Razan Zeitouneh, "The State of the Syrian Opposition," Intereview by Joe Pace
The State of the Syrian Opposition
Razan Zeitouneh Interview
By Joe Pace for "Syria Comment"
14 September 2005, Damascus
Published Oct. 4, 2005
Razan Zeitouneh is a Syrian human rights activist, lawyer, journalist and founder of the website, Syrian Human Rights Information Link, or SHRIL, an important clearing house for information on people who have been arrested or have disappeared. Part One of Razan's interview was published yesterday: Syria's Preemptive War against Infiltrators into Iraq.
Razan's interview addresses these issues:
1. THE LIBERAL OPPOSITION
2. THE ISLAMIC RESURGENCE
3. THE NEW CRACKDOWN
4. THE ROLE OF FOREIGN POWERS
5. THE KURDISH-ARAB OPPOSITION RELATIONSHIP
1. THE LIBERAL OPPOSITION
[Joe Pace] You’re 29 years old, from the new generation of activists. What attracted you to the opposition? How did you become involved?
[Razan Zeitouneh] In 2001, when the democratic movement began—the movement of the opposition, intellectuals, etc—the Human Rights Association in Syria was established and I was among its founding members. That was my first oppositional activity. Now, I am working as an independent activist and I monitor human rights violations.
Are there a lot of people your age?
No, there are actually very few my age. Most of the people who are participating in the opposition are from the previous generation—former political prisoners, old politicians, and well-known intellectuals. Very few young people have entered the opposition. There are two reasons for this.
First, the security situation in general means that anyone who wants to participate in the opposition must be willing to pay a high price regarding his studies, his ability to find work, his social life, regarding everything in his life because the danger posed by the security apparatus is limitless.
Second, if we want to talk about the youth who are committed to change and willing to pay that price, they aren’t finding movements that suit them. The parties within the opposition, the civil society organizations that have been established in the last five years—none of them are suitable for the youth. They are run by outdated and ideological mindsets to which the youth are no longer receptive. The parties’ messages are exhausted and calcified. They aren’t undertaking any work to attract the youth—on the contrary, the youth are leaving these parties and organizations.
We found that there was a marginal location for the youth to undertake work, but after years, they still have no experience, there is complete stagnancy. Consequently, they haven’t been able to form anything specific to their group.
I would presume that the second factor must be predominant because the security situation is substantially better now than it was in the 1970s and 1980s?
Yes, but don’t forget that the newer generation did not see what happened in the 1970s and 1980s. They know what they see today: human rights activists are being arrested, those who dare to write articles are being detained, those who attend protests are beaten and humiliated—this is what they see. And they saw what happened last year with the students who were expelled from the university and who now have no future. The sons and daughters of detainees are being harassed by the security agencies, they are denied work opportunities, etc. So the pressure from the security forces is still an important reason.
If there were an appropriate movement suitable to this generation, of course we would see more participation among the youth because there are those among them who are willing to pay a heavy price. This is always the case, in every place and every time period, that there are those who are willing to sacrifice themselves, those who are totally committed to an idea. But here, no one is finding an appropriate trend.
If there is a Syrian youth who wants to participate in oppositional activities, how does s/he go about finding the opposition? Where do they “sign up?”
This is an extremely important question. I remember when I forced began exploring the area, I didn’t even know that there were parties. When I read a list of political prisoners, I assumed that was it: there parties are gone, there is nothing left. I didn’t know that the National Democratic Assembly was still around. Even now, the opposition has failed to reach even the smallest segment of the youth. Of course, I attribute a large part of that to the security situation. We are prohibited from disseminating pamphlets or press releases; we aren’t allowed to hold meetings or symposiums; we aren’t allowed to organize protests, and if we are, we aren’t allowed to hold up signs to show people why we’re protesting. As a result, we are totally besieged.
However, that doesn’t absolve the opposition of responsibility. It should be inventing new ways to reach the people.
What current within the opposition has been most successful at courting the youth?
Most of the youth who are interested are not actually joining groups. For example, they might participate in protests and forums, but most of them don’t belong to a party or organization because these groups simply haven’t convinced them. Even now, the youth are unable to participate in the existing structures and they are unable to create their own structures.
