Foreign Intervention: Debating the Taboo of the Syrian Opposition

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Haitham al-Maleh (L), president of the Syrian National Salvation Congress and Abdul Razak Eid (R), president for the national council of Damascus declaration abroad during a press conference on 10 October 2011 at the CAPE, a foreign press center in Paris. (Photo: AFP - Michel Gangne)

By: Ernest Khoury

Published Saturday, October 29, 2011

Paris - In Syria, the mere mention of foreign intervention is enough to divide the opposition into warring camps. This is at least how things appear on the surface. Close examination of the Syrian opposition parties’ positions, however, reveals that there is not that much difference between them.

The term ‘foreign intervention’ is interpreted differently, depending on who you talk to in the opposition. It ranges from urging foreign powers to put pressure on the regime to demanding direct military action. But the significance of such distinctions is lost on some prominent opposition figures in Paris, such as Haytham Manna, a leading member of the National Coordination Committee (NCC). He insists that anyone who mentions foreign intervention is a traitor, and that includes members of the Syrian National Council (SNC).

Perhaps the Libyan precedent, which started out as a UN resolution calling for “intervention to protect civilians” and ended with NATO bombardment of Libyan cities, is an obstacle to serious debate. While some in the opposition have come to the conclusion that there is no way of bringing about the fall of the Syrian regime without foreign assistance, others fear that the mere mention of international support is a breach of Syrian sovereignty and a prelude to the bombardment of Syria, and perhaps its occupation.

The opposition in Syria that is recognized by the regime is dismissed as mere window dressing by the opposition in Paris. One of them is Qadri Jamil, the secretary-general of the National Committee for Unity of Syrian Communists. For him, any mention of protecting civilians by a foreign force will necessarily lead to the occupation of Syria. According to Jamil, the SNC is unpatriotic because “it demands military intervention to protect civilians.” This is a position that is also shared by ‘unrecognized’ opposition members such as Haytham Manna. This is the extreme side of those who refuse to even mention any external solutions for the Syrian problem.

There is also the opposite extreme camp, represented by prominent opposition members such as Haitham al-Maleh, or some obscure ones such as the journalist Fahd al-Masri, who used to work for media organizations owned by the ex-vice president, Rifaat Assad. For them, military intervention is not just a possibility, it is practically a demand. They believe that the Syrian regime will not fall without it and that Syrian lives cannot be protected in any other way. So while al-Masri, who lives in Paris, insists that unconditional military intervention should take place, al-Maleh, who comes from an Islamist background, describes his position as part of a simple mathematical equation, stating that foreign military intervention against the regime remains, despite all its problems, better than the survival of the Assad regime. Al-Maleh says that this is particularly true because the air strikes associated with this intervention “will not hit civilians, they will target the regime institutions,” and therefore “destroying stones is better than killing people,” (as the regime does).

Between these two camps, some prominent opposition members, including members of the National Council and the National Coordination Committee, believe that the debate on the possibility of a military intervention is essentially being carried out in the wrong way. For example, the veteran opposition member Michel Kilo believes that the Syrian people cannot agree to any military intervention or to an occupation of their country, and therefore the issue is not even a possibility. Alternately, leaders of the National Council, such as Dr. Burhan Ghalioun and Dr. Bassma Kodmani, believe that forces of foreign intervention, be it the West in general or Turkey, or both, are not prepared to carry out a war or to pay its bills. They therefore believe that discussion of this issue distracts the debate and serves as a chimera that benefits the regime’s survival and facilitates its accusations of treason against millions of adversaries. This is why their official position, at least that of the National Council, insists that peaceful foreign intervention in Syria should serve a specific and limited end. That end is to strengthen the pressure of the country’s widening protest movements on the regime and cause massive divisions in the political and military apparatus which would lead to the regime’s downfall.

