Haitham al-Maleh: Yes to International Intervention in Syria

By: Ernest Khoury

Published Friday, October 14, 2011

Prominent Syrian opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh made headlines when he called for the UN to intervene against the regime. Al-Akhbar caught up with al-Maleh in Paris to get his perspective on the matter.

Ernest Khoury (EK): Your call for NATO intervention in Syria, and then your retraction of that call, caused a lot of controversy. Are you for foreign military intervention, or against it?

Haitham al-Maleh (HM): My statement to Al Jazeera was misunderstood because of distortion on the phone lines. I do not and did not agree to NATO intervention. I support intervention by the United Nations and international organizations. NATO means America and I’m against that. But it’s different when the Security Council intervenes. That provides an international umbrella, which is what is needed. Syria is part of the international community, and we as a people who are persecuted in every sense by the regime have the right to turn to the UN and the Security Council for protection.

EK: What if the Security Council authorizes NATO to intervene in Syria? What would your position be then?

HM: There would be no problem then. If that happens, NATO would be subject to the Security Council and its mandate. That would guarantee that the intervention would not turn into an occupation. When they occupied Iraq, it was without a UN resolution. But when the UN intervenes, the party intervening is bound by resolutions and is obliged to comply with them. What happened in Iraq is unacceptable. But what happened in Libya is different. I want protection for these people who are being slaughtered. We have no other option. This regime is forcing the people to resort to this game. The regime is committing two crimes: killing people, and forcing them to seek protection from international organizations. I called on Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi to solve the problem via the League. Otherwise, we have no choice but to turn to international organizations. Give us another option!

EK: Whether it has UN cover or not, military intervention would mean bloodshed and destruction. Even with that in mind, do you mean to say that destroying the country would be better than keeping the current regime?

HM: There are no good options here. The issue is which is the least bad. This regime has destroyed society and the country, and more importantly it has destroyed people. Destroying streets and buildings is not as bad as destroying people and society. Stones can be replaced, but people cannot. Are we supposed to put up with these crimes on the grounds that we must not let the outside world intervene? Nothing has changed in 11 years of Bashar Assad’s rule. Five months after he took office, I urged him to settle outstanding matters. I sent him eight letters but he did not reply. (Presidential advisor) Bouthaina Shaaban and the minister of culture at the time, Riyad Naasan Agha, offered to hold a dialogue with me. I agreed unconditionally, but it was all futile. Despite that, I went back and urged the president a month and a half ago to step down in favor of Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, as a prelude to forming a government of technocrats and holding elections.

EK: Do you think people inside Syria agree with your call for foreign intervention?

HM: The Syrian people demand international protection, and indeed they organized a ‘Friday of International Protection.’ More than 60 or 70 percent of the Syrian people oppose this regime. These people have reached the point where they no longer have options and can no longer bear the situation. When I explained that we do not want NATO military intervention, Syrians living in the country contacted me and rebuked me, saying ‘who gave you a mandate to reject military intervention?’

EK: Aren’t you hoping, for example, for a split in the army or a military coup? And would militarizing the popular protests be a solution?

HM: A military coup or a major split is possible. That is one scenario. But militarizing the revolution is not a solution. I fear things getting out of hand and weapons spreading among people. The street cannot necessarily be controlled. But soldiers can be, so there’s nothing to fear from a split in the army. I also fear that with weapons, sectarianism could come into play, so it could turn into a sectarian civil war. That is why after I left prison (in May), I acted quickly to deal with the sectarian problems that occurred during the revolution between Alawis and Sunnis in Homs. We did the same a few years ago after the events in al-Qamishli between Kurds and Arabs. I have taken a stand against arming the revolution and against sectarian conflict — and indeed, sectarian conflict remains limited thanks to the awareness of the Syrian people.

EK: When you talk of international intervention, don’t you fear the prospect of Syria being occupied?

