| INTERVIEW WITH FAWAZ TELLO, SYRIAN POLITICAL OPPONENT AND EX MEMBER OF SYRIAN NATIONAL COUNCIL
FAWAZ TELLO: “TIME WORKS IN FAVOR SYRIAN OPPONENTS”
Fawaz Tello, who has been acting as a Syrian political opponent since the early 2000, took part in “Damascus Spring” movement that took place in 2000. Tello, who served as founder member of the “Damascus Declaration National Council” that had been established in 2006 until the end of 2011, actively participated in opposition movements in Damascus after the popular uprising started in Syria. Fawaz Tello, a member of the Syrian National Council, resigned his office not long ago. He is still carrying on his activities as a Syrian political opponent in Turkey, Egypt and Germany. We had an opportunity to talk to Fawaz Tello, who is especially effective in capital Damascus, in İstanbul.
Interview: Oytun Orhan, ORSAM Middle East Expert
ORSAM: Mr. Tello, could you please introduce yourself in brief?
TELLO: I am from Damascus, the capital of Syria. I graduated from Damascus University. I have been active as Syrian political opponent since the early 2000's. I took part in “Damascus Spring” movement that took place in 2000. I served as founder member of the “Damascus Declaration National Council” that had been established in 2006 until 2011. And I actively participated in opposition movements in Damascus after the popular uprising started in Syria. I had to leave Damascus on February 2012. I came to İstanbul as a member of Syrian National Council. However, I resigned from the Council not long ago. The reason why I resigned from the Council is its anti-democratic leadership structure that constitutes an impediment to make reform, and to push the SNC to adopt the demands of the revolution which is not taking place yet. I am still active as a Syrian political opponent in Turkey, Egypt and Germany.
You used to live in Damascus as an opponent and you lived there until recently. Could you inform us about security and overall situation in capital Damascus in the post-uprising process and in the recent period?
It is said that there is no uprising in Damascus, but it certainly is not true. Above all, many protest demonstrations took place even in central Damascus. However, it is no more possible to call certain areas as rural area or neighborhood of Damascus. Harasta, for example. Harasta is exactly 10 minutes away from central Damascus, and it is united with the city. Very large-scale demonstrations have taken place in many similar districts and the opponents have seized control for many times in those areas. Those areas are not considered as central Damascus in administrative terms, but has become a part of the city. For instance; Harasta, Duma, Kfer Batna, Hmmuriye, Zemelka and many others can be listed as example. In addition to this, opponents have been active in approximately 30 villages and towns in rural areas of Damascus.
What can you tell about the demographic structure in Damascus and the outlook of different groups on the uprising process?
It is more complicated in Damascus. The locals of Damascus are in minority in the city. Maybe only 20 per cent of the city population is originally from Damascus. The rest of the population is composed of immigrants. There are Christians living in Damascus. A considerable part of Nusayris (they have been called Alawees by the French colony science 80 years) live in their own districts. The population in Damascus come from everywhere in the country. As Damascus is a big city, the relationship in this city is not similar to the other areas. For instance, there is more cooperation and coordination in other cities as the population is more homogeneous and everyone know each other. People can welcome one another or the opponents. However, it is not possible to see this type of relationship in Damascus. Besides, the population is not homogeneous as I mentioned before. Another reason why relatively less events take place in central Damascus stems from the importance the regime attaches to Damascus. The regime knows that Damascus means everything. And it is known that regime will be toppled if Damascus is toppled. Therefore, the control in Damascus is at a very high level. Some of the Shabiha militias protect the regime as they really have faith in it, and some others take sides with the regime for their interests and money. These groups do their duties in possible demonstration areas each Friday. We can also add Revolutionary Guards and Special Units, and of course, intelligence services to these groups. So we are talking at least about 300 thousands of armed group used to stop any movements in Damascus.
Despite all these, many demonstrations have taken place in Damascus. Each of the places, where the demonstrations have taken place, is a part of Damascus. The regime can control only the rich areas and luxurious districts in Damascus. As a matter of fact, even the luxurious districts such as Kafer Sosa are not in a good shape. It is for sure that the regime is increasingly getting surrounded by the luxurious area where embassies are located in Damascus. The total control is limited with this area. When you go 10 minutes away from this area, you see the control points, hear gunshots and face a destruction. In fact, events and protest demonstrations take place near Presidential Palace. Lots of demonstrations have been staged each day. Approximately 40 demonstrators have been killed in Damascus for the last month. The Syrian army keep their tanks in the neighborhood. If you see tank in an area, you might think that this area is not in control. And if there is tank, it comes to mean that the regime cannot control that area.
