Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly back in business thanks to Egypt’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, according to Syrian National Coalition (SNC) Turkey representative Khaled Khoja.
Egyptian coup leader Gen. Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi is taking al-Assad as an example as the Arab world and international community hesitates on supporting Syria’s opposition, he recently told the Hürriyet Daily News.
How will the coup in Egypt affect the situation in Syria?
It will affect it negatively, and it indeed already has. The movement of the Syrian opposition in Egypt is being limited [by the new rulers] and opposition figures are leaving the country. We are moving the headquarters of the Syrian National Coalition from Egypt to Turkey.
Politically, Bashar al-Assad has become a role model to Arab dictators. What al-Assad and the Shabiha [armed men in civilian clothing who support al-Assad] are to Syria, [Gen. Abdel Fatteh] al-Sisi and axmen [armed groups] are to Egypt.
A conviction is going around among Arab dictators that somehow the Arab Spring can be stopped. They include Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, which are in the group of the Friends of Syria. All of them have supported al-Sisi. Following a nine-month siege, the opposition forces got hold of the airport near Aleppo and found Saudi Arabian rockets destined for the regime. The UAE is in the Friends of Syria Group, but Dubai has become the central bank of the Syrian regime. While members of the Friends of Syria should support the opposition, they are now showing the tendency of safeguarding the regime.
So do you say they have now changed sides?
There is a tendency to get rid of al-Assad but keep the regime. Maybe it was their policy line from the beginning. But the current findings and their support for al-Sisi show that what countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, et cetera fear is true change in the region. They are scared that if the Arab Spring reaches its aim, the wave will come to their shore. It is now crystal-clear that their tendency is about safeguarding the regimes in the region.
Would you say the coup has strengthened the hand of al-Assad?
Yes, because when you look at what al-Sisi is doing, he is taking al-Assad as an example. Al-Assad wanted to force the opposition to take up arms; so he sent armored vehicles in on people. He would then have an alibi [to oppress the uprising]. Al-Sisi is doing the same thing.
Al-Assad has used everything a regular army uses. Now he has changed strategy. He is using foreign fighters for irregular warfare.
So you would agree when President Abdullah Gül voiced his concern that Egypt could become like Syria?
That’s what we see. If you send armies in against peaceful protestors; well, there is a limit to the patience. [Eventually] some armed elements will emerge, though not necessarily from the crowds themselves. It has been eight months since we established the [Syrian National] Coalition. And we have received so many promises from the Americans and the British. Just with the wind of that morale, important gains were registered in the environs of Damascus. But no arms transfer took place. We never asked for tanks or planes but asked for defense armaments like anti-tank and anti-missile arms.
When we had talked a year-and-a-half ago, you had said a tiny push was going to end the regime, but it did not turn out like that.
Russia and Iran came into the equation. Russia gave technological support while Iran provided both technological and humanitarian assistance. Yet the armaments promised to the opposition were never delivered. On the contrary, some of the weapons that we acquired on our own were stopped at the borders. This process worked to the advantage of al-Assad.
Why do you think promises were not kept?
The West is not ready to see the fall of al-Assad. They want to see clearly what kind of administration will replace the current regime.
Yet the opposition forces are not providing that clarity.
If you looked at the structure of the Syrian National Council [which preceded the Syrian National Coalition] it was very successful. It was a mosaic bringing together ethnic groups but also elites with activists. But it was not appreciated by the West. And there was a wrong conviction that it was dominated by the Islamists. We then broadened the council and formed the coalition. But then you look at the approach of the West, there is no change. I think they are just looking for an alibi. As times goes by, we, as the coalition, are losing confidence in the relations with the fighting armed groups which are moderate or representatives of the Syrian Islamic concept. Then radical elements like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have entered.
While we were talking about al-Nusra, these are even worse than al-Nusra. They have strong financial support. While we, the Syrian political opposition, should be in the position to provide at least defense equipment, we leave [moderate fighting forces] in the cold and al-Nusra and al-Qaeda gets strengthened. I have been to the north of Syria three times during the course of the last year, the last one being last month. The groups fighting have light arms whereas al-Nusra can get any arms it wants. How is that possible? This means these weapons come from inside Syria. This is my greatest suspicion that these weapons are provided by the regime. I believe the biggest supporter of al-Qaeda in the country is the Syrian regime and Iran because the regime is trying to set up black holes in the liberated areas, through two means, al-Qaeda and the PYD [Democratic Union Party], which seems to be changing sides these days.
And in a way, the regime has been successful in that sense since there is fighting among the opposition groups.
To a certain amount it is. The PYD and al-Qaeda get weapons support from the regime; the PYD fights al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda fights Arab groups and Arab groups fight the PYD. And the Free Syrian Army, which should establish its authority, is left without any authority; and by whom? By the Group of the Friends of Syria.
How come these groups have fallen into this trap?
Al-Nusra is 80 percent Syrian, but al-Qaeda is a group that harbors foreign elements, and once you have foreign elements, you have the infiltration of intelligence groups – the Russians through the Chechens, for instance. Al-Qaeda really serves the Syrian-Iranian axis. This slows down the revolution in Syria and the West can’t see it. An important Western official told me “Syria is not our problem.” This was the most honest, genuine statement I have ever heard. That’s the reason why the West is acting so slowly.
You seem to not trust the PYD.
First of all, they have to decide what side they are on. Are they on the side of the regime or the opposition? While [PYD leader] Salih Muslim started to change his rhetoric, there is a difference between rhetoric and action. We tell them, “Cut your relationship with the Syrian intelligence, and then our doors will be open to you.”
You said there is a tendency to get rid of al-Assad and keep the regime; would you accept that?
Absolutely not. One of the main philosophies of the coalition’s establishment is to topple the regime with all its figures and elements.