Damascus - Did [Syrian Vice-President] Farouk al-Sharaa defect? No, he is under house arrest. No, he is now under the protection of armed opposition groups. He arrived to Jordan accompanied by dozens of officers. In fact, he is on his way to Paris where a senior official is waiting for him.
These, and many more, are the rumors that were often repeated and shared on internet sites by opponents of the Syrian regime.
Farouk al-Sharaa is outside the decision-making circles. He has been cut off from important discussions. The Syrian leadership is not speaking to him. He has been isolated and relieved of his duties as vice-president, without a job since the funeral of the high-ranking officers in the explosion at the State Security building.
These, and others, are the inside stories brought back to the Syrian capital by visitors who support the Syrian regime.
But the truth is neither this or that. Syrian Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa is at the heart of the action, but not in the decision-making circles. He keeps in touch with a few officials, speaks to President [Bashar al-Assad] from time to time, and communicates with some of the leadership.
His residence is under the same security precautions as those of figures in the decision-making circles, and so are his movements. But he is full of energy and also keeps communication channels open with members of the opposition and figures who are not connected to the state or the regime.
Sharaa has his own views on the daily events, including criticisms and apprehensions, which he kept expressing in official meetings, but without going public in the media.
Something has changed, however.
Sharaa is not pessimistic, but his heart is heavy with concern about the country and he describes the situation as it is. He does not feel compelled to be involved in every detail, especially when he cannot change the suggested solutions. He cannot remain silent about the mistakes and issues that are threatening the future of the country. As a veteran of the regime, he does not need anyone to tell him when and how to get involved.
A Barricaded City
The road to Damascus is not as it was six months ago, or a year ago, or a year and a half ago. The crisis gripping Syria has left its mark on everything. The military and security checkpoints with the cement barricades, a scene quite familiar to the Lebanese, are present.
The unusual sight of scores of citizens surrounding a building grabs your attention. Upon closer look, one discovers that they are forming a spiral queue around a bakery, to buy unaffordable bread.
Farouk al-Sharaa sits in his home, which was reached by passing through several military checkpoints. He gives an account of the Syrian landscape since the first day of the crisis.
He speaks about the regime and the party and state leadership. He describes what is happening on the ground and the roles played by foreign powers against Syria and its historical role in the region.
But none of this seems to distract him, not even for one moment, from a sense of responsibility to play a role and propose a way out for Syria from the deepening crisis.
He is a friend of the Russian people, which are loyal to their historical relationship with the Syrians. He fondly describes his memories of China, the great country that developed itself surely and calmly, to become one of the strongest forces on Earth.
As for Iran, he believes it is the closest power to Syria, and not just the regime. Following its revolution, he believes that Iran was on its way becoming a great democratic experiment, were it not for the [Iran-Iraq] war imposed on it.
He acknowledges that it took the right position on the central Arab cause, Palestine, and supported the resistance in Lebanon, which rightfully expunged Israel from South Lebanon in the year 2000 and deterred its aggression in July 2006.
Sharaa has trusted the wisdom of Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, even since his time as president of Iran, and lauds [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah’s resilience. He is convinced that they could have played a bigger role in reaching an early political solution to the Syrian crisis.
Sharaa follows all the events in the Arab world. In his opinion, Egypt witnessed a seismic shift and there is no turning back. But the political and media mobilization should continue and not ignore what continues to take place in that country.
According to Sharaa, Egypt is a country that transcends history and the relationship with it should be solid and healthy. It can do a lot for Arabs. Its situation today should be closely monitored, because it will not immediately achieve the conclusive results hoped for by the Egyptians.
What pains him most is that Syria did not have a chance to capitalize on the US failure in Iraq and the troubled withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan. He sees that other countries in the region, such as Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were able to benefit from the US pullout, while Syria sunk into a major ongoing crisis.
Farouk al-Sharaa, a veteran Baathist and diplomat who hails from the Houran plains, is one Syrian official who is known for his integrity and wisdom. He has his views on everything and lived through an intense experience with the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
He stood by Bashar al-Assad from the very first moment, seeing in him a chance for change and moving Syria somewhere more advanced. But since the beginning of the crisis in 2011, he felt that the odds are not in his favor.
Sharaa informed all those who contact him that he will not accept and does not aspire to head any transitional government. He is only worried about Syria. He says what he needs to say in support of certain steps, in criticism of a decision or a behavior, or in objection to a certain orientation or action.
Sharaa is one of the Syrian officials who seems most aware of the magnitude of the changes in the Arab world. He is also one of the most capable of conducting self-criticism of the Baath party and its role or of the regime, its mechanisms, and institutions.
Sharaa had been absent from the media for a long time. Now he returns to say words with meanings. He is an official who wants to see something new, but keeps his respect for the work of the state.