HM: I am not afraid of the occupation scenario, because we simply cannot be occupied. We are an Arab nationalist and Muslim people and there is no fear in this regard. Today, the occupation scenario is far-fetched. Two things are likely to happen: first, the economy is in total collapse, despite the regime’s attempts to pretend otherwise. The deterioration of the economy will bring down the regime without a doubt. In parallel, we are pressing for the regime to be completely isolated – starting with the withdrawal of ambassadors from Damascus and the expulsion of Syrian ambassadors abroad. That has indeed been done by Italy, Switzerland, the Gulf Cooperation Council states (with the exception of the United Arab Emirates), Libya, and Tunisia. Also, the Egyptian foreign ministry promised me that Cairo would not appoint a new ambassador in Damascus. The regime will be on its own after sanctions against its leaders are tightened.

EK: How do you view the positions of Russia, China, and Iran?

HM: What matters most is the Russian position, because China takes its lead from Moscow. The Russians will definitely turn against the regime soon, even though they don’t understand politics. I warned the Russian ambassador in Cairo that Moscow’s position on Libya had lost it the Libyan market, but its position on Syria would make it lose the entire Arab world. Now they have an opportunity, if they do not want to continue being stupid. As for the Iranians, they know full well that the regime is going to fall, so they are trying to reserve a place for themselves in the forthcoming Syrian regime. When Syria changes, Iran will change. As for the US, which has long been the regime’s protector, I think they have now decided to get rid of the regime, because they understand that the regime is on its way out and finished – unlike Israel, which still wants the Assad regime to survive.

EK: Why haven’t you formed a broad opposition front?

HM: The Syrian opposition’s problem is that all of its figureheads lived for 50 years under a repressive totalitarian regime which banned everything related to political life. This led to political desertification. Therefore, the opposition has no leaders. Now that people have broken free, they all want to engage in politics without seeing clearly the road in front of them. I don’t see this as a malaise. It’s natural for everyone to find their way like this. The traditional opposition (the National Coordinating Council) represents only a minority. The Damascus Declaration group, of which I was a founder but then withdrew, has become ineffective due to repression. Today, there is a major effort underway to establish a joint framework for the opposition. The National Council that was formed in Istanbul is not exactly what we would like. Rather, it is a framework or a group of young people who emerged from a series of conferences that were held abroad.

EK: How do you view the National Coordinating Council, which has come to be known as the ‘internal opposition?’

HM: It is clear that their ceiling is lower than the Syrian revolution’s. They have not called clearly for the overthrow of the regime. Before I left Syria on July 10, I was one of the first to work on establishing what became known as the Coordination Council. But I found that they were working behind my back, so I did not continue working with them. Besides, I have my differences with the thinking, mindset, and behavior of Hassan Abdul Azim and his colleagues. They sidestepped me just as the ‘Istanbul Council’ group did. Nobody can sidestep Haitham al-Maleh.

EK: After the fall of the regime, do you want Syria to be a purely civil state or a civil state with an Islamic basis?

HM: I am for a pluralistic civil state whose form of government is chosen by its future parliament.

EK: As an Islamist, how would you reassure minority groups in Syria that fear for their future in the event of the regime falling?

HM: The fear among minorities was created by the regime. When we had a democratic system, a Christian, Fares al-Khoury, was head of government and minister of Islamic endowments, and even acted as head of state for a while in lieu of Hashim al-Atassi. Our people are not sectarian bigots. It is true that the regime destroyed the individual, but in general they remain excellent. There’s no cause to fear for the Christian, Druze, or Alawi minorities – the regime is not Alawi in any case. The sectarian incidents that occurred were caused by the regime, because it wants sectarian strife. But the Syrian people are aware. Such incidents will remain isolated.

EK: Hezbollah continues to justify its support for the Syrian regime on the grounds that it is anti-imperialist and that its survival guarantees the survival of the Lebanese resistance.

HM: There is a prior accusation against us implicit in that. Of all the Arab peoples, the Syrians are the most Arab nationalist, patriotic, and committed to an Arab Palestine. It is the Assad regime which sold out Palestine and the Golan Heights, not the Syrian people. Does the liberation of the Golan start with Lebanon? The Syrian regime is protected by Israel. The Arab Spring will bring down the borders and spell the end of Sykes-Picot. That will be the beginning of the end of Israel.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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