The following interview was conducted by Foreign Policy Blog’s Rob Lattin with the Syrian American Council’s (SAC) Communications Director Rashad Al-Dabbagh.
The SAC is a non-partisan, non-sectarian grassroots organization devoted to promoting educational, civic, economic, and human development, as well as advancing civil liberties and human dignity in Syria. It also seeks to build bridges of understanding and cooperation between American and Syrian people and institutions.
In addition to being the Communications Director for the SAC, Mr. Al-Dabbagh is a Southern California-based community organizer. He has appeared on several media outlets including NPR, Aljazeera English, CBS, Los Angeles Times, and Al-Hurra. Al-Dabbagh is fluent in English, Arabic, and Armenian.
FPB: More people are beginning to think that al-Assad may survive this conflict. Is there any scenario where the Syrian people, and/or the SAC, would accept this?
RD: Had the Assad regime conducted a sincere process of reform addressing the needs of the Syrian people at the beginning of the revolution, it could have been acceptable to the Syrian people. However, after the killings of more than 14,000 people, according to local coordination committees, and the incarceration, torture, expulsion of tens of thousands, the Syrian people who revolted for freedom refuse to accept Assad as their president and vow to overthrow the regime no matter how long it takes.
FPB: What does the political environment look like if Assad is overthrown? What kind of protection is being established for minority groups?
RD: The Assad regime’s propaganda machine has been instigating sectarianism since the beginning of the revolution in March 2011 to scare minorities into submission. All segments of Syrian society have suffered under Assad’s dictatorship and many Christians, Kurds, and even Alawites have been participating in the protests and have had leadership roles in the opposition. The main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which includes members of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, has addressed the issue of protecting minorities in a post-Assad Syria many times. Additionally, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood issued a document in April 2012, which it called a pledge and charter, in which it vowed to establish a pluralistic democracy in a civil constitutional state, with equality of all citizens and full respect for human rights and freedoms, in a post-Assad Syria.
Assad’s departure and building a new democratic Syria is the only guarantee to protect the rights of minorities.
FPB: With the lack of international intervention, there are rumors that the opposition has begun covert talks with Israel for support (though the details of that support are unclear), is there any truth to this? Would the opposition work with Israel if it meant a quicker demise to the Assad regime and faster track to democracy?
RD: Covert talks with Israel are exactly what you described them to be; rumors. The revolution in Syria started because the Syrian people decided they will no longer accept the dictatorship and corruption of the Assad regime, not to conduct covert operations with a country deemed as an enemy by Syrians. Talks with Israel would undermine the revolution because it would not reflect the desires of the Syrian people. If the opposition works with Israel it would immediately lose any credibility it has with the Syrian people. There are no such talks at all. They are baseless rumors.
FPB: Even if they are rumors, the SAC website states its desire for intervention to help bring an end to the conflict. But based on your response to the previous question, are you saying the Syrian people would rather fall further into civil war than accept help from Israel?
RD: SAC calls for establishing humanitarian corridors and safe zones by an international coalition led by Turkey and the Arab League and supported by the US and other allies to protect the Syrian people from the regime’s violence. The alternative to civil war is not help from Israel, which was never brought up. The alternative is either Assad stepping down with immense local and international pressure, which has so far failed, or the establishment of safe zones as we have called for.
FPB: You keep saying things like “the alternative to civil war is not help from Israel” and “The revolution in Syria started because the Syrian people decided they will no longer accept the dictatorship and corruption of the Assad regime, not to conduct covert operations with a country deemed as an enemy,” implying that I’m suggesting Israel was an original aspect of the uprising or somehow the only alternative to what is going on. But that is not what my question is asking. Simply, in lieu of the failures of the rest of the international community to provide support, would Syrians accept help from Israel if it meant less dead Syrians and a potential quicker fall of Assad?
RD: That is a hypothetical question. Did Israel offer logistical support to Syrian rebels? There hasn’t been any scientific polls conducted inside Syria asking whether they would accept help from Israel.
However, Syrians do not consider Israel a friend because of its occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights, as well as Palestinian territories. To Syrians, the desire to rid their country from Assad does not mean selling their country to the highest bidder, it’s a revolution to preserve Syria’s dignity and sovereignty.
Syrians are protesting for freedom and thousands have already died, but they continue to protest. If their main concern was to end the regime’s killing, they can stop protesting, quit the revolution, and accept living under many more years of dictatorship and the regime’s killing will stop.
FPB: You mentioned that the Muslim Brotherhood issued a document declaring that it wanted it a pluralistic democracy with equality for all Syrian citizens and an adherence to human rights norms. Is the Muslim Brotherhood gaining ground in Syria?
RD: The facts on the ground suggest otherwise. It was a capital offense to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. During 40 years of emergency law, the police state has gone to great lengths to eradicate the group’s adherents. Unlike in Egypt, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has been a purely exile (and largely defunct) opposition group for decades. Local groups that make up the revolutionary coordination committees are the one’s gaining influence inside the country.
FPB: If’/when Assad leaves office, will the Muslim Brotherhood be welcomed into the political spectrum?
RD: That would be determined by the ballot box.
FPB: There is a lot of pressure on Turkey to directly intervene in Syria, how has their unwillingness to do so affected their popularity among Syrians?
RD: The popularity of Turkey has declined because of its empty promises of providing support and specially when Syrian forces entered Turkish territory when it targeted and killed a number of Syrian refugees. In general, Syrians have lost hope in the international community after a year of talks and no action but they remain resilient. A protester once held a sign (in Arabic) that read: “observers will observe, Assad will kill, we will continue our revolution,” which sums up their attitude.
FPB: So when the dust has cleared, and hopefully Assad has fallen, who are the likely countries Syria will turn to for alliance building?
RD: A post-Assad foreign policy will be determined after the fall of the regime by elected Syrians, based on the national interest of Syria. A post-Assad Syria will maintain an active Arab and regional relations and will maintain sovereignty, equality, and cooperation built upon mutual respect and the priorities of national interest.
FPB: What is the SAC’s position on Syrian relations with Iran?
RD: Again, a post-Assad foreign policy will be determined after the fall of the regime by an elected Syrian government, based on the national interest of Syria. However, the Iranian government’s current support of the Assad regime to suppress the Syrian revolution will ultimately affect Syria’s relationship with Iran negatively in a post-Assad Syria. SAC and the Syrian people will not forget Iran’s role in the crack down on protesters.