Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the head of Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights, Ammar al-Qurabi, discussed the political and humanitarian situation in the country. Al-Qurabi described the humanitarian situation in Syria, which has been experiencing anti-government protests and demonstrations, as being “unfortunate and tragic”, saying that the Syrian authorities have turned the country into a “huge prison.” He also urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to carry out a “white coup” against the criminal and corrupt figures in the Syrian regime, implementing genuine reform demanded by the Syrian people.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would you describe the political situation in Syria today?
[Al-Qurabi] The political situation in Syria can be summed up as being a “declaration of war” by the Syrian authorities against the unarmed people of Syria, and this is an attempt to put an end to any democratic change that could be achieved through peaceful means. The political scene in Syria is split between two viewpoints, the viewpoint of the authorities who have adopted a brutal and bloody military solution against the demonstration…and the viewpoint of the unarmed Syrian people who are carrying out peaceful protests, demanding social freedom and justice.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the humanitarian situation in the country?
[Al-Qurabi] This is an extremely unfortunate and tragic situation; there is a lot of bloodshed, especially in Deraa, Banias, and Homs. There are electricity blackouts for long periods of time, and severe water and medicine shortages, whilst we have also seen mass arrests, including the mass arrest of families, whilst the majority of detainees are being sent en mass to the stadiums [due to the lack of space in prisons and police stations]. In addition to this, the Jordan – Syria border has been shut, and so the authorities have turned Syria into a huge prison, and even those who have managed to cross the border into Turkey have been placed in confinement by the Turkish authorities in order to prevent them from contacting journalists. The Syrian regime is afraid of these refugees revealing the brutal crimes and violations that have been carried out by the Syrian security apparatus.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your assessment of the human rights situation in Syria in general? What are the most common human rights violations that occur in Syria?
[Al-Qurabi] In general, the human rights situation in Syria is very bard, and the party that is committing human rights violation is the state itself, and this is something that brings together the political issue and the human rights issue. The most prominent human rights violations are arbitrary arrests, the exceptional courts, and the disappearance [of detainees]. Syria has always been ranked low with regards to its human rights record, but there is now a catastrophic situation in the country that no human being should be subject to.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How does the Syrian regime deal with human rights activists, such as yourself?
[Al-Qurabi] Firstly, the Syrian regime does not recognize human rights organizations, and there is no licensed human rights organization in Syria, or any parliamentary or ministerial or official committee or body [on human rights]. Therefore, there is no difference between a human rights activist and an opposition figure, and both are viewed as enemies [of the regime]. If the Syrian authorities grasped the statements that we [Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights] issued, the country would not have reached this state.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people have said that the voices of Syria’s human rights activists have only begun to gain prominence recently, and that you are riding the wave of the popular demonstrations in the country, whereas previously you were without a voice. What is your response to those who say this?
[Al-Qurabi] There has always been suspicion towards human rights activists in Syria, and we have always been accused of working for foreign powers, and the accusation that we are only know raising our voices is a pathetic one. Human rights organizations are supposed to play a media role, but ultimately the media itself [in Syria] is absent. All eyes [are now] on Syria, and what is happening in the country now is something that has imposed itself [on the international scene], therefore our statements must reflect the extent of the [human rights] violations. Before now, the violations were intermittent and did not take place daily, however now human rights violations are taking place every moment, and there is a state of war, so we must go to the media and the satellite channels to expose what is really happening.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] To what extent have social networking websites helped human rights issues in Syria?
[Al-Qurabi] They have a role, but not to the extent of the role they placed in Egypt and Tunisia, this is because “Facebook” was blocked until recently in Syria, and when it was unblocked, the purpose behind this was to allow the government to track users and restrict their freedoms and then arrest the,, however it has played a role in spreading news and exposing some outrages [to the outside world].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As the media spokesman for the Arab Organization for Human Rights, what is your evaluation of the media’s performance in Syria?
[Al-Qurabi] Firstly, Syria is not a state based upon institutions, and even the Baathist party is nothing more than window-dressing; Syria depends upon a tight security grip to manage all of the state’s affairs, and the Syrian security apparatus is able to interfere in even the minutest details of the daily life of the Syrian people. Syria is a country that has lived under emergency law since 8 March 1963, and there are 17 security apparatus on standby and they monitor all Syrian citizens, from their birth to their death. From all of this, we understand that the Syrian media is an integral part of this security system, [it is] nothing more than a tool, a mouthpiece for the Syrian security apparatus, and the official Syrian media is still saying that dozens have taken to the street to pray to God for rain [in an explanation of the protests]!
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So has the Syrian media betrayed the people of Syria?
[Al-Qurabi] We cannot say that the Syrian media is betraying the Syrian people…because it does not represent the Syrian citizens. The Syrian media, since its birth in 1960, never once spoke up on behalf of the people, but rather followed the circles of power.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are rumors that some parties are intending to take the Syrian regime to the International Criminal Court, is this true?
[Al-Qurabi] I can confirm that we will legally pursue all those who have shed Syrian blood, and today we are working on two tracks, firstly according to the Sudanese file, which is to bring the Syrian file to the UN Security Council, and this is what we are doing now. We are waiting for the report of the fact-finding mission that will be given to the UN Human Rights commissions, and then transferred to the UN Security Council, however there could be a Russian or Chinese veto [to this], and this is something that must be addressed politically, not judicially. The second track would see international civil societies and organizations putting forward a record of the human rights violations that have taken place in Syria, along with documentation, to the office of the Attorney-General, who will begin an investigation into what happened in Syria, and this investigation will decide whether the Attorney-General will submit his report to a higher authority or decide that what happened in Syria cannot be classified as crimes against humanity. We are also thinking of raising lawsuits in national courts that permit such cases, along the lines of the [Ariel] Sharon case. This is in order to track down and prosecute the people responsible for the [human rights] crimes that have taken place in Syria; however our priority is to put an end to the bloodshed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Syrian regime has said that foreign powers are behind what is happening in Syria, what do you think?
