Different groups take part in the protest movement in Syria. Having an important place in Syrian social and political life, Arab tribes are listed among those groups. One of the largest Arab tribes of Syria is Baqqara which is spread into many provinces, into Deir ez-Zor in particular. And Nawaf al-Bashir, who has taken part in the opposition movements against the Assad regime for many years, is one of the leaders of this tribe. Bashir took part in the Damascus Spring in 2000, and actively participated in the Damascus Declaration in 2005. He has been carrying out activities as a dissident leader since the beginning of the uprising in 2011. We talked to Nawaf al-Bashir, who is especially influential in Deir ez-Zor, in İstanbul where he moved from Syria for security reasons.
Interview: Oytun Orhan, ORSAM Middle East Specialist
ORSAM: Could you briefly introduce yourself?
BASHIR: I have been known for my identity of active politician and Syrian dissident for 25 years. I was one of the leaders of the opposition movement that emerged when Bashar Assad was elected as the Head of State. I took part in one of the six movements demanding reform in 2000. These movements were named as the “Damascus Spring”. Then I joined the opposition congress organized in Syria, in 2004. Totally 286 people, comprised of the Syrian MP Samir Bashar and other opposition parties, participated in the congress. Then, an arrest warrant was issued for me; but instead, Mr. Riyad Dirar, general secretary of the congress was arrested and sentenced to 5 years of prison. The “Damascus Declaration” was formed in 2005. Some figures known for their nationalist identity and certain parties of Syria joined the organization. And I was one of the founding members of this organization. The organization elected a presidential council, and I was also in this Council. Local committees were elected under the Presidential Council, but after 17 people were arrested and sentenced to two and a half year of prison, a secret organisation was adopted. I was elected as the Head of Foreign Affairs. Then committees and representatives were elected in each country. The committees abroad generally took office in European countries and in Southern and Latin American countries. Meanwhile, I was always in contact with Mr. Anas al-Abdah member of the main opposition group the Syrian National Council, then Mr. al-Abdah was appointed as the UK representative of the organisation. When the revolution started in Syria in 2011, many members of the organisation including me, Dr. Riyad Seif, Dr. Velit Bunni, Dr. Fida Hurani, Suheir al-Atasi left “Damascus Declaration” and joined the revolution, as we considered the Syrian revolution superior to this political organization. Between 1988 and 1992, I was elected as the MP in the Syrian parliament, but I was banned from leaving the country before the end of term of office. I did not go abroad approximately for 20 years between 1992-2012. When the revolution began, I started to organize demonstrations in Deir ez-Zor by playing a very active role. At the same time, I was always in touch with the revolutionary commissions and other cities; but especially with the Dar'aa commission, because the revolution began in Dar'aa. In the first place, those who participated in demonstrations ranged between 70 thousand and 100 thousand. I addressed to demonstrators, and you can find the video on the internet. We seized total power in Deir ez-Zor, but then military operation was launched in March. During this process, I was arrested in Damascus. The reason why I was in Damascus then was the fact that we were preparing for the formation of National Council. We asked for Mr. Haysam al-Malih to take up the presidency of National Council in İstanbul. Dr. Walid Bunni, Dr. Arif Dalila, Muntaha al-Atrash, Gassan Neccar, Michel Temmo and I took up the presidency of National Council. Three days before the congress was held, lots of pro-revolution supporters came to support us. However, fire was opened and 14 of them were martyrized, while lots of others were injured. As a result of this, the congress was cancelled, and thus the Council moved in Turkey. We participated in the congress through Skype. Also, Mr. Mishel Temmo made a speech on behalf of us in order to establish the balance when Kurds withdrew from the congress. Four days after the congress, Colonel Hamed Sukkar arrested me. When I was arrested they demanded me to sign a declaration. I was demanded to ask for help from the army and the government on behalf of Deir ez-Zor. But I refused to sign it, and I was imprisoned. I was investigated and subjected to torture for 12-14 hours a day. I was released after two and a half months. Then I went to Deir ez-Zor. During those days, we started to prepare for the arrival of the Arab observers. We staged a great demonstration when the Arab League observers arrived in Deir ez-Zor on 17 January 2012. However, fire was opened on the demonstration. As a result of this, 17 demonstrators were martyrized and 51 of them were injured. The Arab League observers did nothing. On 16 January 2012, a day before we organized demonstrations, the Governor of Deir ez-Zor talked to me in person, and asked me not to participate in demonstrations by threatening me. I fled to Turkey on 18 January 2012. The Syrian revolutionists welcomed me and we passed to Gaziantep, then arrived in İstanbul.
As the Syrian people, we consider the Republic of Turkey as our second country. Turkey has always been on Syria's side. And it is not Turkey's recent attitude, there are many other examples in the past. We especially have a relationship and historical bonds with Turkey. They let us carry out political activities, organize congresses and act freely. Therefore, I would like to extend my thanks to the Turkish people and government again on my own behalf and on behalf of the Syrian people.
