Syria opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun looks to future – interview with Paul Wood
Against a backdrop of growing armed revolt in Syria alongside street protests, the main opposition group is planning for a future without President Bashar al-Assad, its leader tells the BBC’s Paul Wood in an interview.
Ahmed, a 20-year-old former soldier in the Syrian army had shot at protesters, he told me. But he had had no choice.
« We had security officers standing right behind us… They ordered us to open fire, » he said.
« Some of us shot in the air, some on the ground, but one of us refused to shoot at all. He laid his gun on the ground.
« A security officer killed him there and then. »
He said he had seen more than a dozen such summary executions before being captured in an ambush by the « Free Army », made up of former soldiers who have defected to the opposition.
He was glad that had happened, even though he was injured in the attack.
I repeated his story to Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the main Syrian opposition group. The regime was clinging to power with such violence: wouldn’t there be terrible revenge afterwards?
Mr Ghalioun, chairman of the Syrian National Council (SNC) is one of those planning for the day after Assad.
Immediately following the collapse of the regime, they would announce a national reconciliation process, as in South Africa, he said. They would also learn the lessons of Libya (and Iraq) and maintain the institutions responsible for order.
« Syria is unlike Libya. There is still a functioning state and institutions. We still have a legal and judicial system.
« We want to distinguish between the regime and the state in Syria. There will not be chaos like in Libya. We still have powerful military institutions that we want to preserve. »
Supporting the revolution
First, they have to overthrow President Assad. I arrived in Mr Ghalioun’s Paris apartment – he is a former professor at the Sorbonne – while he and his aides were discussing strategy: How to get the West to intervene? What to do if Russia maintains its veto in the UN Security Council?
« We’re asking them [the international community] to assess every possible option to create and enforce a safe area in Syria and to stop the atrocities being committed in Syrian towns », he told me.
« We are seeking a partial no-fly zone: covering a limited area, just over one piece of territory. We don’t want the complete destruction of Syria’s air defences.
« We don’t want international intervention to replace the Syrian revolution. We want it to support the Syrian revolution. »
The SNC, then, is asking for something on a smaller scale than the bombing in Libya.
Even so, Syria is not Libya. It is more complicated, with more religious and sectarian divisions, and more combustible neighbours.
Much as they would like to see President Assad gone, Western governments have very little appetite for a military intervention of any kind.
In the meantime, the conflict is escalating. A growing armed revolt is taking place alongside the street protest.
On the ground, members of the Free Army are in effect waging a guerrilla war, even though that is against the declared policy of their own leadership and of the SNC.
Mr Ghalioun acknowledged that there was not yet civilian, political control of the growing numbers of armed men fighting the regime.
But the Free Army had accepted the SNC’s political leadership, he said.
« We are in continuous discussions and whenever they take strategic discussions we are consulted », he said.
It was important to engage with the Free Army, he went on, « to prevent the creation of any undisciplined militias seeking revenge and inciting fear. »
The SNC is comprised of Syrian exiles, some living in western capitals for many years. They want a constitution for a free, democratic and pluralist Syria.
I told Mr Ghalioun that we had met armed rebels in Syria who were fighting as much for God as for freedom. Would a secular democracy really be the outcome?
« The Syrian people are religious in nature and are conservative. But this does not mean they are Islamists. Islamists do not represent the majority of the revolutionaries and those protesting in the streets », he replied.
The SNC’s strategy for overthrowing the regime rests on the street protest. But for the past 11 months, there has been a bloody stalemate.
Mr Ghalioun believes that the safe area he wants would tip the balance, allowing mass defections of Syrian soldiers and their families. What if the international community does not come through?
« Then we would seek an international conference on Syria to stop the atrocities and the killings », he replied.
« We cannot just sit by and watch our people being slaughtered. Our conscience will not allow it. »