Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat – Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Riad Al-Shaqfa, on the sidelines of the Arab – Turkish Media Forum in Istanbul earlier this week. Al-Shaqfa spoke about the situation in Syria, his hopes for the future of the country, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s plans for the post-Assad era.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that the pressure being exerted on Damascus – whether we are talking about the international or Arab League pressure – will ultimately lead to the collapse of the al-Assad regime?
[Al-Shaqfa] We hope that all countries around the world put pressure on the arrogant [al-Assad] regime until it is completely isolated and has no choice but to responds to the will of the people. I pray for the end of this suppressive regime, and the [al-Assad] regime will collapse; it is only a matter of time. As the Prophet Muhammad said “the pens have been lifted and the ink has dried.” [i.e. what will come to pass has already been written]. The al-Assad regime will collapse within the next few months. The Syrian people will accept Turkish military intervention to protect them from the forces of President al-Assad, but not western military intervention. However I personally do not want to see any foreign military intervention [in Syria] because the Syrian people have the will and commitment to isolate and oust the Syrian regime, particularly if the international community intervenes and real sanctions are imposed on the Syrian regime and it is [internationally] isolated with the world recalling their ambassadors from Damascus. In this case, it would be easy for the Syrian people to overthrow the al-Assad regime, and so we want the Arab and Islamic states to intervene to protect the Syrian civilians.
The international community must isolate the al-Assad government to encourage the [Syrian] people to stay the course with regards to their desire to end more than 4 decades of al-Assad family rule. Hundreds have been killed this month, which represents one of the bloodiest periods since the beginning of the Syrian protests in March.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, will the Arab League sanctions have the required effect on the al-Assad regime, or will it have a greater impact on the Syrian people?
[Al-Shaqfa] With regards to the Arab League sanctions, this will have a greater effect on the government, although it will also affect the daily lives of the Syrian people somewhat, however the proud Syrian people will be patient in order to get rid of this suppressive and tyrannical regime, and are prepared to bear some suffering and burden [in order to achieve this].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the reasons behind the Syrian regime’s arrogant approach to dealing with the foreign media, particularly with regards to the arrogant statements and comments issued by some Syrian regime figures?
[Al-Shaqfa] The reasons for the arrogance of the Syrian regime, for example the recent statement made by [Syrian Foreign Minister] Walid Muallem, in which he said “live and see for yourself” in response to a statement made by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe [that the al-Assad regime’s days are numbered]…or al-Assad who previously said he would set the Middle East on fire if there is any foreign intervention in Syria…is because the [Syrian] regime’s days are over. It is gasping its final breaths, and so al-Assad’s statements to the British media [interview with the Sunday Telegraph] are nothing more than empty rhetoric; he wants to portray himself as being in charge of Syria’s land, sea, and air, but he is a liar, and is not in charge of anything but himself.
It is enough to recall the scandal of Walid Muallem’s recent press conference where he proudly showed images taken during the Lebanese war, as well as a fabricated video clip, to the entire world [claiming these images and video had been taken during the Syrian protests and showed armed Syrian protesters attacking Syrian soldiers]. The case of the fabricated video shown by Muallem represents just a fraction of the lies, deception, and misinformation put forward by the Syrian regime. He [Muallem] has tried and failed to falsify facts since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. Some of the scandalous things that he has repeated again and again includes the lie that the Salafists are behind the revolution, not to mention the list of promised reforms made to the Syrian people – which is something that he repeated a thousand times – but which has not been implemented at all. With the outbreak of the people’s uprising against the al-Assad regime more than 9 months ago, the failed pro-regime media accused everybody and anybody of being responsible for this. So first it was the Salafists, and then the Muslim Brotherhood, and then the Palestinians, and then “foreign elements” that had infiltrated the country, and then Zionists, not to mention foreign media outlets that are inciting the Syrian people [to revolt], as well as the Turks. Today, they [the al-Assad regime] are fabricating everything, whether we are talking about their own rhetoric or images [to the media]; nobody believes them, because they are liars to the core.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any information regarding the recent claims that the Libyan National Transitional Council [NTC] is providing Syrian military defectors with arms and equipment to fight the al-Assad regime?
