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A Syrian Spring: An Interview With the Representative of the Syrian National Coalition, Walid Saffour

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Walid Saffour is sitting in a light, minimalist office overlooking Hyde Park. A representative of the Syrian National Coalition of the Revolutionary Opposition, he seems like a cross between a gentle Syrian uncle and a seasoned diplomat. Yet while he is affable and polite, there is an intrinsic reserve about him. Perhaps it is the sort of reserve born out of a regime with fifteen security agencies; the sort of reserve one has in the cafes of Damascus, where one treads carefully for fear of the mukhabarat (intelligence services).

Saffour was one of many victims of the Syrian mukhabarat; they tried to force the former secondary school teacher to sign a confession stating that he was part of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Signing it would have meant his certain death. He did not break, despite being tortured.

Saffour went into exile in 1981. Following the massacre of Hama in 1982, he founded the Syrian Human Rights Committee and dedicated his life to documenting the regime's human rights violations. Consequently, he built up decades of experience and political contacts, which make him-well placed to represent the opposition today.

Q: Some have alleged that you were part of the Muslim Brotherhood?

Let people say whatever they want about the fact that I worked with these people [the Muslim Brotherhood]. There was a lot of mistreatment by the Syrian authorities against them, so I wanted to disclose the true information. I documented the era of Law 49 that sentenced them [Brotherhood members] to death for their actions, for their mere membership, affiliation or support or even for having a family relationship.

Q: If you had a message to give to US secretary of state John Kerry, what would it be?

My message to Mr. Kerry is that the inaction of the American position on Syria has caused the death of many lives in Syria. Syrians are determined to overthrow the regime of Assad. They want democracy, dignity, human rights, and they want to rule their own state. My words to Mr. Kerry and the American politicians are to be coherent with their claims that they are pro-human rights, pro-democracy, pro-dignity and pro-freedom.

Q: Has Britain set the right tone this time?

The United Kingdom is more advanced than the other countries in its political position towards the Syrian regime and they want to help if they can, more than the United States. But they are deterred by the determination of the United States not to act in favor of the Syrian People.

Q: Some Syrian Citizens Committees have said that the promises of the West and the Gulf have not been fulfilled. Is this correct?

The conferences of the Friends of Syria promise a lot but give very little. When they promised to give non-lethal weapons, they did not do that. They gave many conditions which were not true; when they said that they were afraid that such equipment would fall into the hand of so-and-so. This is not true, because they [the weapons] are being delivered to the right people. The right people will not deliver them to the wrong people because they are in urgent need and they haven't got the surplus to distribute [them] to others. There is too much exaggeration about the other elements that they are speaking about. It is a pretext in order not to supply the Free Syrian Army [FSA] with advanced equipment.

Q: Many Syrians I spoke to when I visited last said that the coalition did not necessarily represent their interests. Is there a disconnect between the opposition and the people in the Syrian countryside?

After the formation of the coalition and the high command of the FSA, I think there is continuous coordination between the two and between the FSA on the ground. Most figures who represent the coalition and the opposition have recently left Syria. Mr. Moaz Al-Khatib a few months ago was in Damascus, and Mr. Maleh and others. Even those who are outside Syria have got their own representatives and forces on the ground. We are not speaking about a foreign body outside Syria which is not connected to the ground. I think this is another game made by the media or by certain powers to justify their inaction in helping the Syrian revolution and opposition.

Q: Assad's comments have been described as "delusional" by UK foreign secretary William Hague. How would you describe them?

He is delusional. He has repeated hollow words all the time and he has tried to move the goal posts. When he was asked about the number of people killed, he replied to give him their names. This is not a politician's answer. I think Mr. Assad is not only delusional, but he is also isolated from what is going on around him in Damascus and Syria.

Q: Just to understand, are you saying that he is even disconnected from his own party? That he does not know what is going on?

I think his close aides have isolated him from what is going in the ground by providing him with false information.

Q: If he does not fully know what is going on, is he fully responsible for the terrible events in Syria?

Not at all. He will he not be absolved from any because he is the head of the state and he should know all these things, but he is denying them. He knows what is going on, but his aides are describing the issue for him simply, as well as the regional superpowers are supporting him and pushing him in his career of killing his own people.

I have spoken to Syrians inside and they say that these talks that the Syrian regime are taking part in are just a ploy to trick the opposition while they crush the FSA. Is this the case?

Assad accepted many plans verbally, like Kofi Annan's plans, like the Lakhdar Brahimi initiative and others, in order to gain time and to split the opposition. Fortunately, he failed and the opposition is now stronger and will not be tricked by such things. Our condition: the departure of Bashar Assad and the building of a free, democratic and dignified Syria.

Q: You said that the opposition is stronger than before. Does that mean that you can do more to pressure the West?