Sharaa does not act outside his mandate, go over the president’s head, or play behind his back. He mocks the media for the talk about his defection.
The Militarization of the Protests
Sharaa differentiates between two opposition mobilizations. He has a clear view of the situation in his country, since the first days of the crisis.
At the beginning of the mobilization, the authorities begged for the appearance of a single armed person or a sniper at the top of one of the buildings. Today, every single authority in Syria is complaining – even to the UN Security Council – about the spread of armed groups, which are impossible to count or monitor.
There are cities and cities’ peripheries which have been completely “cleansed” and their inhabitants displaced. The fighters were able to return several times, but the residents couldn’t.
“Does anyone have the right to shove the country into a bottleneck which cannot be escaped without breaking the glass?” Sharaa wonders bitterly whenever he sees images of the bodies of innocent citizens and the disfigurement caused by the shelling, explosions, and car bombs, which target people, infrastructure, public and private utilities, and scientific minds in the country.
“Those who commit these crimes and those who support them are guilty and have lost all sense of patriotism, morality, and humanity,” he says.
“The drop in the number of peaceful protesters led one way or another to the rise in militants,” Sharaa maintains. “While it is the duty of the state to provide its citizens with security, this is different than deciding on a military solution to the crisis. The two issues should not be mixed.”
“All of this should have required a discussion of mechanisms and an attempt at a Syrian-Syrian solution. The dialogue we adopted in July 2011 aimed at solving the crisis politically from the start, by Syrian hands,” he adds.
“But things did not go in this direction,” Sharaa explains. “The crisis was Arabized. Syria, a founding member of the League of Arab States, saw its membership suspended from the league without justification or a pretext that could convince Syrian citizens.”
“There were many mistakes made by the Arab League and the [Syrian] state both, which cannot be forgotten or stepped over,” he surmises.
But where is the responsibility of the Syrian state in investigating the causes for the crisis reaching this level, especially in the militarization of the protests? Weren’t there commissions of inquiry set up for this?
“No credible commission of inquiry was set up at the beginning of the crisis. If some were set up, the results were not made public, allowing for the spread of rumors that lost the regime its credibility and stature in the eyes of those who were wronged internally and outside observers,” he explains.
The Country’s Survival, Not Ours
The Syrian vice-president acknowledges that the crisis is deep. “With every passing day, the solution gets further away, militarily and politically,” he warns. “We must be in the position of defending Syria’s existence. We are not in a battle for the survival of an individual or a regime.”
Sharaa believes that Syria’s problems “have multiplied and are complicated to an extent where ongoing military operations cannot be kept away from the normal life of citizens.”
Are We In a Process of Resolution?
According to Sharaa, “several issues must be tackled in order to reach a solution. Nobody has the illusion that things will return to what they used to be, because you cannot turn back the clock.”
“[UN peace envoy] Lakhdar Brahimi keeps repeating in his statements that things are going from bad to worse. I cannot deny this but, for over a year, I have been seeing the line that links the events. The way events are heading will lead to an uncomfortable place where things will definitely go from bad to worse.,” he remarks. “But the problem is that Mister Brahimi is slow and careful, while events on the ground are accelerating and becoming more violent.”
“From my perspective, I am not completely certain where the current option will take us. I do not have a transparent answer. Officials might not even know where we have reached in the solution,” he explains. “You might be surprised if I tell you that even the president himself might not be able to provide you with a satisfactory answer, although he has all the power in the country in his hands.”
“What is happening in Syria is complicated, elaborate, and intricate. If you try to unravel it, it might get more complex and the hidden stitches could multiply, instead of guiding you to a solution,” he elucidates.
“If anyone has the chance to meet Mister President, he would hear from him that this is a long struggle, a big conspiracy with many actors (terrorists, rabble, smugglers). He does not hide his desire for a military solution that achieves a decisive victory, and only then would the political dialogue be actually possible. Many in the [Baath] party, the [National Progressive] Front (NPF), and the military forces have been convinced from the onset of the crisis that there is no alternative to a political solution and that there is no turning back,” he adds.
Sharaa believes that “the solution will not be realistic unless it was initiated at the highest levels. The president of the republic is also the general commander of the armed forces. He appoints the prime minister, leads the ruling party, and chooses the head of the people’s assembly.”
“But, at the same time, there are the executive, legislative, and judiciary institutions, which are directly responsible for running the country’s affairs,” he informs. “These institutions have heads, general directors, and governing boards, who work, some who claim to work, according to the directions. Sometimes they make up their minds by pointing to the picture above their desks, meaning that the directive is not up for discussion.”