You spoke about the parties’ inability to cobble together an attractive platform. But have you detected any condescension toward the newer generation, especially among the former political prisoners?
I can’t really say that there is condescension per se. There is a sort of totalitarian thought within many of the parties, especially within the leadership. They aren’t democratic enough to be able to cooperate with other trends. They will marginalize anyone, whether from the new or old generation, who they consider competition.
After Bashar assumed the presidency, what role did the civil society forums play? People met, lectured, debated, but do you feel as though they accomplished anything tangible, like advancing the opposition intellectually or bridging divides between competing trends?
It was the first time in which the intellectuals were afforded the opportunity to meet and discuss the economic, social, and security situation publicly—something which was prohibited for decades. I think this was their accomplishment, nothing more. There were initially several forums, then there was one. Now they have closed the Jamal al-Attasi forum, and even before the forum was closed, you felt as though it utility had been used up. Its aim was to create an arena for dialogue and it did so, but it was unable to play a larger role.
I don’t think that it produced any new ideas. It was more a place for dialogue for the different Syrian groups; that was its role and we shouldn’t expect more from it than that.
What can you do when family members or friends of the detained come to you?
We can’t do very much. We collect information and relay it to local and international organizations. We try to get people to write letters, we write articles on the issue. None of this is enough to build the pressure sufficient to force the regime to release the prisoners. That’s the reality. All human rights organizations are limited to the same function: writing articles and letters, publishing press releases. But in general, our capacities are limited and weak.
Why are there four human rights associations instead of one unified organization? Why the redundancy?
It’s not wrong that there are many human rights associations. We are in need of a thousand of those organizations, not just four. The problem is that these organizations are not being formed for the right reasons. They are being formed on the basis of ideology or limited blocs—this is the problem. Again, this is something we could overcome if there were cooperation and coordination among the groups. They are unable to bridge the divide and broaden their base because of the foundation on which they established their party. If these organizations had been founded by independents who didn’t have prior political experience, I think the situation would be much better.
The biggest problem is that there isn’t cooperation and coordination. On the contrary, there is mutual avoidance. They don’t share information, they don’t participate in shared endeavors.
2. THE ISLAMIC RESURGENCE
What do you think is the cause of the Islamic resurgence in Syria?
There are two sides to it: one is the total intellectual, cultural, and political emptiness in the sense that because of the oppression, pressures, lack of parties and forums, there is no nourishment of the mind nor soul in Syria—especially for the new generation. The only option open to them is religious study. That’s the first reason.
The second reason is that the regime is encouraging something called “Islam of the authority” by building mosques and permitting the offering of religious lessons which focus on the fiqh, purity and uncleanliness, etc. But they don’t so much as mention politics or current social problems. The regime has a vested interest in promoting that form of Islam.
It is spreading widely and quickly as evidenced by the growth of mosques and the increase in the number of people attending religious lessons in people’s houses and elsewhere.
Do you think this brand of “Islam of the authority” is susceptible to politicization?
I doubt it because its mode of propagation is the sermon and religious lessons which are under the surveillance of and controlled by the state. It’s kept far from politics.
But, it is kept far from politics artificially, by means of state control. If you removed state manipulation, you would get an entirely different movement, something which would definitely be political in nature.
Islam is a vast religion that lends itself to multiple interpretations. But for the first time in my life, I’m hearing hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) that counsel withdrawal, surrender, and defeat. I started a conversation with a woman who had just come out of Abu Noor (Syria’s largest Islamic university). I asked her what courses on the Qur’an they were offering and she said there were many and that I should attend. I replied, “in all honesty, I don’t want to have anything to do with institutions that have ties with the authorities. You aren’t contributing anything to society—on the contrary, you are contributing to its destruction. Islam for you is only tahaara (purity, cleanliness) and najassa (uncleanliness). Islam is supposed to be more than that; it is supposed to encourage people to fight oppression and injustice. Then she started relating hadiths that if someone transgresses against you, you should not fight back or insult him—you should pray for him! Pray that he reforms himself! This is the authority’s version of Islam.