It has been more than a year, but the transition has not been completed in Syria and the civil deaths are increasing with each passing day. Nobody can suggest a clear plan with a potential success regarding how the transition will be in Syria. What kind of transition do you think will take place in Syria?
Actually the Syrian revolution is an orphan revolution, it was not acted as in other revolution. The Egyptian revolution did not last for long, the revolution in Tunisia only lasted for 25 days, and international community and Arab countries supported Yemen and Libya. The Libyan scenario is obvious, and so is Yemen. Nevertheless, international support is not provided for the Syrian revolution. It is only Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar who provide help. Other countries ignore the oppression subjected to the Syrian people. And it is a shame.
Now, we are in our second year of the revolution, and some plans have been made. For example the Arab League plan, but it failed. Currently Kofi Annan's plan is on the agenda, it has been two months since then. However, there is no progress in the six-point plan so far. Furthermore, 1350 people have been martyrized since the plan was put into practice. Kofi Annan's plan is a failure, because armed forces open fire on the people in the presence of the observers and nobody can intervene. The international community doesn't do anything at all. We believe that air strikes should be carried out against some strategic targets. The Syrian government should be subjected to the Article 7 of the UN. We do not want to be dragged into a civil war. We only want Bashar Assad and his circle to leave the government and the Vice President Farouk Shara to run the country for a period of 7-8 months. When the stability is restored in the country, the elections can be held and a new constitution can be enacted. Thus, we proclaim the second republic.
What is criticized most about the Syrian opposition is its divided structure. Besides the Syrian National Council, there are political opposition formations within the government as well. On the other hand, the military opposition acts independently. How do you see the Syrian National Council? Do you think the Council really represents the people? How does the Syrian people regard the National Council? What can you say about the Syrian opposition in general?
It is the international community who says that the opposition is divided and that everybody has different opinions, and it is not true. Because every group within the opposition has a unique opinion, which is to topple the regime and to protect the Syrian people. The disagreements between the National Council and other opposition groups are related to other subjects. Our current problems are to receive support from the international community, and to provide support for the Free Syrian Army. We aim at gathering the whole opposition under the roof of the National Council in order for the international community to consider us as the only and legitimate representative. However, the other opposition group does not accept this system. The National Council has to represent the Syrian Parliament anyway, it shouldn't represent only one side. We demand the National Council to be restructured, and everyone to be represented equitably. Besides, we ask for the revolutionists to be represented in this council at the rate of 30 per cent, so that this formation can be supported both from inside and outside and that it can be regarded as the only representative.
You are also one of the leaders of a prominent Arab tribe in Syria. An opponent structure, comprised of the Syrian tribes, have been formed not long ago. How do you evaluate the position of the Arab tribes in the uprising process? How do they see the events, and what are their role in the uprising?
Many Syrian tribes take part in the revolutionary fields. A great number of them have been martyrized. The Baqqara tribe I lead is not the only one taking part in the revolution. Dar'aa, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor tribes also play an important role in the revolution. For instance, Aqidat tribe plays a very important role in this revolution. A great large of them have been martyrized. There are also other tribes; in fact, 90% of them participate in the revolution. The Free Syrian Army and the National Council also participate in the demonstrations. The majority of those leaving Assad's army and joining the Free Syrian Army are the members of the aforesaid tribes.
Why didn't you join the Syrian National Council?
Actually I am not away from the National Council. Besides, I was invited to join the Council and they even wanted me to become a member of SNC, but I apologized to them. It does not mean that I am against the National Council. We aim the Council represents all groups, and nobody uses the Council for its own interest. We do not want anyone to be excluded. We talked to Mr. Burhan Ghalioun during his presidency period, and we let him know that as all the opposition groups gathering in Cairo we would join the National Council by publishing a notice. Besides, I also read a notice in the congress organized in İstanbul, and demanded National Council to be restructured. We announced we would withdraw until then but that we would wait. Then we talked to Burhan Ghalioun and agreed on the formation of a joint commission and launched the meetings. We held three conferences in İstanbul, and three meetings under the Geneva UN supervision, but all of our proposals were refused by the National Council. Thus, I did not join the Council but as I mentioned before I am not away from the Council.
How do you evaluate Turkey's Syrian policy in the uprising period? What do you think Turkey can do more from now on?
Actually, I extend my thanks to the Turkish people and the government for welcoming the Syrian refugees, sheltering the Free Army in Hatay, for providing health service for the Syrian injuries, for embracing and giving residence permit to the opposition, and for letting us carry out congress and demonstrations against Bashar Assad. It is quite clear that Turkey has always been on Syria's side. Besides, if a decision had been issued by the international community, we know that Turkey would assume a major role in putting this decision into practice. We know very well that this attitude of Turkey has given damage to itself in economic terms, because Turkey has lost its door opening to the Gulf. Despite this, the fact that Turkey still continues supporting us is of vital importance for us.
* This interview was made by ORSAM Middle East Specialist Oytun Orhan in İstanbul, on 16 May 2012.