[Al-Shaqfa] I read this news as well, and the weapons that the Syrian military defectors took with them when they defected from the regime are sufficient; they do not need offensive weapons, rather they need defensive weapons. This is because their mission, at this time, is to defend…the peaceful protesters. I hold Syrian President al-Assad wholly responsible for the internationalization of the Syrian crisis, and he is responsible for everything that is happening in Syria with regards to the violence and bloodshed that is taking place every day due to his failure to respond to the Arab League initiative. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising 9 months ago we – the Muslim Brotherhood – issued a statement calling on al-Assad to immediately begin to implement reform in order to spare the Syrian people from harm, but he ignored us and continued on his stubborn path. Bashar al-Assad [previously] said “Syria is different [than other Arab Spring countries] and nothing will happen here”, but he responded to the peaceful demonstrations with bloody violence, because this regime is only good practicing violence and shedding blood!
If the international community isolates this regime, withdraws its ambassadors from Damascus and expels Syria’s ambassadors from foreign capitals, then he [al-Assad] will feel that he is besieged by the rest of the world…and the Syrian people will stay the course to overthrow the regime…that is what is required.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion regarding the claim made by some observers and opposition figures that the al-Assad regime is seeking to incite a sectarian war in Syria?
[Al-Shaqfa] The Syrian regime is truly seeking to incite a sectarian war, and al-Assad wants to show that a sectarian war has taken root in the street, but this is nothing more than one of the lies of the regime. In Homs, there was a massacre of civilians [that the al-Assad regime claimed was the result of sectarian violence] but we in Syria have only known sectarianism under this miserable regime. We were [previously] united and equal; Muslims, Alawites, Christians. We felt fraternity and patriotism. However this regime wants to drag the country into a state of sectarian war, and the Syrian people are well aware of this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you discount al-Assad succeeding in this regard? Do you believe a sectarian war will break out in the country?
[Al-Shaqfa] I do not think it is likely that a sectarian war will break out, and what happened in Homs was a massacre that was carried out by the regime forces against peaceful protesters, not sectarian war. The international community has not turned to “military solutions”, and we must be aware and stress that the Syrian regime’s failure to respond to the Arab League’s ministerial committee will inevitably lead to this issue being brought before the UN Security Council. The al-Assad regime is seeking to place the Sunni majority in Syria in conflict with all other sects, but this game will not succeed, for the goal of all the people of Syria now is to overthrow the regime and preserve the peaceful-nature of the revolution, although this does not deny the fact that some people – of all sects – continue to enjoy strong relations with the regime. However we warn the people not to be taken in by the tricks of the Syrian regime to transform the people’s struggle for freedom and dignity into a civil war, for we will all have lost if this happens, and so we once again stress the peace-nature of the [Syrian] protests.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, why has the al-Assad regime been able to remain in power and survive despite 9 months of protests?
[Al-Shaqfa] Since the beginning, he [al-Assad] gathered all those who benefit from his rule around him, whilst he also utilized sectarianism. These beneficiaries [of the al-Assad regime] continue, until now, to benefit from his rule and they are committed to the regime because their fate is intertwined with that of the regime. The same thing applied to Libya; those who supported Gaddafi did so till the end. However we would like to reassure everybody: [in the event of the collapse of the al-Assad regime] we will not take revenge against anybody, the judiciary will play its role, but we will not resort to revenge or retribution because revenge is not in the nature of the Syrian people who are wiser than this….I believe that the al-Assad regime will collapse within the next few months.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you communicate with the Syrian opposition at home, particularly as there are claims that the Muslim Brotherhood does not enjoy a strong base of support in Syria?
[Al-Shaqfa] The Muslim Brotherhood does not have a strong base of support in Syria because of the 1980 law  which makes it an offense punishable by death to belong to the Muslim Brotherhood organization, and they [the Syrian regime] have expanded this law to even apply to children and grandfathers. My own son may be held accountable because of this unjust law, whilst more than 20,000 detainees held in Tadmor Prison have been executed as a result of this law, and some of these were Muslim Brotherhood members prior to the ratification of this law. This law is unprecedented across the world. During the Syrian Inquisition a judge would ask: are you a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The defendant would deny this, but the judge would still condemn him to death…there were no trials taking place in the true sense of the word.