No Change Without Partners
“In 1970, many state institutions were built on top of the inconsistencies and conflicts of the revolutionary command council back then, based on an agreed upon pact (for example, the NPF, the people’s assembly, and local administrations). These institutions started to deteriorate and were not renewed, despite multiple attempts to restructure them since president Bashar al-Assad assumed leadership in the year 2000,” Sharaa explains.
“These institutions then started to function based on their own inertia. This could be partially acceptable in times of stability and decades of security. But how could it happen during major crises and the resulting destruction of infrastructure and homes, the lack of electricity, the stoppage of hospitals in many cities and towns, and the escalating internal and external displacement?” he asks. “This is not to mention the detention of thousands of people who are not presented in front of the courts, as if we are still under martial law.”
“Neither the [Syrian] National Coalition, nor the Istanbul Council, nor the National Coordination Body as a multi-polar internal opposition, nor any opposition faction be it civilian or armed with their external ties, can claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian People, just as the current rule with its ideological army and its confrontation parties lead by the Baath, with its years of experience and rooted bureaucracy, cannot achieve change and progress alone without new partners who can contribute to maintaining the fabric of the homeland, the integrity of its territory, and its regional sovereignty. The loss of trust between these two sides, and therefore the impossibility of getting together for a direct dialogue, will lead to continuous destruction and dismantling, which will only benefit the Israeli occupation at this stage,” he declares confidently.
Sharaa believes that “the political, economic, and social structure of the country is changing day by day and in front of our eyes. What is happening in Syria is homologous with what happened in the early 1990s in the countries of Eastern Europe. We should also note that those countries did not enter into civil clashes or destructive wars, during the transformation in their structure of their regimes, although they faced suffocating economic crises.”
Does the leadership have one opinion or are they just obeying the orders? Does the president listen, for example, to opinions that differ from his diagnosis?
“Of course, there are opinions and viewpoints among the political leadership. But the issue is not in a place that could lead to talk about different currents or deep divisions,” Sharaa replies.
“When I took care of the dialogue dossier, as vice president, in July 2011, I agreed to this appointment based on my convictions and everyone else’s in the national dialogue commission that this was a real step and not just a tactical move.”
“I do not deny that some of us acted as if [the dialogue] was unnecessary and whispered this to the leadership. So it distanced itself under the pretext that the internal and external opposition saw it as one of the regime’s charades. In the end, this finished off the political dialogue and opened the doors wide for the dialogue of bullets and guns. Today, Syria witnesses a sharp economic and livelihood crisis, in addition to the political and military conflict.”
“When we say that we refuse any external intervention, we base this on the fact that there was no consensus from the people to involve our national army in the crisis to begin with. So does anyone have the illusion that this people will accept foreign armies on Syrian soil? This will never happen and it will be resisted. The preeminence and unity of the Syrian army are indispensable in any of the proposed political solutions and discussions.”
But is the crisis only connected to political considerations?
“In any evaluation, we cannot ignore the local components linked with the economic situation and the policies implemented in the recent years at least. We also cannot ignore the actual need for a meaningful change in all of the state apparatus and its institutions. Real change is one which is based on solving the pressing issues based on requisite priorities. Maybe in the past we did not listen very carefully or take into consideration comments about the need for quick change. But we learn from our experience and that of others. Today, we understand that change is inevitable. If the regime does not take the initiative to achieve it with the others, it will happen through unilateral dictates from them.”
A Syrian Solution
How do you perceive the solution?
“Any logic based on the premise of rejecting dialogue indicates the desire for Syrians not to reach a solution on their own. Therefore, any settlement, whether starting with talks or agreements between Arab, regional, or foreign capitals, cannot exist without a solid Syrian foundation. The solution has to be Syrian, but through a historic settlement, which would include the main regional countries, and the members of UN Security Council. This settlement must include stopping all shapes of violence, and the creation of a national unity government with wide powers. This should be accompanied by the resolution of sensitive dossiers related to the lives of people and their legitimate demands.”
“The problem gets bigger and deeper when some start thinking that victory and defeat are possible. The opposition forces combined cannot decide the battle of overthrowing the regime militarily, unless they aim to pull the country into chaos and an unending circle of violence. Meanwhile, I do not see that what the security forces and the army units are doing will not reach a conclusive end, especially since we understand, without any illusions, the threat of the current campaign to destroy Syria, its history, civilization, and people. Brahimi’s contacts and visits, as well as the Geneva initiative, can be considered a suitable foundation for this settlement. I am not exaggerating when I say that reaching a historic settlement for the Syrian crisis might pave the way for an international environment of solving other important issues, through political means and not through military confrontation.”
But is the historical settlement ripe?
Sharaa hopes so, but is quick to add that “if each side involved in the settlement thinks that they can get all they expect and aspire to, then the legitimate national outlook of the Syrian people will be lost and the region’s fate will enter a dark tunnel.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.