Kilo reminds us that the Syrian opposition warned the regime at the beginning of this crisis that the use of violence to solve a political problem would “open the door to foreign intervention. The same goes for sending the army to the Turkish, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Jordanian borders because this will necessarily cause the intervention of these countries.” Kilo adds, “Today, there is no one who is not interfering in Syrian affairs, including Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, America, China, Russia, even the Phalangists (being ironic) and the Islamists in Tripoli. Syria no longer has any sovereignty. If the regime carries on with its current policies, then the crisis will lead to yet more foreign intervention.” Kilo thinks, “The regime never enjoyed internal legitimacy, it has always relied on external legitimacies to survive. When it lost this external legitimacy, it did not seek to foster other internal ones. In fact, it tried and is still trying to look for a new foreign cover. Therefore, what we need is Arab help to protect us and not foreign intervention.”

Fayez Sara agrees with his colleague Kilo. He insists that the only unacceptable form of foreign intervention is military. This notion can be considered as a joining of the dots with the opposition from the National Council, whose position is summarized by Ghalioun, when he says that the Council is confident that foreign pressure, in the form of positions, statements, sanctions, Arab and international observers and foreign media, is essential for protecting civilians and not to the overthrow of the regime, because this task is the responsibility of Syrians themselves.

But it is well known that the rejection of any military intervention by the officials in the National Council is not agreed upon by all its members. This exposes internal differences of this opposition body, who only agree on the need to overthrow the regime. One of the main sides in the Council, the Muslim Brotherhood, has a completely different discourse than Ghalioun and Kodmani, for example. This is why members of the council, such as Farouk Taifour, Najib al-Ghadban and their secretary-general, Muhammad Riyad al-Shaqfa, have no qualms about taking positions that are contradictory to those announced by the official spokespeople of the Council. They have proclaimed that military intervention is imminent and that Turkey will play a role in it, particularly in enforcing the no-fly zone on Syrian military jets and imposing an arms-free zone. Perhaps they hope to create a Syrian Benghazi to act as a launching pad for the regime’s overthrow.

Because the concept of international protection and its implementation is a delicate and sensitive matter, members of the SNC are working hard to find a new interpretation that will prevent the regime from continuing its repression, on the one hand, and avoid military intervention on the Libyan scale, on the other, according to Kodmani. The spokeswoman for the Council says that “faced with these complications, we have to find other means of support and foreign protection which are different from the Libyan experience... The situation is difficult because the principle of protecting civilians was implemented in Libya for the first time in history. But we have to invent other ways of implementing it in Syria by looking at historical precedents other than military intervention in the Libyan example. This could be in the form of protected areas or humanitarian corridors, where there is no room for the military element...”

Parties allied to the council, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have publicly called for military intervention. The council spokeswoman thinks this is because the Brotherhood wants to “be in tune with feelings on the street which call for military intervention.” She realizes that the SNC wants a conciliatory solution to this issue. “We know that the street wants military intervention, which we and the international community reject.”

Kodmani’s assertion that uprising Syrians want military intervention to rid them of Assad and are pressuring the council to act opens up new contradictions. In Paris, they say that the people who are protesting in the streets know the situation on the ground better. They have decided what they want and they understand that the regime cannot be overthrown without military intervention. This is a hypothesis that is confirmed by one Paris activist now exiled for decades. They even go as far as insisting that “the reason for establishing the National Council was just to find a party to demand foreign intervention and international protection.” The same activist says that people in Syria want military intervention, but he thinks that talking about military intervention is just a threat, “because when the regime feels that the world wants to intervene, it will fall.”

But if it is true that Syrian protesters want military intervention, there is a big dilemma for opposition parties. If they do not call for this intervention, then they do not reflect the demands or the spirit of the Syrian revolution. But if the opposition calls for military intervention publicly, whether they call it international protection or civilian protection, they will appear to a large sector of Syrians and non-Syrians as if they are urging the destruction of their country and even its occupation, as everyone agrees that the ‘international community’ is just a cover for Western interests. What could start with simple steps under the banner of civilian protection in a sensitive context like in Syria could turn quickly into assassination, partition, instability, hegemony, and a redrawing of the map of the region.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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