to the nation, its infrastructure and people. Therefore, there must be a ceasefire."

Although all the armed brigades theoretically share the same goal of overthrowing the regime, Manaa said that "the Syrian regime rejects change, but some armed groups also mock the democratic agenda for change because they oppose secularism, whether in the form of dictatorship or democracy."

"These armed groups are made up of Syrians carrying arms outside the regular army, and they include Salafis and even foreigners. Officers who have defected from the regime, whether organised in brigades or not, belong to the armed groups, but they do not account for all the combatants. Some people today are forming brigades in a way and with funds that make them militias, but few people are daring to point this out," Manaa said.

"The regime's military crackdown has spread weapons throughout the country, and this has given combat the upper hand. Some people are still too scared of using certain words or citing certain incidents because they do not want to give ammunition to the regime. However, we are in a struggle to save Syria, and this must be respected even if some in the opposition will criticise this opinion."

Manaa is also spokesperson for the Arab Commission for Human Rights, and he said that the Syrian opposition was compiling material to prosecute the regime for the crimes it has committed without waiting for the political process to begin.

"It is critical not to wait for the political process before launching the legal one. We will benefit from international human rights law and civil mobilisation to launch investigations into crimes committed in Syria. No one will escape punishment, and it will be a great honour for defenders of international justice for Syria to set this precedent," Manaa said.

Manaa talked of the war crimes committed by the regime and proposed the creation of a special tribunal to investigate the deaths that have occurred. The International Red Cross has also said that the Syrian crisis will have legal ramifications regarding war crimes and compliance with the Geneva Conventions by members of the regime.

There have been many Arab and international initiatives to end the fighting, most recently the Arab League and UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's proposal to hold an international conference on Syria to be attended by all the country's forces, including regime representatives not involved in the killing.

Also attending would be the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the EU, regional states and the Arab League, and Manaa originally proposed this idea to the international parties via the NCCA.

"I hope Brahimi will call for an international conference on Syria to be attended by all regional and Syrian players in order to make sure that everyone shoulders their responsibility. There is a civil war in Syria, and it is no longer feasible to talk about immunity in the fire of sectarian turmoil and civil war. It is now urgent to find a fire-fighting team that can put out the blaze and end the regional and international hypocrisy."

Responding to the belief of some in the opposition that a political solution to the crisis could be to go back to square one and even represent a victory for the regime, Manaa said that "we suggested to Brahimi and the Security Council the idea of an international conference on Syria. This was because the Friends of Syria group is made up of countries that have adopted one opposition group and excluded others, while also ignoring the Security Council and regional countries."

"These countries [in the group] have peddled delusions such as of a humanitarian corridor and a buffer zone, as well as the fantasy of foreign military intervention. But all this has been shown to be futile."

"The most effective course today is to find a strategy for political action that will end the violence in Syria and achieve a transfer of power. This could be accomplished at a conference that brings together all the players. We want a solution to the Syrian problem within a balanced framework that opens the door for a political solution that corresponds to the aspirations of the Syrian people, who have so far paid the highest price in the Arab Spring."

"We are committed to the three 'no's': no to violence; no to sectarianism; and no to foreign intervention."

Commenting on the possibility or need for a united opposition front, Manaa said that "the Syrian opposition has not improved its performance and some have even dealt with others in a dictatorial manner. In all honesty, the Syrian opposition has not been up to par in this unique revolution."

Discussing the issue of a central body for the opposition today, he said that "the problem today is the escalating violence that is destroying the people and the country in the absence of a political and military strategy for both the ruler and the ruled. Each side is trying to defeat the other militarily, not with a mindset that military action supports a political programme, but with the logic that a military solution is an alternative to a political one."

Manaa, who has refused to go to Syria despite Russian guarantees, concluded the interview by saying that "the Syrian people have paid a very high financial price, more than $100 billion in destroyed property, for example. Estimates of the destruction in Homs put the bill at more than $9 billion and in Aleppo at more than $14 billion. Entire towns and villages have been wiped off the map."

"In modern history, violence has never once begotten a democratic system. As the violence rises, it creates exclusionist groups that do not accept or interact with others and that gradually eradicate all forces unlike themselves. For this reason, we are not only worried about the infrastructure of the country, its people and the future of Syrian unity. We are also worried about democracy if the fighting continues."

"This is why we are so persistent about wanting to see a ceasefire. A truce does not mean surrendering to the authorities, or the ruler, or the victory of one party over the other. It means the victory of the Syrian people and the Syrian nation. That is why we are fighting for an end to the destruction and combat."

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