On the other hand, we see that the regime has regained the control in many areas, where military operations have been carried out. For instance, the Syrian army entered in the neighborhood of Baba-amor in Homs which turned into one of the centers of resistance, and seized the control. We see that the action capacity of the military opposition is increasing with each passing day and they cannot establish permanent authority in none of the areas. How do you evaluate this situation?
The militant uprising in Syria started with little numbers. Some individuals started it. Currently, we are talking about tens of thousands. The biggest problem of the military opposition is the fact that they cannot seize total control over a certain area for a long-term. I left Damascus four months ago. Immediately before I left the city, I went to Duma and Harasta, which are the suburbs of Damascus. When entering in these areas, the control points were under the control of Free Syrian Army. The opponents performed the identity check. However, the problem stems from the fact that they could not establish the control for a long term. In Duma, for example, opponents organized attacks against all control points of the Syrian army, and expelled the soldiers from the districts. The control totally passes over to Free Syrian Army especially during nights. Nevertheless, the Syrian army carries out operations with heavy weapons afterwards, and regain the control in the area. The opponents, on the other hand, do not have heavy weapons and sufficient amount of ammunition. However, it is just a dream for the Syrian army to establish a total control over these areas, and the regime cannot achieve it. I believe that it is not possible for the regime to establish a permanent control over an area with a tank. Because it cannot keep the tanks in those areas forever. On the other hand, the opponents are more flexible. They can withdraw, rearm and get reorganized. Besides, they get more experienced, better organized, and act more rationally with each passing day. Thus, I think that time works in favor of opponents. The people will not withdraw anymore for any reason. Why? First of all, the people believe they will not get such a chance for decades. Therefore, they would not want to miss this chance. Secondly, they know that the revenge will be taken on themselves very badly in case the regime is not toppled. In other words, everybody fights for themselves. Thirdly and maybe most importantly, as civilian death toll increases with each passing day, the number of people who are damaged by massacres of the regime and who lose their relatives also increases. Currently, there are approximately 1 million people who have been displaced in Syria. For instance, the number of people, who had to migrate only from Homs to Damascus, has been some 200 thousand. For the time being, three quarters of Homs is empty. Only this way they can seize the control for a certain period of time. Nevertheless, of course, this situation brings along more reaction against the regime. In addition to this, according to United Nations reports, 3 million Syrian people have been somehow damaged by the regime. People, whose properties were damaged, whose futures are not known in prisons, thus who have been somehow damaged, are all included. The army or police steal properties and money when they enter in houses and arrest people. For those reasons, Syrian people believe they should fight to a finish. For example, they arrest everyone – whether they are active or not – during the protest demonstrations. Currently, maximum 10 per cent of people who are in prison really took part in demonstrations. They arrest all civilians without discrimination. The majority of those people are passers-by. That is a contradiction for the regime. Innocent people arrested by the regime to suppress the demonstrations have been held in prisons and tortured for no reason, and these unorganized civilians prefer to get organized and actively participate in opposition. So that, the number of people damaged by the regime is increasing with each passing day. People, whose properties were stolen, who were tortured, despised, and most importantly whose relatives were killed, will not forget it. And this number is increasing with every passing day. Let me give you an example about the increasing number of opponents with each passing day. For instance ,many people in middle and middle-upper class in Damascus did not support the uprising movement in the first place. This was not because they were content with the Assad regime, but because they were the ones who just did not want to pay the price of the transition. As a person who left Damascus not long ago, I can tell that people who support Assad are in minority among those I have just mentioned. And you can notice that very clearly during the last biggest strike (science 80 years) took place in Damascus recently by these classes which I can tell that it is a turning point in the uprising.
Although events have occurred in the neighborhood of Damascus, major events have not taken place in relatively better neighborhoods, where people you have just mentioned live, so far. Why?
These people contribute in different ways. For example, I already stated there were some 200 thousand people from Homs who had to immigrate to Damascus. Locals of Damascus help all these people. They provide financial assistance.
How is going to be the course of events in Syria do you think from now on?
I think the decision makers, research centers and analysts in the U.S. and in other countries could not foresee the emergence of the events in Syria and how they would develop afterwards. The opposition in Syria has become stronger with each passing day and unfortunately the security environment is getting worse. Everyone in West thought the events would come to an end in a few months after the uprising started. At the end of the third month, they started to think the uprising would not end immediately, and that it would take some time. But they were not sure if the opposition would win. Those people could not analyze what happened in Syria in real terms. I believe they cannot still exactly analyze Syria. When the events first started, the number of people participating in demonstrations were much less. Now, there are many of them. Maybe the armed opposition had zero power against the army, but now, they have reached five per cent or maybe even much bigger capacity of power.
At this point, I would like to ask a question about the military opposition. As far as understood, there is a multi-part military opposition structure acting differently from each other in every city, or even within cities. Is there any central power that controls these dispersed groups? Or do you think is there any chance to gather these groups?
