Syrian Coalition member: Expect Syrian regime's fall before end of January
As concerns grow that the Syrian regime may be readying chemical weapons and could be desperate enough to use them, an İstanbul-based member of the Syrian National Coalition told Monday Talk that the regime is likely to fall before the end of January.

"My guess is that if al-Assad does not use chemical weapons and commit mass killings, the regime will fall before the end of the first month of the New Year," said Khaled Khoja, formerly spokesperson for the Syrian National Council (SNC) and now a member of the Syrian National Coalition that was established on Nov. 12.

Khoja noted that the Syrian regime only has power in the centers of certain cities, especially Aleppo, but that 70 percent of Syrian territory has been liberated by the opposition.

"The regime has ... control of a civilian and a military airport, and this is how it can still support its air attacks," he added.

Khoja said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades, has changed his location in Syria quite frequently in a reminder of the final days of the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"East of Damascus is totally liberated, [and] west of Damascus is falling as well. Humanitarian assistance can reach ... Deraa at the border with Jordan all the way from Turkey," he said.

Formed in Qatar in November, the Syrian National Coalition was first recognized by Turkey, Britain, France and the Gulf Cooperation Council and later the United States as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

The coalition will soon open an office in İstanbul, headed by Syria's former deputy oil minister, Abdo Hussameddin, and Khoja said they are talking with Turkish officials to establish another office at the Turkish-Syrian border, possibly near Reyhanlı, to organize all the aid going to the Syrian people.

Answering our questions, Khoja elaborated on the 21-month conflict that has killed at least 40,000 people.

*** You studied political science, and then medicine. You manage hospitals in Turkey. How did you find yourself in this struggle for a new Syria? Would you share this with us?

When I came to Turkey, I wanted to forget everything that I left behind in Syria because I really had a bad experience as a child. Not only I was arrested, so were my relatives. My maternal uncle was tortured in front of me and then he was executed. My father and I were in the same prison; I was hearing the sounds of torture that he was subjected to. And I knew that my mother was in the same prison… It was tough. That's why I wanted to forget about Syria. I really tried hard to forget it. But then an uprising started in Syria, and especially in Deraa; a child of 13 years of age, Hamza al-Khatib, was arrested and killed under torture. This reminded me of my own life story. I felt like I had to do something. I felt like I need[ed] to tell about how life is in Turkey in regards to democratic development. This felt like [a] duty to me. Remembering what has been done to Hamza Khatib, I felt like I [had] nothing to lose.

*** Would you tell us how the SNC, the Syrian National Council, was established and why it was not functioning as desired?

Before the council was established, we had several meetings and congresses with [a] variety of people, including former politicians who were banned from Baath. There were congresses in [the] İstanbul and Antalya provinces of Turkey. There were 20 people meeting in İstanbul at the time. We determined the political, ideological, ethnic and demographic structure of the SNC in its initial phase. We determined that there could be 50 people in the SNC, but we ended up with 75 people. However, the structure represented everybody except the Muslim Brotherhood; it was an exemplary structure, really reflecting Syria. Then, we saw the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood and the people who announced the Damascus Declaration as well. At the end, the number of people at the SNC reached 400; there was even more participation later, but we lowered the number of people to 400. Then, our initial plans for the structure of the SNC were spoiled.

*** This must have been quite an experience for Syrians who had not seen democracy at work for a long time, right?

Yes, there was variety, a really pluralistic structure. Our Cairo Declaration showed that. We even had a roadmap for how the transition period for the future of Syria should be developed. We also emphasized the territorial integrity of Syria. This was a real success.

*** What was lacking in the SNC?

At the beginning, the protests to criticize the Syrian regime were peaceful, and the representatives of the SNC were protesting. In time, the protests ended and there started an armed struggle. The armed struggle has spread all over Syria, and the number of participants has reached hundreds of thousands. In liberated areas ... civilian local administrations started to be formed; there have been local security forces established. The representatives of those local forces had to be in the SNC, but the SNC has not been adapting itself fast enough to those changes. Therefore, [the] SNC has been weakened. There was a need to form a new structure to unify all these new elements, including the new elements at the local level and the people who broke away from the regime.

And this is how the idea for the Syrian National Coalition [was] developed. The coalition has about 64 members and reflects all new developments; for example, there are representatives from the local administrations -- 14 members from 14 provinces in Syria -- and there are 22 representatives from the Syrian National Council. In addition, there are nationally respected names included.

