Anwar al-Bunni: Interview with Syria's leading Human Right Lawyer, By Joe Pace
Interview with Anwar al-Bunni
By Joe Pace, Harvard University.
For Syria Comment
(Joe is spending the summer in Syria and, once again, does a terrific job in this interview. Bunni is very smart and has much to teach us about how Syria works.)
August 6, 2005
Anwar al-Bunni is the head of the "Free Political Prisoners Committee," and Syria's leading human rights lawyer. He estimates that the various members of his family have spent over 60 years in Syrian prisons. He defended Damascus Spring leaders in 2001 and continues to represent many prisoners of conscience in Syria.
Pace: Could you provide some background on the relationship between the Kurdish and Arab opposition? Why is the relationship so tenuous and is it improving or deteriorating?
Bunni: The Syrian authorities have always created barriers between the Kurdish and Arab oppositions. It planted the fear within the Arab opposition that the Kurds wanted to slice off a piece of Syria and forge a separate state. And it scared the Kurds into believing that the Arab opposition was incapable of delivering what the authorities could deliver, and it convinced them that direct negotiation with the regime would be more fruitful than coordination with the Arab opposition.
They also used the Kurds during Saddam’s rule to influence the internal situation in Iraq.
Some of the barriers between the two oppositions have come down and this is a frightening prospect for the regime. They began meeting and engaging in dialogue, so obviously they began to understand each other better. The Arab opposition began to realize that not all Kurds want a Kurdish state and the Kurdish opposition began to realize that the call for democracy could solve their problems—culturally, economically, and nationally.
They have begun to engage in serious dialogue, despite the fact that differences remain between them. They have participated in several demonstrations and sit-ins together. Still, there lingers some mutual fear that the parties’ official stances are not their true stances.
When did the dialogue begin?
I would say that the barriers began to break down and the dialogue began after 2000 or after Damascus Spring. That’s when the real interaction began. And since we were defending Kurds, we, as Arab lawyers, contributed to the dialogue and the breaking down of barriers.
What inspired the dialogue?
There were three basic factors. The first was the political opening that allowed the birth of political movements. The second factor was the pressure on Iraq and the Kurdish role there. It gave weight…a role…a new importance to Kurdish parties in Syria. So people began to address the Kurdish issue with newfound interest, especially the Arab opposition. The third factor was the new openness on the part of the Kurdish parties toward the Arab opposition, something which resulted from the loss of faith that the Syrian authorities would grant them their rights or relieve the economic and political pressure on the Kurdish communities. So they began looking for an alternative, in other words, better relations with the Arab opposition in Syria.
We hear a lot that the Iraq war empowered Syrian Kurds, but in what way? How did events in Iraq enhance their influence?
The Kurds began playing a larger political role in Iraq, something which led the Arab opposition and the Syrian authorities alike to pay closer attention to the desires of the Kurds.
Prior to the Iraq war, the Kurds did not play a political role in Syrian politics. Their role was limited to demands placed upon the authority—they didn’t engage in dialogue with the rest of Syrian political society. But after the events in Iraq, the Syrian Arabs began to feel that maybe the Kurds would assume a larger political role in Syria as they did in Iraq. So they had to pay attention to their demands in order to contain them.
But how does a larger role for the Kurds in Iraq translate into greater influence for Syria’s Kurds?
It was first and foremost a psychological effect because they began to feel as though there was protection; that they could depend at the very least on moral and emotional support from the Kurds in Iraq. This sort of support is of crucial importance, the mere face that someone is asking about them—what they’re suffering from, what they’re saying, etc. This is more important than military or financial support.
Now they have a shelter. Before, if a Kurd needed to flee there was nowhere to go. He certainly couldn’t go to Iraq or Turkey. Here they were attacking them, there they were attacking them…But now they have a shelter and it has emboldened them. If something happens to someone here they can flee to Iraq.
So what did the regime do in order to contain this new Kurdish problem?
They tried to contain the Kurds by manipulating some of the Kurdish parties, and by promising them nationality in order to keep the parties in a relationship with the regime. They created the problems in Qamashli in 2004 to weaken the Kurdish-Arab relationship and foster divisions between them. They tried to get the two sides to distance themselves from each other; of course, it didn’t work because people realized that the government was playing them.
So has this newfound influence emboldened the Kurds to issue more demands for an independent or federalized state?
The world was previously oblivious to the Kurdish issue. And the government was contending that the Kurds wanted an independent state. But recently, people have begun to speak out and they are starting to realize that the Kurds have a legitimate complain. But at the same time, Kurdish extremism is unacceptable. They aren’t going to overcome these old suspicions with ease. There is this ingrained suspicion that the Kurds want an independent state and what happened in Iraq scared the Arabs even more.