If anyone say they control some group or military opposition, it is for sure that they are lying. I believe the aforesaid dispersed structure of the opposition is not a threat, but an opportunity. There is no single military leader in Syria right now. There are almost hundreds of leaders. Each leader and group control their areas. Sometimes, there might even be more than one military group in an area. There are also political leaders besides military leaders. Military leaders or militants came out of their own regions. Those people cannot be where they are now without the support of the local people. As I stated before, they are already a part of the local people. Military people were those who staged demonstrations in the streets until recently. They started to arm and fight against the regime in the process of time. Who help those people? Of course, the local people. In certain areas, political leadership and military leadership act as a single unit. In certain areas, there is no such a close relationship.
Do you believe that the opposition, which is organized outside Syria, should work more closely and gather under a single leadership?
No. The leadership should be inside, not outside the country. The Syrian National Council should only play the coordinator role. It should strive for the local people to be more organized. They should support local leaders and their fights. People inside the country act with more naif feelings than those outside the country. If these people are provided with support, they will already carry on fighting. However, the leadership outside should only coordinate the access of financial and military aids to those groups and leaders. Any other role beyond the aforesaid one might lead to competition and maybe to conflict. If Syrian National Council and the groups outside assume a role as I mentioned before, it might positively contribute to the situation rather than negatively affecting it.
What kind of transition could be in Syria? Do you believe there is a chance of success for the relatively peaceful transition projects like the Yemen Model?
Unfortunately, the process in Syria is very dangerous. Everybody talked about only a single nation until a year ago. However, the regime has been playing its card on sect, and unfortunately paves the way for sectarian discrimination both in Syria and in the region. I tell everyone I talk to that we must get rid of this regime as soon as possible. The cost is increasing and will increase with each passing day. The consequences will be much worse. I believe that the U.S. only wants to get rid of Assad, not the regime. The UN Secretary-General mentioned the role of Al-Qaeda in certain attacks. He is right, you can find everything, every group in Syria as days pass. That is the consequence of the policies pursued. This must be understood now; the regime does not have a chance to end this uprising. This regime will be gone, but what will be the cost? There will be more chaos as we continue to wait. Countries should decide whether they are ready to get rid of this regime or not. The problem here is not only Assad, but the regime based on the minority. Maybe they gave up hope on Assad, but I am not sure about the regime. Nevertheless, the demands are completely different at the grass roots level. What the U.S. cannot understand is that there will be not more army once the regime is toppled. The army will completely disappear just like Iraq. There will be no more security units either. We should think on this very fact. Right now, there are opposition groups in the field. But the main question is: Have the countries taken the risk of getting rid of regime? Because there is no chance of success for a solution model to be put forward by keeping a certain part of the regime. The strategies should be decided over this fact. None of the Syrian would recognize the current security units. They would never recognize the minority government. We should deal with this fact.
As a matter of fact, nobody has found a method to end it with minimum damage. What kind of solution do you suggest?
First of all, we should admit that there is no chance to live with any component of this minority regime. I do not mean the Nusayri population here. I just mean the regime. Of course, each community will continue to live as equal citizens with equal rights in peace in Syria. Nevertheless, none of the components of minority regime will be allowed to carry on. First of all we should agree on this. If we all agree on this, we can proceed to the second stage. How will be this transition? I believe we can turn the chaos and dispersed structure in the country into an opportunity. This much group should be supported more differently than it is now. Not in a way that each group affiliate an armed unit to itself. It should be supported in a more organized and central way. The Council should assume the coordinator role. Each group outside has political ambitions and future expectations. However, these must be postponed. If the people and opposition groups are supported in an organized way, if there is a clear program, they could help those people. I am not only talking about providing weapons. I mean a comprehensive strategy. Local military leaders must be supported through local political leaders. The leaders in Syria should be in control. This is the only way we can prevent the chaos even a little. If this can be achieved, then the existence of multi-part structure and great number of groups can be turned into an opportunity. Besides, it is necessary to give very explicit and strict messages to the regime. It should be highlighted that there is no chance to survive for this regime. The Assad family should understand that they do not have chance to live in the county.
Don't you believe in the necessity of military intervention? Do you believe there is no need for a safe zone?
If the route I have mentioned is pursued, it might not be necessary. Nevertheless, only supportive air operations might be necessary at a certain level. The Free Syrian Army did not lose any struggle because of their withdrawal. They do not have sufficient amount of ammunitions. They provide the majority of them from inside, but they are very expensive. Those people should be provided with support. They do not need tanks. If the balances change a little, the splits from the army will be much faster.
Mr. Tello, thank you very much for sharing your valuable views with us.
* This interview was made by ORSAM Middle East Specialist Oytun Orhan in İstanbul on 16 May 2012.