Robin Yassin-Kassab

Finally, Leadership

with 7 comments

l-r: Saif, Atassi, Khatib (Reuters photo)

Following my previous comment on the astounding failures of Syrian political elites, I must report some optimism. The Syrian National Council has accepted its place within the new Syrian National Coalition (it makes up a third of the new body), and the Coalition has won recognition by the Arab League, France, Japan and others.

The Coalition’s choice of leaders is the most inspiring sign, one which suggests both that the Coalition is no foreign front, and that another, much more positive aspect of Syria is finally coming to the fore.

President Ahmad Muaz al-Khatib is a mosque imam, an engineer and a public intellectual. He is Islamist enough for the Islamists and less extreme Salafists of the armed resistance to give him a hearing, but not Islamist enough to scare secularists and minority groups. He has written books on the importance of minority religious rights and women’s rights in a just Islamic society. His speeches since assuming his position have reached out to minorities and to the soldiers in Asad’s army, who he described as victims of the regime.

Vice President Riyadh Saif is a businessman, former MP, and a liberal democrat.

And Vice President Suheir al-Atassi, daughter of foundational Ba’athist Jamal al-Atassi, is a human rights activist, a secular feminist, a founder of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, and a key activist of the grassroots Local Coordination Committees. She is the sort of person who should have been representing the Revolution at the highest level from the very start.

All three leaders have been active participants in the revolution inside Syria, and all three have suffered imprisonment. All three are known and respected by Syrians inside the country.

The Local Coordination Committees have joined the Coalition, and noises of optimism are bubbling up from revolutionaries inside and outside. As a minor anecdote, I notice that a pro-revolution Alawi friend of mine is expressing optimism about the future for the first time in a long while.

But in some quarters the bickering and sniping continues unabated. Rim Turkmani of the Building the Syrian State group complained to the Guardian that the Coalition was formed in response to outside pressure. This is partially true, and it’s a great shame, a stain on Syrian political elites, that it took threats, promises and cajolements from Qatar, France, Britain and America to achieve this compromise. Yet urgency – the suffering of the people – demands that all strands of Syrian opposition support the Coalition. Though there is still a very long way to go, Asad is losing on the battlefield. By force of arms, areas of the country have been liberated (or partially liberated, as they still suffer terrible bombing). To allow the splintered military leadership to rule in these areas without any central coordination and advice, without any common system of law, would open the way to a warlord-riven and sectarian future (Asad opened this door initially; there’s no need for political elites to push it further open).

Seemingly insistent on Syrian self-reliance, it is a contradiction for Rim to also say that the ‘international community’ should first agree on Syria, and that Syrians should then take their lead from this foreign consensus.

The real unity which matters right now is not that of the political opposition, but that of the international community. Once an international consensus is agreed it is going to be much easier to unite the opposition, and more importantly, end the regime. Russia and China are going to view this group as hostile to them. They are key players in this conflict, and you simply can’t solve a conflict if you do not involve all the players.

This strikes me as totally unrealistic. There is never going to be international consensus on Syria, no more than there’s ever going to be consensus on Palestine. In the one case Russia backs an unworkable regime; in the other America backs its unreasonable ally. When coupled with the notion of negotiations with the regime, which Building the Syrian State also subscribes to, Rim’s stance becomes almost criminally unrealistic. It has been obvious for over a year that the regime has decided (as its shabeeha scawl on the walls) “al-Asad or we’ll burn the country.” The ceasefire plans of the Arab League, Kofi Annan and al-Akhdar Ibrahimi have come and gone, and Asad’s campaign of torture, shooting, shelling, and aerial bombardment has escalated steadily. After two years of burning, staring into the abyss of Somalisation, Syria does not need to wait for further proof of the regime’s inability to compromise. There should be negotiations with representatives of people and communities who are scared by the revolution (and this will be facilitated by the fall of the regime, when such people will finally be able to represent themselves), but not with criminals who don’t want and aren’t capable of negotiations, who use talk of negotiations to buy more killing time. The only subject for negotiations with the regime is the terms of its surrender, and negotiations can only be held after it has stopped its violence and released the prisoners.

I met Rim Turkmani in London (and she’s intelligent, principled and highly educated as well as friendly and civilised – I hope she’ll forgive me for disagreeing with her in public) and heard her make this analogy: “We have to negotiate with the regime just as the parent of a kidnapped child has to negotiate with the hostage taker, because the child’s survival is of paramount importance.” If I can twist the metaphor somewhat, I would respond that the regime has kidnapped ten children and has already killed eight while negotiations continue. It’s killed eight in gales of laughter, and given interviews to the newspapers about how good the killing felt. It’s time not for a negotiator, but for a marksman.

Rim also says the Coalition doesn’t represent all of the fighters or people on the ground. Of course this is true. That’s why the Coalition has a great deal of work to do. It may be too late (after nearly two years of elite bickering) for a political leadership to assert control over many of the fighters, particularly the Salafis, but someone has to try. Efficiently coordinating funds and weapons deliveries would be a great start, and would stop the rise in importance of Gulf-funded al-Qa’ida types. As for the unarmed revolutionaries, many don’t wish to be ‘represented’ by anybody. What they want is for the regime to be neutralised, and then to be able to express themselves in democratic elections. It’s the Coalition’s job to achieve these two aims. With forty thousand dead and the country in ruins, there is no more time to waste.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 13, 2012 at 6:33 pm

7 Responses

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  1. I met Rim Turkmani in London (and she’s intelligent, principled and highly educated as well as friendly and civilised – I hope she’ll forgive me for disagreeing with her in public) and heard her make this analogy

    Seriously, Robin?!

