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Conference of the Democratic and Pacifist Syrian Opposition

A few dozens of political leaders and prominent figures of the ‘other Syrian opposition’ gathered in Geneva to plead for a non-violent transition to a democratic and secular Syria. According to the organizers it is the first international conference of the Syrian popular and peaceful civil movement that aspires

Geneva 28/01/2013

A few dozens of political leaders and prominent figures of the ‘other Syrian opposition’ gathered in Geneva to plead for a non-violent transition to a democratic and secular Syria. According to the organizers it is the first international conference of the Syrian popular and peaceful civil movement that aspires “freedom and justice, dignity and equality for the Syrian people, without discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and ideology”. Fine principles, but in the meantime the peaceful revolution in Syria was silenced both by the authoritarian regime and the counter-revolution of the reactionary forces. On the conference the dissatisfaction with the dominance of the Western media view on the Syrian conflict is very obvious. The Gulf monarchies and the West only have eyes for the armed resistance and give a platform to those who want to militarize the conflict even further. The speakers of the Geneva conference are members of a non-violent resistance against the Syrian dictatorship. All of them have an impressive past of political opposition.

The first day of the conference (28th of January) started with an introduction by human rights activist and spokesperson of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), Haytham Manna. He immediately drew attention to the empty chairs in the venue. These should have been filled by about sixty Syrians who were denied visa by the Swiss authorities. A few of these absentees were able to intervene online through Skype. Apparently it was France that put pressure on the Swiss government to make sure the Syrian opposition leaders that are still residing in Syria, wouldn’t be able to get to Geneva. Not long after the Conference of the NCCDC was announced, Paris launched a counter-initiative on the 28th of January: an international meeting with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (commonly named the Syrian National Coalition), which was reaffirmed by the French authorities as “the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people”. This meeting got all the mainstream media attention. The Syrian National Coalition was established in November 2012 and its main goal is to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Within the Syrian National Coalition, the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition structure in Syria, is the dominant force. It is this armed opposition that gets all the money, the support and the media attention of the Gulf monarchies and the West. The longstanding democratic and non-violent opposition -that assembled in Geneva- is completely ignored, unjustified because their propositions and solutions are much more durable.

In Geneva the American author James Paul was the first guest speaker of the day. Paul, who wrote ‘Syria Unmasked’ in the beginning of the 1990’s, situated the Syrian conflict in an international context en criticized the simple division between good and bad that is typically used in the Western media to simplify complex conflicts, lacking a critical analyses of their own role. Who remembers the colonial partition of the Middle East by France and the United Kingdom in 1916 (Sykes-Picot Agreement), the colonial repression of the liberation movements, the Western arms sales to the Syrian dictatorial regime and the recent assistance of the Syrian regime to the US by torturing terrorist suspects on Syrian territory on explicit demand of Washington? According to Paul a military intervention is never effective in overthrowing a dictatorship and replacing it with a democratic system. The leader of NCCDV, Hassan Abdul Azim –who could only be heard at the conference thanks to an internet connection- stressed the importance of a dialogue, not only between the different opposition groups but also with forces inside the regime. He believes it is not possible anymore to end this conflict with a clear military victory for one of the players. There is no other option left but to talk in order to put a stop to the current bloodshed. In any case it will be necessary for all players to compromise. That is the only way to a sustainable political solution.

After the introductory speakers there were two discussion panels . The first discussion evolved around the challenge of arriving at a democratic project. The first speaker of this panel was Riad Drar, an activist and critic of the Islamist movements in his country. In 2005 Drar was convicted to 5 years in prison by the Syrian regime. He pointed out the presence and the power of the islamist groups in the current opposition movement. They want to establish an Islamic caliphate or Islamic state in Syria without any room for religious pluralism. They are not interested in nationalism. They were waiting for an opportunity like this one, and they are armed now. They will do everything to prevent the establishment of a civil secular state. This was confirmed by human rights activist Faek Hwejeh during the second panel discussion who quoted from the statutes of several Syrian islamist opposition groups such as the Tigers of Damascus, the Jihad Movement of Islam, The Syrian Islamistic Front and the Hizbul Tahrir. He also drew the attention to the presence of foreign islamist fighters in his country. They don’t understand the tradition of religious coexistence in Syria. All these groups will only consider Syria a free country, if the sharia rules there and they consider all non-Muslims as infidels. Hwejeh was also very clear about the range of criminal activities that are committed under the guise of religion.

In the first panel discussion, Mahmoud Djadid, an old stager within the democratic leftist opposition who lives exiled abroad for more than 30 years already, described how the regime creates and reproduces violence. In the 1970’s Hafez Al-Assad established his dictatorship after arresting and torturing his own comrades. Important opposition members in and outside the country were murdered because they had charisma and were capable to create a strong opposition. The violence of the regime created counter-violence. In the beginning this oppositional violence was political, occasional and on a small scale, as a reaction to the violence of the army. Today, after the revolution, this violence is completely escalating to sectarian or even criminal violence: members of the military but also critical intellectuals are being executed, there are bomb attacks that bear the marks of Al Qaeda, there are kidnappings for ransoms, smuggling is flourishing, Infrastructure and harvests  are being destroyed,…  This spiral of violence threatens to destroy the country.

Another speaker of the first panel discussion was Naser al Ghazali. He focused on the civilian state and sectarianism. He declared that the situation in Syria is so horrible because of the violence, that there will be almost no civil society left . The responsibility for this situation lies with the regime and its structures. The current discourse in Syria, both within the regime and within the opposition is devoid of any rationality. It’s all about fear. The rationality was suppressed because it goes against the discourse of violence, a discourse that increases sectarianism. The democratic forces urgently need to take a joint position, an alternative discourse to take a stand and offer a project against the current dominant discourse of violence.

The second panel discussion of the day elaborated on the production of violence and civil society. Haythem Manna was the first speaker and he opened the debate with an impassioned plea to defend “the three no’s” of the NCCDV: no to violence, no to sectarianism and no to foreign intervention. According to Manna only a peaceful road can lead to a peaceful solution. He berated the fact that certain media promote the violence and pay way too much attention to those who bear arms. It is a form of brainwashing. Syria needs meetings and negotiations with all the forces that are tired of war.

According to the second speaker, Louay Hussein, an activist who spent seven years in a Syrian prison and one of the only ones that managed to get to Geneva from Syria, it is crucial to prevent the country from disintegrating into several mini-states. At the moment this is a very realistic prospect because several of the armed militias are not interested anymore in taking down Assad or acquiring central power. The only thing they care about right now is maintaining control over the territories that they have captured with their weapons. Hussein advocates a solution that maintains the unity of the country. The solution of the other opposition, that relies on the supply of arms from foreign powers to topple Assad, will only leave the control over the country in the hands of several armed militias, who are as deadly as the regime. Hussein was also very critical of the democratic opposition that keeps on repeating itself but doesn’t succeed to back up its words with action.

Faek Hwejeh, another activist that came directly from Damascus, finished this panel discussion by saying that none of the fighting parties respect the international humanitarian law. What should be the role of opposition militias that are guilty of serious human rights violations in a democratic Syria? In the meantime the people in Syria are in dire need of everything. They lack food, access to water, shelter, clothes and petrol. A non-military political solution is long overdue!

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