The authorities have relied on qawmiya (here: Arab nationalism) and its grandiose slogans to legitimate its existence. And they have endeavored to conceal Kurdish features from sight. They tried to Arabize them; they took Kurdish land, Arabized the names of Kurdish villages, deprived them of their citizenship, denied them access to government jobs. Of course, there are Kurds in places like Damascus who lead normal lives without any of those problems. The problem is primarily in the northern regions.
These tactics caused a backlash: people began to cling to their culture more, staking out more extremist positions. This is to be expected—if you close the door of participation in front of someone, they’ll find another partner to cooperate and communicate with. But among all of the Kurdish parties, not one advocates seceding from Syria.
There is also the issue of ethnic nationalism—it is finished. It failed. People now realize that they are never going to establish countries on the basis of a single ethnicity, whether that be Arab, Kurdish, or Armenian. Even in Europe, no one proposes that Germany be only for the ethnic Germans or France for the ethnic French. The concept of an ethnically-based nation state is no longer valid. Of course, an independent nation-state remains a dream among the Kurds, but it remains just that—a dream. No one expects that it will ever be realized. They realize that that state is impossible so the advocacy of such has begun to recede from their party platforms.
There are still a few extremists who maintain the dream or try to realize it, and this is natural. But the rest see that the solution resides in democracy, in a system that respects the dignity of every human being and not under the flag of a country based on qawmiya. People see that qawmiya brings them nothing but poverty, theft, pillaging, and oppression. It hasn’t achieved economic growth, dignity, or glory—it hasn’t brought them anything.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds in Europe and elsewhere live with citizenship and full rights and none of them are clamoring to leave their country and move to Kurdistan. The idea of a Kurdish state is a dream—nothing more, nothing less. But reality will not permit its realization.
What about federalism in lieu of a separate state?
Federalism or state unity is something to be determined after we reach democracy. But federalism is a just another political arrangement; it doesn’t mean fundamentally changing the state entity. Switzerland has 32 cantons. How has that impacted on the strength of Switzerland. It’s still one of the stronger powers in the world. America has 52 states, each with its own legislature, its own laws, and its own constitution. How has that lessened the power of America? On the contrary, this structure has enhanced its power. My thinking isn’t, let’s create a federated state even if it means that the state will be weak. My dream is to make my country stronger.
What sort of reaction to this revival have you seen among the Arabs?
Extremism from one side always results in extremism from the other. With the exception of the events in Qamashli there haven’t been very many explicit manifestations of the extremism. Some serious tensions have developed among the Arab tribes who reject this Kurdish revival—some understand the issue, but others have responded with their own brand of extremism. Even some of the cultured elite had a negative reaction to the events in Qamashli.
The problem is the absence of a natural environment. If the environment is diseased, it is going to produce more social diseases in all circumstances. An environment characterized by oppression and domination is not going to produce healthy thought—its going to produce extremism.
That’s what we’ve been saying: a democratic environment will push people to be more proper and more rational and it will stunt extremism.
So what are the major differences between the Kurdish and Arab oppositions?
The most fundamental difference is that the Kurds think—and this is their right—that there is a uniquely Kurdish problem. The Syrian opposition views it as an issue of just another group deprived of its rights, but not a Kurdish problem in the sense that the Kurds constitute a nation. And this basic difference ramifies into multiple points of disagreement about the details of their predicament. But the fundamental point of contention is whether the Kurds are a separate nation or just normal Syrian individuals deprived of some of their rights.
It’s not a problem if the Syrian Arabs say “we are Syrian Arabs who are part of the Arab nation.” But it’s not permitted for the Syrian Kurds to say “we are Syrian Kurds who are part of the Kurdish nation.” So there’s a contradiction.
Most of the Kurds support America’s project of remaking the Middle East. They call Bush “father of freedom,” which I cannot imagine goes over too well with a lot Arabs. How does the Arab opposition react to this?
No, in Syria you’ll find Arabs who say let Bush come here as well.
But it’s a rarer sentiment among the Arabs than the Kurds.
No, it’s not rare among the Arabs. That’s what happens when you block all other avenues for change. The Kurds may get the most publicity because in some of their demonstrators they were praising Bush. But even in Qadmus, where the ethnic conflicts erupted, some of the Isma’lis were calling for Bush to come. The same thing happened in Misyaf three months ago. So you shouldn’t think of it as a Kurdish predilection—it’s the natural result of closing the doors in front of the citizenry. I heard an old man saying the other day, “let Israel come and rescue us from this state.” Israel! And he was speaking in a loud voice in the middle of the street. These sentiments are the byproduct of oppression.