    Anyway, this is Basma al-Qodmani and Riyad al-Seif’s venture that was adopted by the US state department and you know their views. Now the Arab monarchies are behind it, post-facto. It is obvious was this is about …


    November 13, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    • The arab monarchies are behind it but i don’t believe they’re leading it. it isn’t a ‘pure’ initiative but it’s the best that syria has.

      I’m not sure what your ‘seriously’ comment refers to. I do hope Rim takes this in the democratic sense it was meant and not as an insult, because I like her.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      November 13, 2012 at 9:09 pm

  2. Sorry for the lack of clarity – you misunderstood me. Using the terms ‘civilised’, ‘highly educated’ etc. are vacuous and come with discursive baggage. It’s like the word ‘Mathaqaf’ or ‘mutanawar’ etc.

    As for this initiative, they are the ones, in collaboration with the state department, that near set the agenda. Leading SNC members were openly deriding the whole thing, calling out the US state department, only for them to signal a u-turn. There is a lot of stuff being written about how the Qatari royals basically threatened to cut-off funding from the SNC if they didn’t make this Qodmani/Seif/Ford initiative workable.

    Of course, I don’t mean control – things don’t happen like that. What I am saying is that the US and its clients (yes, I use the word clients) have significant leverages. It is not surprising that now, after all this time, they signal their recognition.

    Those behind it are state department Syrian liberals or pro-US Syrian liberals. Only a few months ago, Basma al-Qodmani broke with the SNC to start an initiative with Riyad al-Seif. Is it a coincidence, considering their pro-imperialist views, that Robert Ford and the machinations of the US state should be working with these individuals to near force a new body?

    Whatever the case, later rather than sooner, a Taef like accord will be brokered, as there is little chance that a fragmented group of militias (many rabidly sectarian and racist) have the know-how or logistic capacity to bring the regime down. Also, the issue of Wahabi fighters is much bigger than many think and large brigades like At-Tawheed in Aleppo (probably the biggest) inter-mesh and carry many Salafi ideas. Salafi Jihadi groups have embedded themselves now, so it is also feasible we will have a Baghdad scenario in Damascus.


    November 14, 2012 at 3:12 am

    • i’m sorry if you don’t like my vacuous comments with regard to Rim. I’m just trying to be polite. I agree with much of what you say but still think this is the best and currently only option, and it is necessary. And despite reservations I don’t believe the US or its clients can run the coalition, much less the revolution on the ground. And it seems to me that the regime is being brought down, if painfully slowly. It’s losing the north and being defeated again and again on the outskirts of Damascus.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      November 14, 2012 at 4:27 am

      • by the way, i really wish that russia or china or iran were standing by the syrian people in their revolution against mass-murdering sectarian tyranny. unfortunately these powers are colluding in the bleeding of syria. so in this case i am unable to logically find that the US and its friends in the gulf are the villains. in bahrain they’re the villains, certainly. on palestine the US is a villain. but not at the moment in syria. the us is criticised inside syria for not doing more to help the people. indeed, until now its main act has been to forbid the gulf from providing the resistance with the anti-aircraft weaponry essential to stop asad bombing.

        finally i note your description of the resistance as racist. sectarian i’ve heard before, but racist?

        Robin Yassin-Kassab

        November 14, 2012 at 4:59 am

  3. Not to quibble but – “a founder of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, and a key activist of the grassroots Local Coordination Committees” – these are two different organizations, although in the same line of business. As far as I’m aware, she’s on the board of the SRGC, but not involved with the LCC?


    November 14, 2012 at 11:26 am

  4. The exchange between you both, Syria Revolts and Robin, is very interesting. As long as there is transparency we have nothing to fear.

    I will refer always to the brave Mohammad Al Abdallah open letter/ explaining himself to the outsiders, why he is against Seif’s proposal/initiative or whatever you want to call it. Things turned from that moment onward. This young man patriotism and bravery is what we want. We want young people who do not have the baggage that we, older generation do. Taking into account, whether the politician is an older person, a relative or a person of stature.. you name it. To hell with all titles. We want transparency.. the new transitional government and the future governments of Syria owe it to these young selfless people who were at the front-lines facing one of the worse dictatorships known to human-kind. And putting their future on hold. Bravery is not only standing in front of fire. It could be in words.. in a speech or a letter.

    In Syria, the older generation before the new generation will not allow a Taif like solution..not in a million year.

    At this point, I cannot agree more with Robin, “The Coalition’s choice of leaders is the most inspiring sign”.
    Let us keep the debate going, this is the beauty of a democratic society. It is self correcting.

    Admitting mistakes is a virtue, exposing wrongdoing is bravery. Specially when you are young. N.Z.


    November 15, 2012 at 1:35 am

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