The [Syrian] revolution will not stop until this regime has been ousted, and the amnesty issued by al-Assad for political crimes and members of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing more than a huge deception and lie. Bashar al-Assad is not sincere about dialogue, because if he were sincere he would have withdrawn the army from the streets, stopped the killing, and apologized to the families of the martyrs [killed during the protests]. Al-Assad has no respect for his people, and he believes that he has come to teach the Syrian people a lesson about democracy. Indeed he himself previously stated that the Syrian people are not ready for democracy, and this is an excuse that has also been put forward by other dictators.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would you characterize the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s relations with Hezbollah and Iran?
[Al-Shaqfa] We have no ties to Hezbollah, and it is sufficient for me to say that Hezbollah and Iran are contributing to the suppression of the Syrian people by supplying the al-Assad regime with technology and equipment, as well as sending experts in violence and torture [to Syria]. We have confirmed information that experts from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are present in the Syrian regime’s operations room, and that they are leading the operations against the Syrian people. This is not to mention the support that has been granted to the al-Assad regime from Iraq, and there is talk that [Iraqi Prime Minister] al-Maliki has provided the al-Assad regime with approximately 10 billion dollars. What is clear today is that the al-Maliki regime, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime, form one bloc whose members defend one another, and if the Iranians and Hezbollah want a future relationship with the Syrian people they must stop supporting this regime, and stop their criminal actions against the Syrian people, who are in desperate need of relief.
As I said previously in response to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah: how is it possible that somebody who claims to represent freedom and the resistance can stand with the dictator Bashar al-Assad, against the Syrian people? His position [on the Syrian revolution] is strange and nonsensical.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you update us on the latest information regarding the Syrian army defectors relocating to the Syrian – Turkish borders, and the issue of a buffer zone being established there? Does the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood support or oppose this measure?
[Al-Shaqfa] We heard about this [Syrian army defectors travelling to the Syrian –Turkish border], in my opinion there is no urgent need to establish a buffer zone; the Syrians who have defected from the army have retreated to the mountains, and the civilians who have fled the country are present in Turkey, so there is no need for this buffer zone. However if the situation develops to the point where a buffer zone is established, then it will be the Syrian regime which has caused this [development].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are living in Turkey today, when the al-Assad regime collapse – as you say it will soon – would you like to see the secular Turkish political system applied in Syria?
[Al-Shaqfa] We are impressed by the Turkish [political] experience, and I am continually being asked by the international media and press “do you support the Turkish experience or the Iranian experience?” To be frank, we are with the Turkish experience, not the Iranian one, and we are extremely impressed by the progress that has been made by Turkish democracy since the Justice and Development party came to power following a landslide election victory more than ten years ago. The Muslim Brotherhood is not seeking to impose a religious state in Syria, and if we reach power, we will not disregard anyone. We will work with everybody and we will put in place laws that focus on freedom, justice, and equality…in other words for all [Syrian] citizens to be equal in rights and duties, and no differentiation between Syrian citizens on the basis of religion or sect. All of these teachings are taken from Islamic principles. We will benefit from the teachings of the Islamic faith to put in place laws and achieve freedom, but not to impose a religious state. The Justice and Development party government– whose leadership came from a banned Islamist party – have overseen a period of unprecedented prosperity in Turkey. Turkey also introduced reforms that have reduced the chance of a military coup taking place…without taking any explicit step to reduce the secular-nature of the Turkish state.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who supports the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria?
[Al-Shaqfa] We receive support from God alone, and this is a fact that must be known to all…the Syrian people can only rely on themselves. The al-Assad regime is supported by Ian, Iraq, and Hezbollah. I can also reveal, from within the regime, that Hafez al-Assad sent his son Bashar to London for treatment for mental illness, and following his recovery he began to study medicine…but it seems that he has suffered a relapse. His [Bashar al-Assad’s] actions reveal that he is mentally unbalanced.