But if there is a Kurdish party that openly supports the American project, does that create tensions between it and an Arab party who may share the same ideals but rejects American intervention?
Maybe in the beginning it was a problem. But now that many of the Arabs have begun to speak more openly in their endorsement of the American project, it’s become less of a dividing line exclusively between the Kurds and Arabs.
Ok, then what about oppositional parties in general that differ on the role of American intervention?
Of course, it’s a point of contention. But, in general, its one of many points of contention. It’s a primary point that the nationalist Arab opposition clings to. There is a segment that cannot comprehend the concept of external powers playing a role in internal reform.
We used to lambaste America for supporting those dictators. But now America is saying that it supports democratic leadership. And they still criticize. What do they want? What do they want America to do? When America supported despots they criticized her. Now America has admitted to making mistakes and says it supports freedom and democracy. So what do they want the Americans to do? What do they want the position of the largest country in the world to be? Should America be silent on everything?
Then why do you think they continue to stand against America?
For two reasons. First, they have been raised to dislike America, and especially because of its past mistakes, it has no credibility. No one believes that America has the people in its interests. The second reason is its position on the Israeli-Arab conflict. It has yet to usher a solution to the conflict and that’s an extremely sensitive point for Arabs. Then there is the Iraq war which left some 400,000 people dead. And then what? They expect that America will then withdraw and leave the people to die.
The only thing they are certain of is that America is looking to protect its own interests. Defending human rights and democracy consists of pressuring the regimes in order to secure their own interests—it is not done in the defense of the people. So no one has faith that they can rely on America.
I won’t rely on America but I am going to exploit American pressure to realize my goals. Don’t be part of the American project, but you should still position yourself to benefit from it. Allow America to put pressure on the regime and reap the benefits. Don’t participate in America’s project, but don’t fight it. They don’t understand this equation.
You say that the opposition benefits from foreign pressure. How? Hypothetically, what would happen if foreign pressure came to a halt?
We’d all be imprisoned. It’s that simple.
The European Union has more credibility in the region and it’s taken a more reasonable stance towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So people are willing to rely on them more than America. And I made this point to Ambassador Scobey before she returned to Washington: America is in dire need of credibility in the realm of democracy and human rights. How am I supposed to believe that America supports democracy and human rights when they are supporting Husni Mubarak for his fifth term or Zaid Eddin Ibn Ali for his third term when he is oppressing people in his country? There’s no balance in the policy. They need to be promoting human rights everywhere, not just in Syria but then disregarding human rights violations elsewhere.
It has lost its credibility. But the more credibility the US gains, the larger its potential role becomes.
The opposition is clearly divided over the role of American influence. But to what extent does that constitute a major cleavage that interferes with cooperation and unity?
This is an ostensible source of problems, but it’s not the fundamental reason for lack of unity within the opposition. The real reason for disagreements is that the opposition hasn’t managed to reach the people. It speaks for its own interests and the interests of opposition personalities rather than speaking for the interests of the people. The people are absence from this opposition.
No opposition element has a complete program for action. I disagree with someone because my platform doesn’t comport with his—but here, no one has a real platform. And the people can’t evaluate the platforms and decide which one is better. So where is there room for disagreement? They disagree on personal issues.
There are some substantive manifestations of these disagreements: the issue of Arab nationalism, the role of America, the role of Europe, the position towards the regime. Is the regime capable of reform, can we dialogue with it or not? Those are the apparent differences, but the real reason is that there is no carrier for the message. They don’t represent people, they represent themselves.
So how do you solve this problem? Is this opposition salvageable?
In my opinion, this opposition exists only to oppose the regime. It will collapse with the collapse of the regime. There are small gatherings—and this hasn’t yet been widely noticed—of normal people who didn’t previously have any relation to politics. And these new groups have begun to organize their thoughts and produce a new leadership. We have to rely on those people, not the current opposition figures.
The current opposition figures dream that one day they will have the power. But it’s a dream—it will never be realized. At best, they may be part of a transition stage while the people determine their stances and goals and the desired leadership.
People are becoming more aware. Because of the satellite and the internet, they are beginning to realize how politics affects them. We can’t determine how much power they will have right now, but I imagine that in the near future their power will begin to manifest itself. And they will not march to the tune of the current opposition.
Do you think that coordination could begin to solve the problem?
No, I don’t think so. Like I said, there is no popular support for the opposition. The Kurds are well organized and they can bring people to the streets. Regarding the Arabs, there are no parties that have the support of the street.
If the opposition doesn’t represent anyone, does the regime consider even a united opposition a threat?