The Islamic resurgence that you are describing is hardly extremist or militant. But would you say there has also been a resurgence of extreme or fundamentalist Islam?
I can’t really assess that since there haven’t been any studies undertaken on the subject in the past five years. No one has a clear sense if the number of extremists has increased. Wahabis have been here for ages; there are parts of the countryside that are almost entirely Wahabi. But I couldn’t tell you when it began to spread from one countryside to the next, when it began to organize, etc.
3. THE NEW CRACKDOWN
After the assassination of Hariri and especially after the meeting of the National Congress, the regime has cracked down on civil society and the opposition with renewed vigor. What form has this crackdown taken?
The most recent period of renewed oppression resembles what followed “Damascus Spring.” After the assassination of Hariri for at least two months there was nothing. There was a lessening of pressure by the security agencies, the number of summons to the security branches decreased, and then suddenly the regime did an about-face. That’s when the arrests began, in what people call Black May. They began arresting activists, they closed the Jamal al-Atassi forum, the number of summons to the security branches increased drastically. It was just like what happened in September 2001. Even today, the situation remains the same.
What do you think is motivating the crackdown?
Perhaps it’s a preemptive response by the authorities as well. They want to clean house, they want to prohibit any activity which could translate into internal pressure on the regime, they want to prevent the emergence of a real opposition.
Prior to the crackdown, was the opposition growing stronger, and if so, how did that strength manifest itself?
It depends on whether or not you are talking about civil society associations or the parties. Civil society groups are more effective and have a better standing among the people. They have recently begun to establish themselves and better their performance—totally opposite of what’s happened with the parties.
Civil society groups were getting stronger. If we take the example of human rights organizations: they’re ability to monitor and report human rights violations has drastically increased. That’s evidence that these organizations have gained the trust of much of the segment of society that is bearing the brunt of these violations. In the recent period, we have developed mechanisms to communicate with international organizations.
What about the National Democratic Assembly?
The National Democratic Assembly in reality is only two parties. The remaining three parties don’t have a real presence. There is the People’s Party (formerly the Communist Party) and the Party of the Communist Alliance. These two parties totally disagree on virtually everything: their opinions, the method of action, the list of demands they adhere to. It’s strange that these two parties would be in one assembly. In fact, I think that this alliance is probably hurting instead of helping the opposition. You get this phenomenon where those who are working for higher aims are pulling the rest of the parties up, but those other parties are pulling the more ambitious ones down.
Several people I’ve talked to within the opposition have said that it has no future, that its raison d’etre is reactively opposing the regime and that as soon as the regime collapses, the present opposition will die. Do you agree with that?
Nothing can collapse until an alternative rises up to replace it. The regime wont collapse until there is there is a new opposition to replace it and the same goes for the opposition itself.
Under what circumstances could the opposition become a replacement to the regime?
If you lessen the oppression from the security agencies, people will begin to form and join organizations and parties. I am convinced of this. Not all of them will necessarily be good, but maybe out of 100 you will find one that is truly representative and has credibility. If you talk to the youth or the former political prisoners, all of them want change. The problem is that they don’t want to pay a price for work that won’t produce anything. If there were a new environment in which people could maneuver, a thousand projects would appear. In the beginning there will be a lot of mistakes, things will be experimental, but this is the price we have to pay to progress.
What are the concerns that would move people to the streets? What is the slogan?
The largest segment of the population is seized by economic concerns. They are economically crushed. You also have a segment that is being tormented by the security agencies, and here we aren’t just talking about the activists. There are also arbitrary arrests that can extend to anyone. Or you have the rich segment that may not have any economic worries, but perhaps they have environmental concerns or they are concerned about improving the general state of affairs in the country. Not all people are united by a single concern. So I think that each segment will produce an elite to address and treat the specific problem which their group is suffering from. It’s not reasonable to expect the emergence of a party that represents every social grouping—that has never occurred in all of history.
Do you think that the oppositional groups are going to return to secret activities because of the new crackdown?