The position is stronger in two terms. The first [is that] by the formation of the coalition, many additional elements were added to the Syrian National Council, further representation of the revolutionary councils from inside Syria are now members of the coalition. [Second,] the formation of the Supreme Council of the FSA and the direct coordination between them and the leadership of the coalition has made us appear more unified and stronger in front of the world. When we threatened not to attend the Rome conference, we found that the US and the UK appealed to us to come and we got further promises of help.

Q: In the light of pressure from Russia and China, could we expect more from the West? Or this is all that they can do?

Unfortunately, the international community's policy towards Syria lacks real action. We complain of inaction, especially from the United States; we believe that the US handed Syria over to Russia. Therefore, the Syrian people are determined more than ever to liberate itself [sic]. We would like the US and the international powers to be aware that if the Syrian revolution doesn't win, there will be a big problem - not only in Syria, but in the whole region.

Q: What does the future hold for Syria?

Syria is a multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic country. However, the Muslim Sunni community is predominant in Syria. But the history of Syria is a mosaic where all components play their own vital role in Syria. We started our revolution against the regime after fifty years of dictatorship in order to win our freedom, dignity and democracy. We want to build a democracy where all people are equal and alike and free to play their good role in society.

Q: Some people are already preparing for a civil war in Syria. Does that indicate that there is a lack of political ideology, or possibly political inexperience?

Civil war can only occur when the current regime carries on killing the Syrian people. From the first day, they [the regime] spoke about civil war while we spoke about reform in the rule. They spoke about terrorism while we were chanting peacefully for freedom. Civil war will only occur when Assad wants to split the Syrian coast and declare it a sectarian mini-state. Then nobody in Syria will agree to the fractioning of Syria.

I envisage there being difficulties after the departure of Assad and the transitional period. We are preparing ourselves for this period, with all its mechanisms including transitional justice and transitional methods. We would like to avoid any further killing and trouble. I think that there will be no civil war unless Assad and his regime insist on doing nasty and silly acts.

Q: Do you think that the international community has a role in the transitional period?

Of course, the regional and the international community have a vital role to play and they have a responsibility to do that. They can help in calming the situation in Syria. They can help by bringing the perpetrators to justice and excluding them from the majority. Otherwise the majority of one sect or another will be held responsible for the act[s] of a few people.

Q: Has the role of the Gulf states been constructive?

The role of the Arab Gulf is constructive. They would like Syria to win its freedom, and they would like Syria to be democratic. The Syrian regime used to scare them and blackmail them. The Syrian regime was a major supporter of Iranian policies against them. I think they can do a lot more in order to relieve Syria from this regime.

Q: There are a lot of foreign fighters in Syria. Is this a good development?

The Syrian people served the military service, and many of them are trained, so there is no need for foreign fighters; however, there are some foreign fighters in Syria who would like to help the Syrian people without conditions. If they exist without placing any ideological conditions on Syria, they are welcome. But if they want to impose any other things, the Syrian people will reject them and drive them out.

Q: What is the most effective way to deal with Assad?

The first thing is to stop the embargo on the FSA. This embargo has made regional powers unable to supply us with weapons to defend ourselves and overthrow the regime of Assad. I think this is very important. The United States by its inaction is the first country responsible for that. The other thing is that they don't pressurize the Assad regime enough to stop its acts of killing. If the international community, the United Nations and its organizations put enough pressure on Assad he would have no other option but to stop and talk.

Q: Some commentators have suggested that the condition set by the opposition was too high and that the Alawite sectarian government is fighting for their very survival. So, for instance, if Bashar Al-Assad handed over power and went off to exile in Russia would that be enough? Has the opposition struck the right balance?

The opposition was very modest in its proposal from the beginning. In the beginning, they demanded reform. They didn't want to depose him. But Assad in return faced them with bullets and killed, according to the estimates of the United Nations, 70,000. What can you do for a war criminal? He is a criminal by all the international standards, not only the local standards. Assad and his junta and security aides and his top military officials should be responsible for what they have done. They should be forwarded to a fair trial in order to receive their due sentences.

Q: What is the link between the coalition and the FSA? Is it becoming more coordinated?

Yes, they are more coordinated than before. Before, the FSA were loose groups; now the FSA, after the formation of the Supreme Council, are connected with each other. The Supreme Council is in continuous coordination of the leadership of the coalition. However, I think we have a lot to do. We are new and all the organization is in the process of formation.

Q: A lot of commentators have suggested that the Supreme Council is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Is this correct?

This is an old game. When they spoke about [how] the Syrian National Council is over-dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, from this came the initiative to form the coalition. There are no members of the Muslim Brotherhood who come directly as members of the coalition; there are a few members who come as members of the SNC or they come as national personalities. I think there are no more than five or six members out of seventy-three.

Q: Should we even be worried, since authors like Raphaël Lefèvre do not seem so worried about the Muslim Brotherhood?

They [the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood] are part of Syrian society, and they have many supporters and they should be partners in forming a new Syria, especially as they have been misjudged by the previous regime. Sending them away will not sort out any problem. Syria is for all.

This interview appeared in The Majalla