Opposition Report: Hazim an-Nahar interviewed by Joe Pace
Joe Pace of Harvard University has agreed to write up interviews with opposition figures in Syria for publication on "Syria Comment." This week he has interviewed Hazim an-Nahar a member of the Arab Workers Revolutionary Party, who also serves on the administrative committee for the Jamal al-Atassi Forum for Democratic Dialogue.
Joe is doing research on the effects of US Foreign Policy in Syria. He is a research
fellow at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. I am very grateful to him for agreeing to share some of his research with us. Hopefully other researchers will do the same. It is a great service to us all and will help researchers get feed-back on their work and perhaps even some notice for themselves and their work.
Joe Pace can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is Joe Pace's interview with Hazim an-Hahar
Hazim an-Nahar has an interesting perspective on US foreign policy; while he remains skeptical of US motives, he told me that the opposition is hypocritical for not recognizing the ways in which it has benefited from US pressure.
There are six communist parties (Hazim was insistent that I not include socialist-Nasser parties in that category) in Syria, two of which are in the National Progressive Front. Given how few communists there are running around Syria, the first question I asked him was,
Why the abundance of communist parties?
“Because the parties splinter. The parties usually don’t split for doctrinal reasons; they split for personal reasons. In fact, there are no substantive differences between the parties. The Front doesn’t allow elections, so splitting is the only way to resolve internal disputes. It’s a deliberate tactic on the part of the regime to keep the parties small and weak."
If there are no substantive differences between the parties, how does the party base choose which of the two new parties to join?
"The parties are totally backwards and undeveloped. Its like the Bedouins—they follow whatever leader they have personal allegiance to."
I asked him about the National Coordination Committee (for which he represents his party), which was formed in the beginning of 2005 to coordinate oppositional efforts. He took a dim view of the Committee's contribution to a more unified opposition.
“The committee is a mixture of all the parties and organizations of the opposition. But its ineffective. It just publishes shared statements for protests and sit-ins. Before the creation of the committee, coordination was very basic and shallow. Unfortunately, even after its creation, coordination remains very basic and the situation hardly differs from before. The main difference is that we have a place and a specific time to meet, but it doesn’t amount to real coordination.” (For that matter, no one I've spoken to in the opposition is optimistic about the coordination committee. Most of the political parties view it as a forum emasculated by the insistence of human rights organizations that its work be confined to human rights issues, not political ones. Many of the Arabs doubt that its Kurdish participants are sincere in their desire to be part of the Syrian opposition, accusing them of dual allegiances. Several Kurdish members have accused the Arab members of backtracking on the committee's charter to find a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue, and they are discussing ceasing their participation).
There was very little coordination especially between the Kurds and Arabs prior to the committee's inception. What suddenly motivated the idea of coordination?
“The political changes inside of Syria including the release of political prisoners and the relative increase in freedoms encouraged us to coordinate. Until that point, we thought of coordination and cooperation between the Kurds and Arabs as a red line. The changes in the region encouraged us to start dialoguing. For example, the Iraq war: the presence of the occupation weakened the regime’s capacity for internal control, relatively speaking. Before, they could arrest 100 people and no one listened or cared. Now they arrest one person and the world listens. We’ve also benefited from the role of the media and the internet. It has really emboldened us to meet more.
“When Bush started to talk about the Greater Middle East and reform in the region, it forced the regimes to start talking about reform. Before they used to say the situation was great. Of course, now they say reform must come from within, but at least they are talking about the need for reform. And of course, reform will occur on their terms. But American policy inspired much of the conversation about reform. It indirectly encouraged the opposition to be bolder and speak out. But at the same time, most of the opposition is strongly opposed to the American project. This is the great irony.
“America doesn’t want to reform the region for the benefit of its people. It has its own interests. Before, its interests lay in the continuation of despots. But now its interests are in line with relatively democratization of the region.”
If the opposition is benefiting from American pressure, why are they so insistent in their opposition a continuation of pressure?
“They oppose the American project vocally to prove their nationalist credentials. The regime accuses them of being treasonous supporters of America, and it’s a strategy that has been somewhat successful.
“Everyone in the opposition admits that the US has spurred talk of reform, but only between themselves. The opposition has gotten stronger in part because of foreign pressure, but they say they stand firmly against America. Its contradictory. Any pressure on the regime contributes to its weakening, which makes our work easier.”
But in spite of international pressure and scrutiny, the government has increased its oppression of civil society activists. How do you explain the new crackdown?
“There are two theories. One is that the regime and the US struck a deal. Syria helps the US deal with the terrorists in exchange for US silence on the human rights and democracy issue. This is a very popular explanation among opposition figures.
The second is that they are trying to display strength to obscure their growing weakness. They’re cracking down to ensure that they don’t have to face pressure from both the internal and external front.”
Has the crackdown worked?
“Absolutely. People are very frightened. In the months between the assassination of Hariri and the national conference, there was more bold talk on the streets about reform. People felt encouraged and the opposition grew. Mind you, we don’t define growth in terms of the number of people who join parties, but the number of people who are sympathetic. But after the national conference, the fear returned. Six people were arrested in Homs for discussing emigration from the Jazeera region—despite the fact they were Ba’thists.”
What are the necessary conditions for the opposition to grow in strength?
“The growth of the opposition has been extremely slow because of the lingering fear imprinted by 30 years of despotism. There are three conditions. First, the different tiers of the opposition must unite. Second, we need to arrive at a clear program for implementing democratic changes in Syria. Third, the opposition needs to renew its political platform, especially as it pertains to the outside world. There is no future for the opposition without a new platform—the current platform is ill. We can no longer afford to be afraid of the outside world. But that does not mean we should depend on the foreign powers to realize all of our demands as some of the Kurds do.”
How do you plan on attracting people to the opposition?
“We cant attract followers until we are united. When the average Syrian sees a divided, enfeebled opposition, no one is inspired to participate. The second thing we need to do is overcome the fear and that is likely to be achieved through one of two ways: foreign pressure or an economic crisis that compels people to demand more from their government."
Do you expect any positive changes from this regime?
“I expect that the changes will be trivial and aimed at beautifying the regime’s image to the international community.”