Interview of Syrian National Reconciliation Minister Dr. Ali Haidar: “Both Sides Have Extremists”
by Radwan Mortada
July 14, 2012 (TSR) – Syrian National Reconciliation Minister Dr. Ali Haidar is optimistic, but still thinks that “Syria is on top of a volcano.” Haidar, who is also the President of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), maintains that he “joined a project and not a ministry,” revealing that contacts with the armed opposition are underway.
Radwan Mortada (RM): What is going on in Syria these days?
Ali Haidar (AH): The situation is a continuation of a crisis that began in earnest a year and a half ago and still remains. It is a deep and comprehensive structural crisis on all levels of Syrian life. Its final form or final chapter is a situation of continuous violence which reaps the lives of many and spills plenty of blood.
This is in general. Going into the details, the crisis goes back many years. No one was able to solve the problems in any of its junctures, leaving behind flaws and weaknesses inside Syria.
This led to a real popular peaceful mobilization on the ground which began with rightful demands. But the bearers of the foreign project were able to interfere in the path of the crisis.
They took advantage of the exuberance and fervor of Syrian youth and their rightful demands to impose a violent image onto the political mobilization. The latter was supposed to be peaceful, notwithstanding all the violence perpetrated by the other side.
RM: The Syrian opposition has two ministers in the new government, you and Qadri Jamil. Do you think this is enough?
We were the ones who challenged the elections in front of the higher constitutional court, calling for its annulment and complete invalidation.
AH: Of course not. We did not claim that it is the national reconciliation government we had been demanding for several months. But, due to the current situation and the refusal of an opposition within the opposition to enter into such a government, nothing better could have been done.
It should be pointed out that we have many reservations on the issue [of the new government]. We considered it to be a step forward towards opening the gates for a real political process in Syria which would achieve the demands of the Syrian people.
On the other hand, it is not a question of numbers and having two ministers. If we go into the details, we see that the positions given to the internal opposition, who agreed to join the government, are two very important ones.
RM: Do you think that the parliamentary elections, held in the prevailing situation, fulfilled the promises of reform, whereby the Baath clearly still controls the parliament?
AH: Even before the elections, we had called for the postponement of the whole process, especially since it is one of the cornerstones of the political reform process.
We also called for postponing the constitutional referendum for further study due to our knowledge that it has not ripened yet. But we participated in the parliamentary elections so as not to fall into a constitutional vacuum. Everybody knows that the new constitution produced new deadlines that cannot be postponed forever.
Nevertheless, we had several remarks, not just on the timing of the elections but also on the way it was implemented. It should be noted that we were the ones who challenged the elections in front of the higher constitutional court, calling for its annulment and complete invalidation.
RM: The external opposition accuses you of treason due to some disagreements. What are they?
AH: Our disagreements with all the external opposition is on two matters. A part of the opposition calls for a complete break with the regime.
By the way, this slogan was raised by some of the opposition as far back as 2005. They were opposed to dialogue with the regime because its hands are stained with blood. We oppose this call, for a break with the regime means a break with its popular base.
The second issue are calls by some of those to take advantage of international variables to change the structure of the regime internally. This means an acceptance of foreign intervention.
Both were proposed in 2005 during the United States’ entry into Iraq. They may have materialized due to the wrong messages being sent to different sides in the opposition, who then contributed to end the dialogue [with the regime].
RM: Observers were surprised by your appointment in a newly established position as national reconciliation minister. How did this happen and why this portfolio in particular?
An idea was proposed to have national reconciliation as the main headline of the government’s program, on the basis of a conviction that nobody can win over the other.
AH: At the start of consultations leading to forming the new government, we met with Prime Minister Riad Hijab. He wanted to discuss the appointment. Our answer was that we should look into the structure. How will it be put together and who will participate?
We indicated the questions that need to be answered first involving the government’s action plan, its ministerial statement, and authority. Our condition was that this should happen before we discuss the formation.
Based on this, and after several discussions, we met five times. During this time, an idea was proposed to have national reconciliation as the main headline of the government’s program, on the basis of a conviction that nobody can win over the other.
No one should have that illusion. The army is incapable of cleaning the ground completely and ending the armed insurgency without a political solution to the crisis. The insurgents cannot do so either.
Fighting will not solve anything, not in a month, not in a year, not forever. It could extend for decades, such in the Lebanese civil war. Why should we get into violence and counter-violence?
Syria cannot exit from its crisis without a reconciliation. As in all countries that enter into crisis, they must end with a reconciliation at national dialogue roundtables.
Why should we wait years to arrive there? Should we wait until the number of victims reaches 100,000? Why should we wait until Syria is destroyed and the Syrian pound reaches the level of the Lebanese lira? Why should we wait, while we know that we should sit together in the end?