*** There were expectations by the Syrian National Council that it would receive outside support in the form of an enforced no-fly zone along with a safe zone at the Turkish border as well as some kind of NATO-supported military action. Since this has not been realized, is there a lot of dismay?

Yes, we were seeking outside support and there was a lot of talk of support, but no concrete action for support for the Syrian National Council. Real support has come from Turkey, and more recently from Qatar.

***There have been reports recently of $8 million donated by Qatar.

At the beginning, Qatar donated this amount to the Syrian National Council, and then $15 million. The United Arab Emirates donated $5 million to the council, and Libya donated $20 million. Turkey has spent about $500 million for all the support it has been providing -- that includes its support for about 200,000 Syrian refugees and Turkey's losses [in] trade with Syria.

*** The head of the coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, was in Turkey for an official visit recently and met with the leaders of Turkey and the Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. What were the issues discussed?

Our priority has been sending humanitarian aid to the people of Syria. We want to establish an office at the Turkish-Syrian border, possibly near Reyhanlı or elsewhere, in order to organize all aid going to Syrian people. The coalition wants to open an office in İstanbul, and this was accepted by the Turkish government. Our İstanbul representative will be Abdo Hussameddin, former deputy oil and mineral wealth minister of Syria [who defected in March to the opposition from Bashar al-Assad's government]. We also would like to establish a legal committee ... to legalize the local administrations formed by the opposition forces against the Syrian regime. We are of course working to announce a government in Syria, but we need to be careful. The Cairo conclusions constitute the first real blueprint of the political and operational framework of a future free Syrian government. The text provides the basic ingredients of a future Syrian democracy, which are national unity and territorial integrity of the state, Syrian-led political solutions to the conflict, [the] inclusion of all components of Syrian society in the democratic process, a commitment to respecting human rights and recognition of the National Coalition's legitimacy. In addition, we worked on forming 10 days ago the military commandership for the future government of Syria in a meeting in Antalya.

*** You mentioned the pluralistic structure of the coalition and your emphasis on this issue with the National Covenant at the Cairo meeting. Would you tell which forces remain outside the coalition despite all these efforts?

It is impossible to please all. For example, the Kurdish National Council -- they did not participate in the coalition because they have been supporting a document which would be flexible in its approach to autonomous structures within Syria. Secondly, the Kurdish National Council asked for the recognition of the Kurdish national identity in the main documents of the coalition with rights on ... Syrian soil. The coalition evaluated this demand ... preparation [for] Kurdish independence in Syria and did not accept it. They also demanded that the Kurdish National Council ... be accepted as the sole representative of the Kurds of Syria. However, the coalition said that the coalition is an umbrella organization, and those who wish to stay out of it can stay out because the coalition consists of Arabs, Turkmen, Alawites, Druze, Christians, communists, seculars, conservative people, etc. Once we destroy this mosaic, there [will be] no end to it. This mosaic means something if it has unity. Our National Pact tries to keep the mosaic together, and no other group of people in the coalition wanted to damage this mosaic.

*** What is the situation with the al-Nusra Front, which is believed to be linked to al-Qaeda and responsible for hundreds of violent attacks in Syrian cities?

Al-Nusra Front does not have any representatives in the coalition, neither politically nor militarily. I should make a note that all criticisms against the front are coming from outside, and they are not accepted by the Syrian people. When the al-Nusra Front was blacklisted as a terrorist organization recently, some Syrian people ... supported the front and said that the only terrorist is the Bashar al-Assad regime. In Syria, they are perceived as Jihadists with a goal to overthrow the al-Assad regime. They are also considered ... the best-trained and most experienced fighters. Al-Nusra does not have ideological expressions or political aspirations like al-Qaeda, even though it is believed to have ties to ... al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda of Iraq is not the equivalent of al-Nusra. One of our female secular leaders especially wanted to have talks with the representatives of the al-Nusra Front and came back with quite striking observations. She told us how perceptions differ from reality. We should note that the Syrian people have been expressing that they are against violent acts. If you go to Aleppo today, in prisons, you will not only see people from Shabiha but also people from the Free Syrian Army [FSA].

*** In the meantime, Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa has come up with an initiative. Is there any significance to that?