There is a consensus throughout all segments of the opposition against secret activity in all its forms. Even if they know that a meeting will be broken up by the security agencies, they won’t plan the meeting in secret. In my opinion, this is not always the best option. Some of our work has to succeed and I will not allow the secret police to constantly frustrate my efforts. Personally, I am not against being cautious, as in undertaking activities not necessarily secretly, but not totally publicly. That’s a tactic that we have to adapt until the pressure from the security apparatuses lightens.
4. THE ROLE OF FOREIGN POWERS
Nobody within the opposition believes that at this time they are powerful enough to influence the regime’s policies in any meaningful way, but many of them reject foreign influence, which seems only to ensure the continued irrelevance of the opposition. Do you want to see the international community this regime on the human rights front, and if so, what pressures would you welcome?
I want pressures, but not stupid pressures. For example, not economic pressures which would enable the rich and powerful to continue living in prosperity while the poor bore then brunt of the pressures. Political and diplomatic pressures, on the other hand, are required. I want to derive strength from foreign powers, but not if it means things like military pressure.
If the US were to pressure the regime and openly support the opposition and human rights activists, do you think that this would help the regime portray activists as treasonous?
It would help them portray us as treasonous and it would cause the opposition to loose credibility among the people. There is already this idea among many that the opposition is really a tool of the US. This would be an example of an ill-thought pressure: the secretary of state gets on television and calls for the release of a certain human rights activist. If that person gets out of prison he is rendered less effective in his work.
The EU displays more intelligence in the ways they pressure the regime. Sometimes it’s public, sometimes it’s not. Of course, this is all because there is no real international mechanism for the protection of human rights. All of it is theoretical; none of it is actually enforced. That’s why international pressure in this way is the only solution.
If the US embassy offered you some sort of material support—let’s even say without conditions—would you accept it?
No. Even before I think about my personal stance towards US policy, I think about the people with whom I’m working. If I loose my credibility with them, I cease to be an effective activist. My effectiveness is dependent upon how much they trust me and respect me. What good would it be for me to accept material support if I can no longer work as an activist? For this reason alone, I would absolutely refuse the assistance.
Do you believe the claims that there is a convergence of US interests and the spread of democracy?
I do believe that there is a convergence, one which centers on the war against terrorists and the growth of Islamic extremism. But I haven’t seen any evidence that that convergence has been translated into actual policy.
What must America do to regain its credibility?
It cannot do anything because it’s not going to regain its credibility. This should not surprise anyone: superpowers always pursue their own interests at the expense of others. As long as America remains the dominant power, I cannot conceive of a way in which it will be able to regain its credibility.
Have the Western embassies done anything to engage civil society or support human rights associations?
In recent years, the EU has shown greater interest in the issue of human rights. They have someone in their embassy, usually the third secretary, who specializes in human rights and deals with civil society. There are always European delegations that attend the trials of prisoners of opinion and conscience. They put pressure on the government by sending messages to their counterparts here and bringing up the issue in meetings. They show their interest by always being present: at protests, at trials, etc. They are currently trying to find a way to engage civil society through training and funding.
The Americans have someone as well. Sometimes he shows up to the events, sometimes he doesn’t. But it’s really the Europeans that are showing interest.
What do you think of the Syrian opposition that’s forming in the US?
I don’t have an opinion about them. They are entitled to do what they want and we should not deny them that right.
Farid al-Ghadry claimed recently that the opposition was getting stronger and that in a matter of months it would be able to replace the regime. What do you think of that statement?
That’s his opinion. As far as the situation on the ground here, I haven’t seen anything that would support that claim. I wish it were true, I wish there some evidence. But I think the opposite is true.
Does he have any supporters here?
I haven’t met with a single person who supports him. On the contrary, people have a negative opinion of him—not just people from the opposition, but the average citizen as well. According to normal Syrians and the opposition, he chose the wrong ally. He chose America.
What do you expect will happen after the release of the Mehlis report?
I cannot predict anything. I do not think there is a regime in the world as opaque as this one. It has a structure that is dominated by personal relationships and the ruling family—nothing is clear. For that reason, I say that anything is possible: the regime could collapse in a month, or it could get stronger.
