Friday, November 18, 2011

Barçın Yinanç
ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
People in the Baath party are waiting for another vessel to come along to jump from the regime ship, says a member of the opposition. There will come a time when the regime will fall with a tiny push, according to Khaled Khoja, who is a member of Syrian National Council, which is seeking for international recognition.
The second meeting with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was tantamount to moral recognition of the Syrian National Council, says its member Khaled Khoja (R), speaking in his personal office in Istanbul.  DAILY NEWS photos, Hasan ALTINIŞIK
The second meeting with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was tantamount to moral recognition of the Syrian National Council, says its member Khaled Khoja (R), speaking in his personal office in Istanbul. DAILY NEWS photos, Hasan ALTINIŞIK

Q: What makes you say the Syrian National Council (SNC) represents nearly 80 percent of the Syrians, which is a very ambitious claim? 

A: The gist of the SNC was actually a gathering of diaspora opposition who were seeking ways to support the demonstrators on the streets and had no claim to representation. But when the regime attempted to establish an alternative opposition group, the street forced the outside groups to assume responsibility. So we take our legitimacy from the street.

Q: What is the street? How can you judge their support from here?

A: There have been three consecutive Friday events when banners saying “SNC is our representative” were carried. There are three groups in Syria representing the streets and all three of them support us and have their representatives in the SNC, whose names are not disclosed obviously. The Muslim Brotherhood, Kurds and Christians also are represented in the SNC.

Q: The opposition meetings took place in Turkey. What was Turkey’s role during the whole process?

A: Actually Turkey did not really have a warm approach to the first congress in Istanbul.

Q: But even the fact that it let the congress happen is important.

A: But we did not ask for permission. Actually it was not really like a meeting of the opposition. It happened rather like a brain-storming by intellectuals. It was organized by Turkish NGOs. But opposition figures got to know each other in that meeting. When the regime sent a group to sabotage our meeting in Antalya, Turkish authorities said to them, go hold your own meeting in another hotel. They said this is a democratic country, people can hold meetings. It is then that we realized a change in attitude, and we said if we hold a congress the government won’t object.

Q: So Turkey was not behind this process.

A: No it was not at all. Its position was, “We neither say come here nor do we say go away.” But we also insisted for the meetings to take place in Turkey. Most of the participants have Syrian passports; there are no visa requirements for Syrians. We had visa problems with France, we tried but couldn’t organize it there. It is easy to come to Turkey from abroad. It is a secure country. At one stage there were discussions to go to Cairo. But some of our friends were attacked by Assad supporters in Cairo. We have easy access to media. Our friends from Paris were surprised as there were 20 cameras at our meeting. We need to be heard by the international media, which is present in Turkey. So there was not a better alternative.

Q: What now are your relations with Turkish government?

After the establishment of SNC we started to communicate at the level of Prime Ministry’s advisors and Turkey started to monitor the SNC. We then had our first meeting with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. The second meeting was like a moral recognition. Turkey has been looking for a solution through persuasion with minimum loss of life. Turkey was never focused on military intervention. We know from the Libyan experience, Turkey never wants Muslims to kill other Muslims, it will never give weapons. We were also told so by the Libyans when we went there. They said: “Turkey helped us a lot, but it gave only financial help. It did not give one single bullet.” But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkey would not stand silent if there are mass atrocities. The Arab League’s call for the protection of civilians is very important. So I believe Turkey will work for the implementation of sanctions. But if the regime continues to escalate violence, then I believe the next step will be a process leading to the establishment of a no-fly-zone and/or safe zones on the Turkish and Syrian border.

Q: So you believe Turkey will look to that positively?

A: The conditions of the Arab League are very clear. With the decision it took, the whole region has entered a very historic process. What is important from now on is to secure a consistent process.

Q: But how will this take place?

A: We are against military intervention, the type we have seen in Libya. What is very important are the streets in Syria. It is very important that they maintain their unity despite provocation from the regime. The NSC did not close its doors to anybody. We keep giving satisfactory messages to even the supporters of the regime. The regime stands on three pillars: the army, the Baath party and the regime’s financial supporters. Defections have started in the army. The people from the Baath party are waiting for another ship to come along to jump out from the ship they are on. Businessmen started to transfer their money from Syria. The regime is weakening from the inside and there will come a time it will just fall down with even a tiny push. It may take between six months and a year.

Q: But there are also important communities like minorities who continue to support the regime because they fear reprisals. There are fears of civil war.

A: But there have not been ethnic clashes since the beginning of the events. If there had been, for instance Sunnis attacking Nusayri villages, believe me the regime would have made them public. We also have Nusayri supporters. There have never been clashes between Muslims and Christians or between Nusayris and Sunnis.

Q: How about the massacres in Hama and Homs.

A: But they were not seen as sectarian clashes. They were seen as the regime’s effort to make the Nusayri part of these clashes so that the regime would share the same fate.

Q: How then will the transition process be if the regime falls?

A: Our red line is that we are against the revolution taking up arms. We are against ethnic civil war. When the regime falls, this will mean that the current regime of fear, based on the intelligence agency and the Assad family that controls it, will fall, while all other state officials will remain in their position. The SNC will abolish itself once the regime falls.

Q: Some fear radical Islamists and extreme Arab nationalists will replace the current regime.

A: This is being said for all Islamic countries. It was said of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). It was said after the revolution in Tunisia. Islamists movements became more pragmatic and less ideological. We saw this in the Turkish model. Islamic movements focused on providing services, not on ideology. It is their biggest success and other Islamic movements need to get adopted to the global culture and to the thoughts of younger generations.

Q: What is your evaluation of the Syrian Free Army?

A: These are soldiers who flee the army saying their mission is to protect civilians, not to kill them. But the clashes are mostly directed at those fleeing and them shooting back. But they cannot do much when their ammunition runs out. They stand more of a chance if there is a no-fly zone or safe zones. This will also increase the fleeing. But we do not advise the Syrian Free Army to launch attacks right now because it will complicate the situation and lead to internal conflicts.

Khaled Khoja was born in Damascus to a family with Turkish roots. He was interred in Syrian prisons in 1979 when his father provided financial support to the Muslim Brotherhood when uprisings started in Aleppo. He fled Syria in 1982 for Turkey, where he built a career as a doctor. Facing capital punishment, he has not returned to Syria since.

Following the sart of unrest in Syria in March, he became the head of the Turkey committee of the Damascus Declaration. The Damascus Declaration in 2005 was a historic statement of unity by opposition figures criticizing the regime as being authoritarian and calling for reform. Since then he has been participating in the meetings of the opposition groups, becoming a member of Syrian National Council.

Friday, November 18, 2011