Middle East

Sabra: Unity, gains will sway Assad allies

New Syrian National Council (SNC) chief George Sabra speaks at a news conference in Doha November 10, 2012. (REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous)

BEIRUT: Christian head of the Syrian National Council George Sabra said forming a supreme military council to oversee the unification of armed blocs inside Syria is the priority of the new opposition coalition and added that Bashar Assad’s regime had forced a military rather than political revolution in Syria.

“The solution will, of course, be political in the end, but since the regime has foiled all political solutions until now and opened a battle against the people, the people have the right to defend themselves and the FSA has the right to defend civilians,” Sabra said in an interview via telephone from Dubai, where he was taking part in an economic conference on the future of Syria.

He also repeated his accusations that international inability to arrive at a political solution to the bloody crisis was to blame for the necessary militarization of the movement.

Sabra, a veteran communist dissident who has been repeatedly jailed by the Syrian regime over the years, was elected head of the SNC earlier this month.

Heavily criticized for being under-representative and riddled with division, the mainly exiled SNC was absorbed into a broader coalition, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, at a meeting in Doha earlier this month under pressure from the United States for dissident groups to unite. The new coalition is headed by Muslim Sheikh Moaz Ahmad al-Khatib.

A loosely organized armed opposition, which lacks any central command structure, along with an increased presence of foreign jihadi elements and Islamists fighting the Syrian regime in Syria, has meant the U.S. has been reluctant to commit to arming the opposition so far.

“Our basic demand is to put an end to the bloodshed in Syria and that will only happen when the FSA is strong enough to defend civilians,” Sabra said.

He added that the process for uniting the armed brigades was already making progress.

“The process is currently under way and its results will be declared at the right time. If we are not declaring anything about these results yet, it doesn’t mean we are not working on the matter,” he said.

“What we really want to get to is to form a supreme military revolutionary council that would constitute the leadership of all the Syrian opposition fighters who will work under the supervision of a united operations room inside Syria.”

However, some Islamist opposition armed groups have already indicated that they will refuse to work with the coalition, further complicating matters.

Sabra said the presence of jihadis and Islamists was overstated.

“There are some extremists in Syria, and it’s normal because the border is open. But their number is very limited and wouldn’t exceed 300 fighters coming from Arab countries, some of them are Al-Qaeda affiliates and some belong to other Muslim groups.

“These people are not a real threat to the future of Syria because Syria is a big country, and because the revolution has a big armed force capable of taking control.

“Syria has enough men. What we need is weapons. Moreover, the presence of such extremists will end with the fall of the Assad regime,” he added.

He said a united and strong opposition army and military gains by the opposition would be crucial because they would lead key Syrian allies Russia and Iran, who have steadfastly supported the Assad regime with weapons and financial assistance, to recalculate their support for Damascus.

“We believe that the change in the balance of forces between the regime army and the FSA, and which is taking place every day, is what will change the international political balance not just for Russia, but for the West as well,” Sabra said, adding that Iranian and Russian support were now propping up the Syrian economy, which he said was in a state of “complete paralysis.”

“We have repeatedly warned against the Russian and Iranian policies being in enmity with the Syrian people. We have historical ties with Russia, and we also have relations with Iran, but we hope both countries would re-examine their stances because it will not be possible for the Syrian people to deal in the same way with those who supported their aspirations for democracy as with those who were supporters of the killing machine.

“The regime forces were not able to take back any positions the FSA have taken over, and we are winning the battle on the ground.”

Rejecting claims that the number of defectors from the Syrian Army was dropping, Sabra estimated there were now some 100,000 defected soldiers.

“The Syrian army is a huge army, and the defections that took place within it so far are considered big.”

As for the sectarian makeup of the defectors, he said, most were Sunni, reflecting the demographic makeup of the country.

Syria is 70 percent Sunni Muslim, although members of Assad’s own Alawite sect – a branch of Shiite Islam – dominate the elite air force, military and political ranks.

“Let me say a certain category in Syria still feels afraid of the Assad regime, because if they defect, they will not only be putting themselves at risk, [but also] their families and anyone close to them or even in contact with them.

“This is an oppression regime to both the military and civilians. Thus, maybe there are some objective factors holding this category from defecting from the Assad army,” Sabra said.

On Lebanon’s dissociation policy on the Syrian crisis, Sabra was cautious.

“We wish all Lebanese would really dissociate themselves from the Syrian crisis, and we mean all the Lebanese, political parties, forces and figures.”

“We would want them to support the Syrian people’s aspirations for democracy, because a free democratic Syria will be a support and guarantee to Lebanon’s stability, unity and sovereignty,” he added.

“We hope they would consider the ties with the Syrian people because it is the people that will have the final say and the [regime] power, no matter how long it will still be able to stand firm, will eventually go away.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 24, 2012, on page 10.




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