[Al-Qurabi] This represents a discounting of the will of the Syrian people, as if they are agents or have been bought by foreign powers, and this is a disrespectful accusation. What is happening in reality on the ground completely discredits this, for what is happening is a conspiracy against the people by the Syrian authorities.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who is supporting the Syrian regime in this regard?
[Al-Qurabi] The world’s silence is helping the Syrian regime, and is a message that says to the Syrian regime that it should continue the killing and the oppression [of the Syrian people]. What some people do not know is that some regions are completely under the “Shabiha” [pro-regime gunmen] who are in control of the streets and the mosques. They are standing on the corners and preventing people from taking part in the demonstrations, utilizing the threat of violence. Despite this, dozens of protestors have been martyred or arrested in Damascus and Aleppo, and 84 cities, towns, and villages have taken part in the protests.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why has the Syrian army not taken a similar position to the Egyptian or Tunisian armies, which refused to fire or suppress the protestors during the revolutions that took place in those countries?
[Al-Qurabi] The army in Syria is not an impartial institution but is a tool and arm of the regime, however let me be fair to the Syrian army, for the Syrian army can be said to be split into two sections, one which is affiliated to the Ministry of Defense, and this section is committed to neutrality even now, and its units are stationed at city gates. However the second section is the Republican Guards, and the 4th Division, and they receive orders directly from figures within the Syrian regime, and it is these military units that are responsible for the suppression of the protestors. However until now there has been no [formal] split or division of the Syrian army, and we are not wishing to see any division of the Syrian army.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With the recent spate of resignations from the Baathist party, some are saying that there are signs of a division or split in the Syrian regime. In your opinion, has the Baathist party suffered a split?
[Al-Qurabi] The Baathist party is not a party based upon an ideology or political philosophy, rather what unites the Baathist party members is common interests, and what is happening now in Syria is a repudiation of the party. However the Syrian media is denying these resignations, which is what has caused the Baathist party members to record their resignations on video.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, why have we not heard anything from the opinion-makers or the intellectuals in Syria?
[Al-Qurabi] There is a falsification of the will of the artists and journalist, and 700 writers, intellectuals, artists, and filmmakers, called for milk to be allowed to reach the children of Deraa, but this call received a heavy backlash, with this group being described as pimps [by the media]…and it is this intellectual suppression that is dominating the Syrian scene today.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Syrian regime is claiming that the protestors are fanning the flames of sectarianism, is this true?
[Al-Qurabi] It is the Syrian regime that introduced sectarianism in order to break up the demonstrations, and it has failed in this, because the Syrian people have joined together as one hand, in a magnificent manner, to overcome sectarianism. The world must realize that the Syrian regime is not Alawite, but rather it is a security – military coalition that is based upon mutual interests, and it is violently suppressing all of the protestors regardless of their sect.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] France has announced that Syria has “lost its legitimacy” and has called on the EU to impose sanctions upon Syrian figures, including President Bashar al-Assad. What is your opinion on the French position?
[Al-Qurabi] The first slogan raised by the demonstrations was “the one who kills his own people is a traitor”, and this is something that the French, late as usual, have now taken up. France is primarily responsible for what is happening in Syria today because [French President] Sarkozy is personally responsible for the international rehabilitating of Syria, returning the country to the international community, when Damascus was internationally isolated and there was a diplomatic blockage against Syria. During this period, Sarkozy visited Damascus and then invited Bashar al-Assad to Paris, and today he [Sarkozy] can not curb the violence in Syria, nor did he extract any concessions from Bashar al-Assad, with regards to democracy or human rights [in return for the international rehabilitation of Syria]. I view Paris’s position today as being nothing more than a media position, rather than a political or practical position.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the Syrian people’s position to foreign intervention, should the situation in Syria continue to escalate?
[Al-Qurabi] I represent a human rights organization in Syria, not all the Syrian people; however I can confirm that the people that are being slaughtered in Deraa completely reject any foreign military intervention, and essentially this is out of the question. However our reference as a human rights organization is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we support international intervention so long as this is according to international humanitarian law. Syria is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Human Rights, and the 4 Geneva Conventions…and this is something that makes it imperative for the international community to pressure Damascus to carry out their international obligations, and there are mechanisms through fact-finding commissions, UN resolutions, and international courts, which represent possible solutions. If we consider such mechanisms international interventions, then I completely support this. As for military intervention, this is something that is completely rejected.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you hope for the future of human rights in Syria?
[Al-Qurabi] I hope to see the licensing of human rights organizations, and for such groups to be given support and assistance, and for the Syrian authorities to understand that such organizations are not their enemy.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Finally, if you could speak directly to President Bashar al-Assad, what would you say?
[Al-Qurabi] I would tell him, since you came to power, your legitimacy has been based upon reform, however this reform was nothing more than a slogan and no real reform took place on the ground. However we are now facing the moment of truth, so I urge you to carry out a white coup against the corrupt and criminal figures that surround you, who have harmed your reputation, as well as Syria. If you take this bold step, put an end to the killing, hold the killers accountable, call for national reconciliation, and draw up a new constitution. If you do this, and also implement a genuine political party law, a genuine parliament, establish civil organizations, release the [political] prisoners, and allow the [political] exiles to return, then I will be the first one to applaud you!