Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat—In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Ahmed Jarba, the new president of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), highlighted his priorities and future agenda for the Syrian opposition.
Jarba, who assumed the post earlier this month following a close runoff election, revealed that his priority is to secure advanced arms for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), in addition to humanitarian assistance for the suffering people of Syria.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat from Saudi Arabia at the start of a Mideast tour, Jarba praised the Kingdom’s role in supporting the Syrian revolution, in addition to calling on the EU to impose a safe zone in Syria.
Ahmed Jarba is a Sunni Muslim born in 1969 in the north-eastern Syrian city of Qamishli, in Hassakeh province. He is known to be an influential tribal figure who was imprisoned between 1996 and 1998 for his opposition to President Hafez Al-Assad. He was later jailed at the start of the current uprising in March 2011 for supporting pro-democracy protests against Bashar Al-Assad. Following his release, he left the country and joined the opposition abroad. According to the SNC, Jarba “has been supporting the Syrian revolution, providing medical and military aid, since the beginning of the revolution.”
Asharq Al-Awsat: Why are you visiting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? What did your discussions with Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz entail?
Ahmed Jarba: My colleagues in the SNC and I are touring several Arab and Western countries. This began in the Kingdom due to its importance and central role in supporting the Syrian revolution, as well as due to the special relationship between our fraternal countries and peoples. Besides, we have come to Saudi Arabia to express our thanks for its stance towards the Syrian issue and in order to explain the SNC’s point of view to the Saudi leadership.
In our meeting with Crown Prince Salman, we talked about the amount of suffering experienced by our people in Syria and the refugee camps and explained the ever-deteriorating humanitarian situation and the harsh treatment of the Syrian people at the hands of the criminal regime and its Shabiha militia, particularly over the past three months, with Iran and Hezbollah providing the regime with direct military assistance.
Q: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal called on the countries of the EU last month to lift the embargo on weapon shipments to the Syrian opposition. What is your view of this step?
Saudi Arabia’s official stance has undoubtedly been the most distinguished in terms of supporting the revolution since its eruption. The Saudi stance is based on principles, values and morals. In fact, this is something not unusual of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the Crown Prince and the Saudi government in general.
During the first Friends of Syria conference, which was held in Tunisia last year, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal was among the first to call for arming the opposition and the FSA. Lifting the European embargo is a step in the right direction; however, this decision must be effective.
Q: What is your view of the situation on the ground in Syria?
I believe that the involvement of Hezbollah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and some Iraqi extremists linked with Iran in the Syrian conflict has changed the rules of the game. As we can see, Iran is providing the regime with money, fighters, and weapons, and is also strengthening the regime’s economy. So, as the leadership of the SNC, we have to change the strategy that has been in effect for over a year now.
We think that providing the rebels with advanced weaponry has become a necessity, as we cannot endure without this. We also call on the Friends of Syria to set up a safe zone in order to protect civilians and allow the political and military leadership of the SNC to operate from within Syria. I believe the setting up of a safe zone, if achieved, will mean the beginning of the end for the regime.
Q: With Syria teetering on the brink of collapse, what steps do you, the president of the SNC, intend to take?
For me, providing the FSA fighters with advanced weaponry as soon as possible is my number-one priority. We are face-to-face with armed gangs carrying out genocide against the Syrian people, so the only way to confront them and put an end to their massacres is to obtain advanced weaponry. I also intend to work on securing humanitarian and health aid to the steadfast people of Syria.
I can also tell you about my reformative program for the SNC, consolidating transparency, in addition to the importance of standing together, which are all part of my agenda. However, discussing such issues will remain a sort of political indulgence as long as we have not done anything to defend peoples’ lives and sanctity, secure their daily bread, and heal their wounds. In fact, I prefer not to engage in political indulgences while Syrian blood is being shed before our very eyes. Otherwise, we in the SNC will become like the Roman philosophers who were arguing about the meaning of life while the walls of Rome were under attack and the city falling.
Q: There is an economic crisis in Syria. Would obtaining weapons resolve the crisis?
We should not beat around the bush. The main pending issue is to provide all the requirements for survival, including weapons, food, water and medication. All of the problems . . . are about this issue, given the disparity between the many promises the international community makes to the rebels and the lack of implementation felt by the SNC. In fact, people in Syria deal with the SNC based on the international promises, which they consider as incontrovertible facts.
I am seeking to solve this problem by pursuing a dual strategy: First, [I will] constantly monitor sources of funding and meet all circumstances and conditions required by the donors in the light of respect of revolutionary fundamentals and sovereignty. Since my election [as SNC president], I have made a series of contacts and visits and I will continue with this until I obtain a result that is satisfactory for me and for a large segment of the people inside and outside Syria.
The second point pertains to transparency, which I will adopt in my dealings inside and outside the SNC. I will be frank with the suffering people of Syria about everything. I will mention the countries that support us and fulfill their promises and explain and promote ways of distributing their aid away from military affairs, which are the purview of the [FSA] command.
As for the countries which only make promises and delays or impose agendas incompatible with our fundamentals, I will leave it to our people to pass their judgement and recognize those who are friends and brothers and those who pretend to be so at the expense of our blood. There is no room for courtesy when we are surrounded by death and destruction.
Q: Are you ready to enter into a political settlement at Geneva II?
First, the outcome of Geneva II will not be a holy book that cannot be ignored or changed. In fact, we look at Geneva II from the perspective of the revolutionaries and their sacrifices, and this is how we approach the Geneva conference and other political issues on the table. However, honestly, had the regime possessed one iota of national responsibility, we would not have reached this situation.
At the beginning of the revolutions—in its first year—there was a chance and hope for a political solution that would lead to the achievement of the demands of the revolution and people. However, the oppressive regime, through its constant crimes, aborted all political initiatives one after the other, from the Arab League’s initiative and Kofi Annan to Lakhdar Brahimi’s efforts, which became something of the past.
This regime only understands the language of force and only the situation on the ground can impose a political solution on it, along with pressure from its two main allies, president Vladimir Putin and the Iranian regime.
The survival of Bashar Al-Assad and the figures of his regime is something we decisively reject, and those who think that we—people, rebels and opposition—might ever accept this are deluded.
Our revolution has clear objectives, which we will not abandon or negotiate. Our people have sacrificed the blood of tens of thousands of martyrs for these legitimate objectives. Moreover, we support any political solution that leads to the full achievement of the objectives of the revolution, provided it regulates a peaceful transition of power and reduces the amount of sacrifices and the time required to achieve victory. This objective is to see all Syrians, regardless of their background, as citizens in a free and democratic country equal in rights and duties.
Q: There have been reports that the Syrian people have withdrawn their confidence from the opposition. Can the SNC continue to operate in spite of this?
We will try to put the SNC on the right path, and this is something that will take some time. We think we will manage to win the confidence of the people and the international community, but we have to acknowledge that we are required to address one of history’s largest humanitarian catastrophes with the most limited of resources. This is impossible. Therefore, we will do what we are required to do regarding the institutionalization and organization of work and wait for the donors to fulfill their promises.