Aref Dalila: Negotiation is Forbidden

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Syrian opposition figure Aref Dalila (C) attends the opening session of "The National Conference for Syria Salvation" in Damascus 23 September 2012. (Photo: Khaled al-Hariri)

By: Marah Mashi

Published Thursday, October 11, 2012

Syrian opposition veteran Dalila tells Al-Akhbar that the regime is as unserious about dialogue with its home-based critics as it ever was, despite allowing some to hold a conference in Damascus.

Damascus - Aref Dalila, the veteran opposition figure and member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change in Syria (NCC), has no time for those who use the latter epithet merely to try to absolve themselves of responsibility for the crisis.

“If there really is a conspiracy, as claimed, you have to ask why those who hold to the idea of a conspiracy did not prepare in advance to counter it and safeguard against it,” he remarks. There are indeed conspiracies being played out in Syria, he says, by individuals “who seek to serve their personal interests and acquire more of what they do not deserve.” But the crisis in the country is an “objective phenomenon,” and the blame for it lies with the regime, which “created conditions that enable every possible conspiracy and plot to be hatched.”

Dalila draws parallels with the former Soviet Union, where “the suppression of freedom of opinion enabled corruption to become endemic, leading to its internal collapse without any external aggression.”

What we are witnessing today is “a mixture of a revolution, an armed insurgency, and a conspiracy,” says the economist and former political prisoner, “but primarily it is a revolutionary movement. It is a continuation of the long struggle of the Syrian people.... against corruption and for change and political and economic reform,” which has always been countered with “savage repression” by the authorities.

So why has it been unsuccessful? “The reason the struggle in Syria has not been resolved is because the regime acted to militarize it,” he affirms.

Dalila is keen to point out that the protests erupted after decades of struggle for political reform by dissident groups and individuals like himself, during which “tens of thousands of Syrians were jailed, most of whom were arrested for their patriotism and their opposition to corruption, not for any crime defined by law.”

He recalls the brief “Damascus Spring” of 2000, after Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as president, and argues that if the relaxation of controls on freedom of expression witnessed during that period had continued, enabling “peaceful, open and civilized” political debate, conditions today would have been radically different.

He is scathing about the supposed reforms introduced by the regime since then. The amendment of the constitution last year replaced formal one-party rule with “a free hand for every individual in a position of power,” he remarks, while the emergency law was replaced with “an even worse alternative” in the shape of the new anti-terror law. Neither the regime’s nature nor its methods have changed over the past four decades, he reiterates, except for the worse.

Dalila sees no serious sign that recent developments have made the regime more accommodating, and, with a smile that belies his years spent behind bars, dismisses the notion that the regime has been calling for dialogue while the opposition has been refusing it. “How can you sit down at the negotiating table when you are forbidden from speaking? The situation today has become worse in terms of freedoms,” he remarks.

Nor does he see the fact that the authorities allowed the NCC to hold its National Conference for the Salvation of Syria in Damascus last month as a sign of newfound goodwill. “The authorities tried by every means to interfere and influence the conference, but the NCC rejected this interference,” he says.

Moreover, three NCC leaders – Abdul-Aziz al-Kheir, Ayas Ayyash, Maher al-Tahhan – were detained two days before the conference, and their whereabouts remains unknown. Dalila does not believe the official denial that they were arrested by the security forces. “The regime has often denied making arrests and later been shown to have been lying,” he recalls. “Even if it did not arrest them – and we are sure that it did – it is responsible for every citizen in the country, seeing as it monopolizes power and doesn’t allow anyone a say in decision-making.”

Dalila acknowledges that Russia played a role in the NCC gathering, but says this was confined to “facilitating obstacles that were faced by the conference,” and does not accept the charge that Russia’s endorsement of the meeting shows that the NCC is out of touch with the street, given that protesters had earlier raised anti-Russian slogans. He is equally unimpressed by allegations by exile-based opposition groups that the home-based opposition is unrepresentative and its leaders are self-serving, remarking that tens of thousands of people who spent lifetimes in jail cannot be dismissed as opportunists.

He does concede that all opposition groups were taken by surprise by the outbreak of the protests last year.

Dalila defends deserters from the Syrian army as honorable men who refused orders to shoot and kill peaceful protesters, and believes most have only been defending themselves and demonstrators, and have not been engaged in the widespread acts of destruction, killings and abductions committed by various groups, including foreign mercenaries or terrorists who have more recently been coming in across the country’s increasingly porous borders. The regime has from the outset cited the presence of gunmen “as an excuse to use the weapons and ammunition which the Syrian army has been stockpiling for decades to defend the country and liberate the occupied land against people demanding the change of the regime.” He still uses the term “Syrian Arab Army” but wonders what happened to its original purpose of fighting Israel and any other foreign aggressor.

“Who is it who internationalized the Syrian question?” he asks. “It is the regime that shirked its own responsibility and took the matter out of the hands of the Syrian people where it should be. After the events began it insisted on referring the issue to the Arab League and then to the United Nations, with the aim of gaining time in the hope of achieving the victory it promised itself by military means.”

Meanwhile, the economy – as Dalila, a former dean of Damascus University’s economics faculty, has been warning for months – is collapsing fast, and in worse shape than it has ever been. He is confident, however, that the Syrian people have the capacity to rebuild the country “once there is a ceasefire, the UN plan is implemented, and an immediate start is made to the rebuilding and reconstruction process under a regime worthy of a modern, pluralist, democratic state ruled by law.”

Asked his view of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the Western-backed opposition coalition which sees itself as the Syrian people’s spokesman and is hostile to the NCC, Dalila merely notes that all the Syrian political and military groups active today are “new and temporary formations. They are the products of the exceptional circumstances in which they were established, and they will not remain as they are in future.”

He stresses that what is needed, therefore, is for all political groups to be allowed to operate freely in the country – with guarantees that freedom of expression, opinion and media will be upheld – and for Syrians to be able to choose between them and decide which represent them and reflect their aspirations.

Dalila says he was not consulted before he was nominated as a member of a so-called “Council of Sages” which former SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun has reportedly been trying to put together. In any case, he adds: “events on the ground have gone beyond talking about a Council of Sages. I was the first to propose such a thing in television interviews, but that was one month after the start of military action against the demonstrations. Now it is the voice of the bullets that is prevailing, and no person or object in Syria is safe from this terrible war.”

The pressing need today, he says, “is to start seriously – and, regrettably, with international participation – to move toward implementing the Geneva Conference proposals for the formation of a fully-empowered transitional government so as to stop the fighting, free the detainees, being relief work, bring home the internally and externally displayed, and carry out the political reforms needed to build a new regime.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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