How The ‘Moderate’ Syrian Opposition Got More Radical, More Violent, And Less Effective
DAMASCUS — “Five Key People in the Syrian Uprising” was the name of an article that I published in March 2013 on an American Syria-news website based in Amman, Jordan. I included two figures, Louay al-Zabi, Mashaal Tammo, whom I deemed moderate, in an attempt to explain to my American colleagues, and our English-speaking audience, what ‘moderate’ meant from a Syrian perspective. Sadly a few months later it turned out that both my colleagues and I weren’t moderate enough to handle some disagreements. I left on bad terms and they deleted all my articles.
Louay al-Zabi was very important to me personally because his approach changed my entire views about the Salafi movement and how it didn’t actually pose a threat to secular folks like me. Despite the fact that he made some unforgivable missteps later, I still believe that he and Mashaal Tammo were the only people we, the Syrian public, knew of who gave us a hint about what a civil state looks like.
Al-Zabi, the Secretary General of the Syrian Salafi movement Harikat al-Muminoon Yusharikoon (Shared Believers), was one of the first clerics to call for toppling President Bashar al-Assad’s rule as early as April 2011. His movement engineered a pioneering Salafi vision of a civil state compatible with both religion and secularism. That vision clearly separated between the state and ideology; something most of the Syrian Islamist and secular parties have failed to do.
Shared Believers encouraged and financed protests demanding freedom and dignity, but they rejected sectarian anti-Christian and anti-Alawite slogans used in some parts of Hims during the early uprising. Al-Zabi issued a fatwa allowing Syrian soldiers to defect in the fall of 2011 but he considered Jabhat al-Nusra “a curse on the Syrian people,” because ultimately, they would not submit to a state.
A son of Daraa in southwestern Syria, al-Zabi was one of the mujahideen who fought the Soviets in the 1990s. Al-Zabi lived in Sudan when Osama bin Laden shifted his base there. He also fought with the Muslims during the Bosnian war, though he opposed the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and the entire Bin Laden approach. When he returned to Syria, he was imprisoned for several years, including more than three years in solitary cell where he claimed to have been tortured.
In an interview with al-Arabiya in Ocotber 2011, Giselle Khoury asked al-Zabi why he didn’t object to her lack of head scarf. He said: “This is what’s new about our approach. Mrs. Giselle, I’m not entitled to make you wear a head scarf. I’m instructed by sharia to avert my eyes.” He did not for once look at her. He didn’t believe that his group had the right to impose their Islamic Sharia. He simply believed in their freedom to practice his own Salafi belief, without confusing that with the freedom of non-Muslims.
Louay al-Zabi called for friendship with the West. He harshly criticized Hezbollah though in late February 2012 he justified targeting Alawite civilians in response to the government’s assaults on Sunni civilians. He claimed that such a deterrent equation could save even Alawite lives, which is total nonsense. The man has basically become a war criminal and a terrorist; he now supports the most fundamentalist jihadists, including the Islamic State.
On the northeast side of Syria, Mashaal Tammo (1957-2011) was a liberal Kurdish politician and activist who fought for Kurdish rights as part of the Syrian population. He wanted Kurdish rights, not a Kurdish state, and to that end introduced a political vision of a unified, pluralistic civil state that guaranteed everyone’s freedom.
Tammo founded the Kurdish Future Movement Party in 2005, and remained a thorn in the sides of both the government in Damascus and the main Kurdish movements seeking independence. He was imprisoned in 2008 and sentenced to three years for “weakening the national consciousness and violating the state’s veneration.”
Tammo was a member of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) formed in Istanbul, but he remained in Syria to participate in the protest movement of the Arab and Kurd youth. During the uprising, he declares a refusal to have a dialogue with “a regime that continues to murder children.”
He championed the rights of the Syrian Kurdish population and stood up for their historic and cultural heritage, all while resisting Arabization. Yet he stressed that Syria should be united, differing from the Kurdish parties who wanted an autonomous Kurd state. Tammo was quoted as saying, “We believe in Syria’s civil and free uprising. Our message to all our brethren in the Kurdish movement is that we respect your decisions, actions and wishes, but our allegiance is to Syria and not to you.”
In October 2011 the 53-year-old was killed by unknown masked gunmen who stormed the house where he was staying. Perhaps his was a better end than al-Zabi’s. His murder fueled the anti-Assad campaign but some believe he may have been killed by separatist Kurds. An estimated 50,000 people marched in his funeral. Today, the separatists rule in the northeast and refer to that part of Syria as Western Kurdistan.
We at the time defined moderates by their ability to introduce a better vision of the post-al-Baath Syria. Tammo spoke of solutions to solve our national and ethnic identity problems, which would not only apply between the Arabs and the Kurds but also to the Armenians, the Assyrians and many other ethnicities. Al-Zabi, on the other hand, addressed the religious identity problems. He did so in the spirit of empowering a state which keeps the same distance from the Sunni majority and Syria’s religious minorities that the very “term ‘minorities’ is dropped.”
Those two figures seemed more moderate than former SNC puppet-chairmen, the Kurdish Abdulbaset Sieda and the Christian George Sabra. Sieda had failed to keep the major Kurdish elements within the main opposition political body. As for Sabra, he publicly and ridiculously flirted with the Islamists just to keep his weight at the Sunni-dominated SNC, a worse hybrid than the Baath Party.
Syria has changed so much since 2011, and so has our definition of moderates. In comparison with jihadist groups or separatist Kurds, many will look at the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition and Free Syrian Army (FSA) and just take it for granted that these people are moderate, but they’re not. Today it doesn’t matter what vision you have for the future or what your declared principles are. It’s not enough to include minorities and women within the ranks of your party, nor is it reassuring to claim that you believe in democracy. It’s certainly irrelevant how good your relationship with the West is. What truly counts now is how good you are at managing and containing this very destructive war.
The Western-backed opposition is largely responsible for perverting the course of the early protest movement and consequently failing it. Thanks to them, freedom, which used to be the main theme for most demonstrations, faded away as protesters started to call for toppling the regime instead of pressuring it towards compromising and making reforms. That movement hit a wall long time before the authorities oppressed it. It was over when most protesters turned to political violence and forgot why they were protesting in the first place.
This part of the opposition has been so determined to topple Mr. al-Assad at any cost, even at the expense of jeopardizing the Syrian establishment, which dates back to the early 1930s. Their sole military strategy revolves around undermining the state’s civilian and military institutions, rather than providing protection for those who supposedly need it. They mostly engage in urban warfare all across the country, which makes it impossible for them to maintain the grounds they seize or have an actual defensive strategy.
They’re responsible for failing a peace conference that we had hoped would help, per the UN’s Geneva communique, to “release arbitrarily detainees, allow humanitarian access to the areas affected by the war” and perhaps prevent the ultimate destruction of these areas, and “guarantee freedom of association and the right to peacefully demonstrate and ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists.” The opposition’s hawks bypassed all the matters that were meant to be addressed at Geneva II only to insist on stage two, namely transition, which really could wait. They didn’t care to deal with our suffering and worst of all, they shattered our last hopes to restore to nonviolence.
The separatist Kurds and IS might be extreme in terms of identity but they clearly know how to manage their wars at minimum costs. They know what they want and they go for it. They don’t seem to bite off more than they can chew. That explains why they’ve had limited confrontations with the Syrian military, and therefore, fewer casualties and a much smaller amount of destruction.
It’s about time the Western-backed opposition realizes their political strategy and military tactics are so destructive that they make IS look less radical. And it’s about time for the world to redefine what it means to be moderate in Syria because you can’t solve a problem that you don’t recognize.