For the first time, al-Sharaa expressed that this was a war -- before, the Syrian regime would say that thugs were fighting against the Syrian regime -- and both sides need to [put down their] arms. This seems like dictated words by al-Assad to al-Sharaa in order to seek an exit for al-Assad. A similar approach was suggested by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, But this [is] too little too late. Since ... Brahimi's suggestions, months have passed. ... More people [have died] since then. Syrian people would not ... sit [at a] table with al-Assad.

*** There was a recent news report in Turkey's Radikal daily about a new formula proposed by Turkey for the Syrian crisis, and this plan would see the exit of al-Assad by March of next year, allowing the newly recognized political and military wings of the opposition to lead the transition process in the country. What are your views on this?

This news report has not been confirmed. However, the important thing is that now we are talking about the end of al-Assad. Syrian people would never like to have a government with al-Assad. Previous initiatives have not talked about al-Assad's fall. Let's say Americans and Russians have [made] an agreement on Syria. Would the Free Syrian Army [lay down its] arms? No. A solution in Syria should be a kind of solution which would be acceptable to the Syrian people. There are local administrations in Syria now. There is no Syrian regime but Shabiha. Even the presidential palace has been targeted by the opposition. My guess is that if al-Assad does not use chemical weapons and commit mass killings, the regime will fall before the end of the first month of the New Year.

*** When the Syrian uprising started, some observers expected a quick fall of the Syrian regime. You did not think along this same line. Would you tell us why?

Those observers were probably thinking about the results in other Arab countries' uprisings. However, Syrian people knew from the beginning that they [were] in a long fight because there has been a dictatorship regime for the past 40 years surrounding all areas of life, from politics to [the] economy and from intelligence to [the] military. Intelligence has penetrated even into the families in Syria. I was released from ... prison on the condition that I was going to inform the authorities weekly about [my] family members' and friends' activities. Since I [did not do] that, I was imprisoned again. It's been this bad for Syrians; therefore, Syrians knew that they [were in] for the long haul in their fight against the regime. Intelligence, or Mukhabarat, has been a very important institution for the Syrian regime. Mukhabarat has even more importance to the Syrian regime than the Syrian military. I saw high-ranking military officers being tortured or insulted by a low-ranking Mukhabarat officer. Syrians knew that this regime was a killer and terrorist regime, and they also knew that they [would] not be slaves forever. In a former interview, I had said that al-Assad's fall [would] not be quick and would take at least one-and-a-half years.

*** There have been quite a number of high-level defections, including senior military and security officers, cabinet members, parliamentarians and diplomats.

In addition, all businesspeople defected. The regime has been weakened indeed, and if there was an outside push, it would have ... collapsed, but it was left to decay from within. Syria's regime continues only in the centers of certain cities, especially in Aleppo. Seventy percent of ... Syrian territory has been liberated by the opposition. The regime has ... control of a civilian and a military airport, and this is how it can still support its air attacks.

*** Where do you think Bashar al-Assad is? In Aleppo?

He is not in Aleppo. You and I can go to Aleppo together, tomorrow. East of Damascus is totally liberated, [and] west of Damascus is falling as well. Humanitarian assistance can reach ... Deraa at the border with Jordan all the way from Turkey. Al-Assad is constantly changing places; it is certain that he is not in his palace. He can still use his air force, and this is why he still survives. There is a chance that he can use chemical weapons. He used some chemical weapons already, in limited areas. Only al-Assad, his two uncles and brother are in Syria. All other members of his family are in the United Kingdom and Greece. As I said, al-Assad changes his place frequently, [a reminder of] the final days of Saddam Hussein.

Khaled Khoja
Formerly the spokesperson for the SNC, Khaled Khoja is now a member of the Syrian National Coalition, which was established on Nov. 12. He was born in 1965 in Damascus to a Turkish family. As his father had been engaged in activities against the regime of then-President Hafez al-Assad, he and his family were arrested in 1980 when he was 15. He was kept in prison for two years before escaping to Turkey to live with his relatives. He completed part of his education in Libya and returned to Turkey in 1985. He graduated from the faculty of medicine at İzmir University in 1995, after initially studying political science. He opened private clinics in various areas of Turkey. His father and mother, released from prison in Syria 13 and five years later, respectively, went on to live in Dubai as they had to leave Syria. They were sought after by the Syrian regime because of Khaled Khoja's support of protesters of the regime. (Cihan/Today's Zaman) CİHAN
Last Modified: 2012-12-23 18:00:02
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