Of course, a united opposition would be a threat. Sheikh Khaznawi [a prominent Kurdish Sheikh who was recently assassinated, most likely by the regime] became a threat because of his good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s not so much the Muslim Brotherhood that has weight in society as much as the new Islamist trends which have been gaining steam as a result of repression. I don’t think they’re worried that the Muslim Brotherhood has a large, organized, explicit base in Syria. But the meeting between a Kurd and the Muslim Brotherhood sends a signal to the Islamists more than it entails the formation of an organized alliance.
But right now, the regime does not have anything to fear from inside of Syria. The only time the regime fears the internal opposition is when it coordinates or receives support from foreign powers. In short, the regime fears foreign—not internal—pressure because the internal opposition cannot influence the regime.
Is the opposition directing its energies toward direct confrontation with the regime or are they beginning to exploit foreign pressure to implement their agenda?
They are pressuring the regime directly and that is the problem. They need to make use of the more intensive foreign pressures.
What about the claim among many opposition figures that endorsing foreign pressure or accepting foreign support would cost them credibility on the street?
There has not been a revolution in ages that was purely internal—they are always influenced by other powers. So that kind of talk is a lie. There is no such thing as purely internal change.
Yes, but you don’t think there’s any legitimacy to the claim that giving the degree of anti-American sentiment, receiving money from America would be the kiss of death for their credibility?
Of course, there are risks. But we’re not talking about money or material support. That is the lowest level of politics—we need to understand the political game to consolidate our positions. They don’t have to loose credibility because they don’t have to be part of the American project. But they need to take advantage of American pressures. We need to utilize the West to pressure for the release of political prisoners and so on and so forth. They forget that human rights is an international issue—it is grounded in international treaties and relies on international enforcement.
The regime accuses opposition figures of treason. Does this tactic work?
No, not any more. It used to before satellite TV and the internet. On the front page of the newspaper Ath-thawra they accused me of agitating for human rights while ignoring national rights. But that hasn’t made a dent in my credibility. In fact the exact opposite happened—ten articles appeared on the internet in support of me.
You spoke earlier about a new group of people that you think will become the new opposition. What are the conditions for this inchoate, popular opposition to succeed?
The international community needs to continue pressuring the regime in order to protect civil society and human rights activists so that they can take their message to the people. People began to speak out, but the arrests resumed and people were intimidated and stop discussing politics. The most important thing is the protection of activists from arrest and murder. That would enable people to agitate more for change. We need pressure for the government to pass laws that protect civil society. That would create the conditions under which a new opposition could emerge.
I hear a lot from average Syrians that there are two evils: the greater evil which is the occupation of Palestine and Iraq, and the lesser evil which is the government—
That’s regime propaganda. When did the Syrian regime ever do anything to help solve the issue of Palestine and Iraq? Nothing. I can’t say that there is a big evil and a small evil because the two are interrelated.
Lets assume for a second that we have two enemies: the regime and America. If the two of them fight each other, I have one less enemy to worry about. Both of them aim to oppress me. Now they are fighting each other. Let them fight! If one of them is vanquished then I have one less enemy.
But there are people who are unwilling as a matter of principle to accept an American victory. How do you convince them that American pressure is in their interest?
Those people are one element of many. There is no entity that wants to see an end to American interference more than the Syrian regime itself. But like I said, we need exploit American pressure not for the sake of American interests, but for the sake of achieving our own goals. And this is what the current opposition doesn’t understand. It doesn’t understand how to play the game. Even regarding people like Farid Ghadry—we have an expression in Syria: “better the dog bark with you than at you.” Let Farid bark with you. Don’t degrade him. The opposition has no conception of how it is going to bring about these grand political changes.
This is why I say they will collapse with the regime. They have no program; they have no role outside of opposing the regime’s existence. Who are they going to oppose after the regime’s collapse?
The regime’s political strategy depends on planting landmines throughout society. But the mine doesn’t explode if you place your leg on it—it explodes when you remove your leg from it. The regime planted the land mines then placed their legs on them so that if the regime goes, the society will explode. We can expect the same thing that happened in Lebanon to happen here. We suffer from the same problems of competing nationalisms, sectarianism, and extremism. So we are held hostage by a regime that says to us “if I leave, the world will end. You’ll suffer through civil war. Best leave me in place.”
We need to mobilize the people to build a new society and minimize the potential for this explosion. But nothing is free. No country can progress without paying a price, be it blood or civil war. Even America had to undergo civil war before it could become a great power—hundreds of people had to die. Europe had to suffer through the Second World War to become what it is today. Big changes require big prices. But we need to work to minimize the price we will have to pay for progress.
This is the role for foreign pressures—to enable people to mobilize and build a new society that will not explode as soon as the totalitarian boot is lifted. To allow people to build a society that will neutralize that landmine.