May 19, 2013
Syrian rebels touch base with region
Below we run the main highlights of a Herald interview with Oubay Atassi, the Syrian National Council’s Communications Adviser and spokesman for Latin America and Florida’s Latin community. The SNC is the international face of Syria’s anti-régime factions created in early 2011 at the outbreak of the conflict. Today it runs a press office in Buenos Aires, with Argentina the home of 3.5 million Syrian-Lebanese descendents. Atassi, who numbers six Syrian ex-presidents and the founder of the Ba’ath Party (co-opted by Assad) among his direct relatives, knows Argentina at first hand — he spent several of his teenage years in Buenos Aires where his father was the Syrian ambassador and he has an Argentine wife.
Who exactly are running the SNC?
We number over 350, all of us Syrian. Some still live in Syria so their identity is obviously pretty secret — others live outside the motherland. The SNC covers the full cross-section of the Syrian population — the Kurds, Alawites, Assyrians, the Orthodox and other Christians, the Muslim Brotherhood, the independent movement and local or grass-roots groupings. In other words, every religion and ethnic group.
What is the SNC’s current stance on the conflict?
Once the dictatorial régime of Bashar al-Assad has been brought to an end, to re-establish the party system so that parliamentary elections can be held.
Meanwhile, could the SNC head up a transitional government?
Right now it could not go it alone — there are various opposition groupings and factions, although the SNC is one of the biggest and most representative of opposition groups within Syria and around the world and also of the armed anti-regime forces such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). There are other organizations besides the SNC — the Syrian American Council (of which Atassi is a director), the Syrian Emergency Task Force, the Damascus Declaration, Syrian Alliance for Democracy, United for a Free Syria, Syrian Expatriate Organization, Syrian Support Group and numerous committees formed in various cities within and beyond Syria.
Does the SNC favour armed intervention?
The SNC is against direct intervention but requests that Syrian air space be blocked in order to aid the FSA in its struggle against this criminal régime. Let us not forget that intervention is already happening — Assad counts on direct Iranian financial, military and logistic aid, including advisors and weapons; oil from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, fighters from Hezbollah and arms aid from Russia (planes, tanks, heavy weaponry). That’s why we’re asking for no military intervention, from either side.
Could a no-fly zone for Syria repeat the bad experience in Iraq and more recently in Libya?
Blocking the air space is the only possibility outside military involvement of advancing towards a favourable outcome, giving FSA forces on land a more level battlefield against the helicopters and aircraft of Assad.
The SNC is criticized for not speaking to all the groups or factions within Syria, such as the Alawites, the Shi’ite ethnic minority which forms the hard core of Assad’s support...
Some Alawite generals have already deserted. There are also Alawite intellectuals in think tanks who are helping to expose this régime. Some, like Monzir Makhos, Tawfiq Dunia and Sundus Slaiman, are members of SNC. We are not against the Alawites but against the corrupt Assad family, which has taken over our country. That does not mean in any way that all two million Alawites (12 percent of the population) are like Assad. Regarding the Armed Forces, their high command is dominated by Alawites but at least 70 percent of Syria’s religious and ethnic groups are also represented in the ranks. That’s why there are so many deserters to the FSA.
There is also talk of establishing buffer zones to protect refugees and displaced persons. Are you for it?
There is a real danger of forming free states in those buffer zones as it facilitates political division, as happened with the Kurds after the Iraq war. We don’t want any more splits in Syria — we already saw Greater Syria broken up after the First World War (Eskandaron, southeastern Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Jordan, part from Syria). Some factions among the Kurds, the Alawites or the Druze would welcome this fragmentation but Syrian nationalism does not want to weaken the country any more. The SNC calls for unity.
How is the aid for the resistance channelled into Syria?
Apart from the remittances sent to families, there are various committees formed in the Arab countries and also within Syria, which provide money for medicine, food and clothing. It’s all humanitarian aid — no weaponry.
So how does the armed resistance obtain its weapons?
They are smuggled across the border, usually entering from Jordan and Turkey. There are also individuals in Gulf states who donate money which enters Syria and permits the resistance to have rifles and bullets but no strategic armaments. For some months now we have been awaiting the arrival of surface-to-air missiles (Stinger or Manpad SAMs) to combat the helicopters, as well as MiG 23 and 25 fighters. They still have not arrived. Everything which comes in is at full stretch and thanks to individual contributions, mostly from people of Syrian origin.
What are SNC’s activities in South America?
We’re asking the countries of the region to back the sanctions against the Assad régime and at the same time we are feeding information on a daily basis of what is going on in Syria to governments, the media and the communities.
We spread awareness of the terror and the bloodshed — since the conflict began in March, 2011, there have been more than 30,000 deaths, over 70,000 missing, nearly 220,000 imprisoned, 240,000 refugees and three million internally displaced persons. The most poignant cases are the children, who are the future of Syria — the motive for a “March for the Children of Syria” an event organized by the SNC for September 8 in all United States cities, where all contributions will go to those children via UNICEF.