What about as a response from the international community?
The same. All options are open and I can’t really predict anything.
5. THE KURDISH-ARAB OPPOSITION RELATIONSHIP
How would you characterize the relationship between the Kurdish and Arab Syrian opposition?
The relationship between the two tiers stays roughly the same with minor fluctuations. There haven’t been any initiatives on either side to improve or strengthen the relationship. The relationship between the two oppositions is still very fragile.
What are the main points of disagreement between the two oppositions?
There is intolerance and stubbornness on both sides. The Arabs intransigently cling to Arab nationalism and the Kurds do the same. The thing which unites them, the desire for democracy and freedoms, is somehow absent.
There was a coordinating committee, but its efforts have been stunted by this intransigence. They face these problems whenever they try to organize a protest or publish a press release. Neither is aware of the real issues which unite them.
On a practical level, how would the opposition benefit from coordination between the Arabs and the Kurds? As in, what sort of concrete initiatives could you expect?
The most important thing is that even if they don’t produce any political results that they reclaim Syria for the Syrians. I have to look at a Kurd and see a Syrian, but one that also has all of the cultural and political rights that go along with being Kurdish. But he must also identify as a Syrian citizen. The fact that the Kurds have faced disproportionate discrimination at the hands of this regime has taken a toll on their willingness to identify as Syrians. If there were coordination and cooperation, it would produce a unity that could not otherwise be achieved.
The parties and the leadership don’t concern me. My concern is the people, the average people who would converge on the streets. When I can stand with those people at a protest with a unified goal, when we are beaten together and arrested together, then I can say that I have achieved everything I wanted to achieve. But when I go to a protest and there is a cluster of Kurds demanded Kurd-specific rights and a cluster of Arabs focusing on their own narrow agenda, even if the protest is a success, I consider it a failure.
Why do you think the Kurdish street is so politicized and easy to mobilize while the Arab street is, by comparison, unwilling to participate in political protest?
The thing which mobilizes the Kurdish street is the nationalist cause. That cause, wherever it might appear, is capable of arousing sentiments more intense than the issue of democracy and human rights. Second, if you judge an opposition’s strength by the strength of its parties, then the Arab opposition was totally crushed. It is sort of rising from the ashes anew. That didn’t happen to the Kurdish parties to the same degree.
Do you believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is genuinely committed to democracy?
Whether or not I believe it is a personal issue. I personally evaluate them based on what they are saying. They have rejected violence, embraced democracy, and pluralism. Even if I were totally opposed to political Islam, I have to recognize their right to exist and compete with me in a democratic way. It’s not my place to deny that; on the contrary, I am encouraged by the fact that in a predominately Sunni country, the Sunni street has a moderate Islamist party.
Is there a general tendency in the opposition to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood has become a moderate, democratic party and if so, is there a willingness to coordinate with them?
It’s hard to say since that is not something that is widely discussed since it is considered a red line by the regime. You certainly know about all the arrests of late because of the Muslim Brotherhood issue. Because of pressures from the security agencies, no one is bold enough to announce an honest position on the matter. The only person to do that was Riad at-Turk because he is willing to push harder than the rest of the opposition. The rest will say that the Muslim Brotherhood has the right to exist, but they don’t take a clear stance on the issue of cooperation.
Do you think that if the regime were to weaken or collapse the result would be civil war?
I cannot deny that there is sectarian tension, all of which is the result of the regime’s idiotic and destructive policies. Anything is possible. We should not dismiss the possibility of ethnic conflict because we must be ready for it; we should study it so that if, God forbid, it occurs, we are in a position to cope with it.
I don’t necessarily think civil war per se will erupt. It’s a majority Sunni country and I think maybe some of the Sunnis would take revenge on the Alawites, not because of the sectarian or religious beliefs, but because of their connections with the regime. I don’t think it will be total sectarian warfare, but I think you could see an increase in the incidents like what happened in Qadmus. Conflict is also possible between the Kurds and Arabs if they don’t find a just solution to the Kurdish issue.