Our project is to accelerate the solution before the fall of thousands of victims.
RM: Do you have a program to achieve this reconciliation?
AH: There are a number of dossiers that we delved into. The most prominent are those of the disappeared and detainees, the return of the displaced, and reconstruction.
I began working on preparing a comprehensive dossier for refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. I am preparing the environment for a dignified return in all cases, even those who carried arms. It should be noted that I began contacts with the latter.
My doors are open to everyone. I do not want anyone to feel degraded, defeated, or ashamed. Those who want to give up their weapons should be convinced that this sort of struggle will not work in the future. I want them to be convinced that there is another type of struggle that would achieve their ambitions.
RM: Is your personal reconciliation project compatible with the regime’s vision?
AH: There are places where we might differ with the regime. But I would like to say that we cannot speak about the regime as one block.
There are extremists on all sides. There are extremists in the regime and there are extremists in the internal and external opposition. Our project today will clash with all the extremists, whether they were with the regime or the opposition.
Our project is fundamentally to break up all the existing structures and build an environment assembled around a national project that isolates all extremists, wherever they are.
RM: Did you initiate contacts with the Syrian external opposition?
AH: My doors are open. I have currently initiated indirect contacts. There are messages that I am sending through the media and indirect contacts that my doors are open through my ministry to meet and communicate with everyone.
To those who have the excuse of not being able to go to Damascus, for fear of arrest or something similar, I say that if they accept our guarantees, I will personally be responsible for their protection.
I am also willing to meet them in Beirut. Everyone can come to Beirut. Everyone admits that their security can be secured here [in Lebanon]. Let us dialogue and then decide what to do.
RM: What about the opposition fighters on the ground in Syria? How will you convince them to drop their weapons?
We cannot speak about the regime as one block. There are extremists on all sides. There are extremists in the regime and there are extremists in the internal and external opposition. Our project today will clash with all the extremists, whether they were with the regime or the opposition. Our project is fundamentally to break up all the existing structures and build an environment assembled around a national project that isolates all extremists, wherever they are.
AH: First of all, who are these opposition fighters? Not everyone who carries a gun has a project. We have to differentiate between those who carry guns. Some did so to defend their homes and others in revenge. Some armed themselves because they were convinced they could protect the peaceful popular mobilization with those weapons. Then there are the tools.
We have to differentiate between the four types. Reaching a solution with the first two is easy. The third kind’s problems will be solved at the start of the political process, which should fulfill the opposition’s demands.
As for the tools, found at all times and places, they will be the responsibility of everyone.
RM: We learned that you began contacting armed groups. Can you tell us what happened?
AH: True, we began contacting armed groups in most areas. But we will not announce anything before we reach something tangible on the ground.
Some had surrendered their weapons, but the number was very small and it was not mentioned in the media.
Today, we are working on big projects that can reach big groups with a wide presence on the field. If this succeeds, it will mean a qualitative shift in armed presence on the ground.
RM: How can dissidents contact you?
AH: They can call my office. I am receiving more than 1,000 calls a day. I assigned a young man full-time to receive all the calls.
(If you are a Syrian willing to have peaceful political dialogues and wish to contact, Dr. Ali Haidar, email Lady Michelle-Jennifer Santos, Strategy/Peace Negotiator with the UN Security Council Special Envoy to the Arab Nations: email@example.com)
This week, we will move to a building which will be the ministry’s headquarters. We are still without a building or staff. All those who are working for me now are comrades from the SSNP.
We will also be creating an interactive website for all those who want to contact us. Soon, there will also be a fax and landlines.
RM: How do you see a way out of the crisis?
AH: Before anything else, we must recognize the other. All sides must recognize each other. There should remain no one who could say they are the sole legitimate representative and the others are traitors and collaborators.
We must admit that the crisis is Syrian and that the solution should be Syrian. It is fully and deeply political, so the solution must be political and not military.
The only instrument for a political solution is dialogue, but on the basis of rejecting foreign intervention and refusing violence and its justification.
Syria is sitting on top of a volcano. The crisis is deep, not shallow. No Syrian side should think that they alone can emerge victorious in this battle. Syrians cannot win over other Syrians. Victory comes from the Syrians themselves.
The Syrian minister is shocked by being called a traitor.
“How could they accuse me of treason and, at the same time, charge the regime with killing my son?” he asks.
Haidar refuses to preempt the investigation into the assassination of his son Ismail.
He believes that the operation was under the direction of a country in the region, which drew up a list of names for assassination. His son was one of them.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition of Al-Akhbar.