About Farouk al-Sharaa, Again

A boy stands near buildings damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet of forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at Zamalka near Damascus 19 December 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Karm Seif /Shaam News Network/HO)

By: Ibrahim al-Amin

Published Thursday, December 20, 2012

I understand that statements by a Syrian official at the level of Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa are important on many levels and what he had to say in his recent interview with Al-Akhbar will spark a great deal of debate.

But it appears that those concerned did not just focus on the substance of the interview, they went on to raise a number of other questions regarding how it was conducted, who proposed it, and in what capacity was the vice president speaking.

For example, many asked about where it was done, why wasn’t it conducted in the usual question/answer format, why wasn’t there a picture to go with it, and was a third party involved in any way.

Then comes another set of questions about Sharaa himself: Was he at ease during the interview? Did he appear to be under house arrest? Was contact with him made directly or through security officials? Did he seem to be on top of what is happening in the country?

Strangely, these questions were not only raised by fellow reporters, but by diplomats and intelligence operatives from a number of countries.

After the interview was published, there was yet another wave of questions: How did the official media deal with the whole affair? Why did some outlets, like the official Syrian news service SANA, publish it, while state television ignored it? Was the print edition of Al-Akhbar carrying the interview even allowed into Syria?

Arrangements for the interview were rather ordinary, the same way such contacts are made with other Syrian officials: a telephone call followed by a preliminary appointment, a meeting place in Damascus was set, and then on to his residence where the interview was conducted.

Sharaa was calm and collected, carefully choosing his words. He was comfortable as there was no camera or recording device. We did not discuss the possibility that there would be doubts as to whether the interview actually occurred, but the vice president did say that his office would issue a statement to confirm that it took place.

It did not occur to either of us that a question/answer format was necessary, although what was published was the result of an exchange of questions and answers. We agreed that I would send him those parts that would be attributed to him for verification, and this did in fact happen, whereby he responded fairly quickly.

The print edition of Al-Akhbar was allowed into Syria the day the interview was published. It is true that the Syrian censors are not working as hard as they used to, but in this case the paper was released into the market where it disappeared quickly. It seems to have reached all those who had a subscription, including a number of government officials and private institutions.

It was not my concern whether Sharaa was speaking as an individual or on behalf of the regime. What was important were the positions he took on a number of critical matters that can be placed into three categories.

This first is a personal assessment of the crisis and the way the regime dealt with it. The second reflects the kinds of discussions taking place in the upper echelons of the state. And the third goes to the heart of the matter, i.e. his vision for a solution.

On this last point, it is important to note that many foreign officials from Russia, China, Iran, and the UN have heard from President Bashar al-Assad himself that the regime is prepared to talk with the opposition without conditions.

Though true that many elements want things to remain as they were before the uprising, the vast majority – and particularly those with decision-making powers – understand that there can be no turning back.

Even those who are engaged in a confrontation with the armed opposition know that their operations, which they label as defensive, are meant to pave the way for a negotiated compromise that will likely lead to a profound transformation of the state and all its institutions.

Internationally, there was a particular focus on what Sharaa meant by “historic settlement” and the nature of his criticisms of some of the regime’s actions. The Americans have concluded that the vice president is a rebel of sorts, while the French interpret his actions as an attempt to maneuver his way into a transitional role.

As for the Saudis, they rejected everything he said and have hated him for many years now. The Turks, for their part, see in him a stubborn opponent, despite his critical positions.

In the opposition, one gets a sense that those who speak on its behalf are suspicious of anything that any government official has to say. Some interpreted Sharaa’s comments as a signal of the weakness of the regime, while the armed groups paid no attention to it whatsoever.

Members of the internal opposition, in addition to some Baathists, complained that the official television stations completely ignored the event. Amid these criticisms, reports circulated that Sharaa did not want his comments to be selectively aired, suggesting that there are different views within the regime as to how to deal with the interview.

Finally, on the leadership level, there are those who said that Sharaa has no right to publicly air his criticisms as it will negatively impact the army’s morale. Others were more favorable, arguing that it is important to show that the discussion inside the regime is not limited to military commanders.

A third group maintained silence, perhaps waiting to see if Sharaa had coordinated his comments with Assad or not.

Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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