Riad Seif

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You are Riad Seif, the President of The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (aka, the Syrian National Council), the first organization to be recognized as the legitimate alternative leadership of the Syrian nation.

File:Seif.jpg

Notable Quotes

“Syrians living abroad…are ready to return, at any moment, in order to participate in the building of our country."

"The basic motivation for the Syrian revolution is the people's sense of honor, followed by the desire for freedom. Of course, you cannot separate the two.”

“My next plan is to direct the coalition back to its original role – On November 11, 2012, it was formed to represent the leadership of the Syrian people in the liberated regions, to mobilize all potentials to oust the regime, and to provide the services and needs of Syrians in these regions.”

Your story & the challenges you face

Born in 1946 in Damascus, you were an industrialist before you successfully ran for a seat in People’s Assembly in 1994. You became a strong voice against official corruption and in support of economic liberalization, and in the heady days of 2000 when Bashir al-Assad took over the leadership of Syria from his father, there were fleeting signs that the country would open up politically and economically. This “moment” was short-lived, though, and by 2001 you were a target of the government for your public statements criticizing government-enforced mobile phone monopolies (that benefitted members of the Assad family).

Around this time, you formed the Forum for National Dialogue, an informal gathering of people who came to advocate for greater human rights in Syria that grew quickly to include hundreds of members. Late in 2001 you were arrested, charged with “defying the state and trying to change the constitution by illegal means,” and were sentenced to five years in prison. Your troubles with the government persisted after your release, and you were first forbidden to leave the country to seek treatment for prostate cancer, and later, in 2008, you were sentenced to prison again, this time for leading a civil society organization called the Damascus Declaration. You and several other leaders of this pro-Democracy organization were charged with "broadcasting false or exaggerated news which could affect the morale of the country,” and with "inciting sectarian strife,” which resulted in your being sentenced to an additional two and a half years in prison. The street protests which ultimately led to the rebellion against the Assad Regime began in 2011, soon after your release, and you were an active presence in the political opposition, and in what became the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, being selected first as a vice-president of the opposition government in 2012, and then being chosen as its president in May 2017.

Your group represents the majority of the political opposition groups fighting against the Assad Regime, but there are a huge number of groups engaged in this fight. These groups have widely varying ideas of what Syria should look like after the conflict is over. You are tasked with the difficult job of bringing them all together into a functioning government, removing Assad from power, proving to the world that you are a representative government capable of being trusted, and creating a lasting free government. This is no small task. Indeed, each of your predecessors grew frustrated over the ongoing dissension in the ranks of the opposition, and its inability to work together.

Your work is complicated by the fractured nature of the opposition, and part of your problem is that the militant Islamist elements of the opposition have had more military success in recent years, while your western supporters remain wary of getting too involved in Syria, partly because they fear that their military aid will fall into the hands of radical Islamists. The situation on the ground has also been markedly changed by the active engagement, since 2015, of Russian forces in Syria backing the Assad government.

Goals

You have one central and driving goal, and that is to create a unified Syria. Here, it is important to recognize that Syria, even under Assad, has never truly been unified. The nation has always been split along sectarian lines. Alewites and other minorities have controlled the levers of power since the establishment of the Assad regime. Your goal is to create a Syria where ethnic lines do not divide the populace or hinder their opportunities. This means that you have to be an inclusive leader, willing to work with everyone from the Islamist groups to the Alewite minority. It will be difficult, but you must be willing to listen to the concerns of all groups and establish a government that does not fracture again along sectarian lines.

One of the chief challenges you will have to overcome is the portrayal of the revolution as an Islamic revolution. Less than 8% of the combatants in Syria are members of Al-Qaeda or are linked to the group. However, those extremist fringe elements have been attempting to portray themselves as major contributors. Assad's regime has made things worse by painting the entire revolutionary movement as Islamist extremists, part of Assad’s attempt to portray himself as the only hope for a secular government in Syria. As a moderate Sunni Muslim it will be your difficult duty to control the message. You will be required to demonstrate to all watching that you are creating a nation for all Syrians, not just Sunnis. You have had some degree of success in this already. The Free Syrian Army, a group of Syrian Army defectors and the largest single contributor to the armed resistance, has agreed to work with your organization. Originally afraid of Islamist influences, the FSA has decided to trust in your leadership, at least for now.

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the group that you lead, is located in Istanbul, far from the front. This hampers your ability to act as a leader within Syria. The fact that rebel forces hold so little land also limits your ability to act as a governing body. Still, you have several important goals, the first of which is preserving your sovereignty. You will be forced to get aid from other nations to help fight against Assad. This aid will be in the form of material and money. However, your situation bears out the old cliche that nothing in life is free. In the past, nations have lent money and arms with preconditions, and sometimes these conditions would lead to a nation's policies being dictated from abroad. By making sovereignty your primary goal, you have sent a strong signal to everyone that Syria must ultimately be ruled by Syrians. You acknowledge and actively pursue foreign support, however, you will not sacrifice the right of your nation to govern itself.

Your second goal is preserving the geographic unity of Syria, a goal that will be very difficult for you to attain. As was stated before, Syria is split along sectarian lines. Most of the Alewites live in a very small, wealthy, and well-protected portion of Syria. Many analysts believe that Assad does not absolutely need to retain control of all of Syria, but rather only the Alewite portion of the nation. To do so, he will attempt to turn the conflict into a sectarian one, one that attempts to paint you as an aggressor who is seeking to harm the Alewites. The goal here being that the Alewites will break from Syria and create a new and separate nation. From your point of view, this would be massively damaging to Syria's future. For decades the Alewite minority has concentrated the wealth and power of Syria, and to see them break off would create a rift in the Syrian economy and would hamstring your efforts to rebuild the nation. Imagine if the state of New York were to lose New York City, would the State survive? Probably, but it would lose a truly vital asset. Your goal is to preserve Syria as a complete nation; Syria must remain intact.

This leads directly into your final point, which is that the people must remain united. The key to geographic unity is the unity of the people. If the Alewites break away, they will be able to defend their land. Your trick will be to control your forces, and make it clear that they are not targeting Alewites, Shiites and other minorities for reprisals. Assad has made this task particularly difficult. His troops have waged a targeted war against Sunni sections of the country. They have attacked bakeries, apartments, and hospitals, all in an effort to punish the Sunni majority. Your task will be to retake Syria, without making the Alewites feel as though they are being targeted for reprisals. This is a tall order. Currently your forces are fighting in Sunni held land, but what will happen if they begin closing in on Alewites neighborhoods? Many a man will be tempted to inflict vengeance upon those they see as backing the man who killed their relatives. You understand that this will tear apart your country, and you must do your utmost to make sure that this doesn't happen.

In order to avoid such dangers, you have pushed the idea of political rather than military transition. This would allow for the transfer of power without the need to expose the entire nation to the ravages of war. However, you have made it clear that Assad and the other "symbols of his regime" must be removed before any transition is made. In other nations that have gone through political transition, like Egypt, remnants of the original government have hampered the transition government. By insuring that these aspects have been removed, you hope to achieve a much smoother transition. International pressure is going to be key to the removal of Assad. You must get his supporters, like Iran and Russia, to cut the financial and military support they've been providing, and this will NOT be easy. So long as Assad has the resources to fight, he will.

Your last goal is probably your most important; the pursuit of a pluralistic, civil, and democratic state. This is a signal to all those who oppose you that you are not attempting to establish a caliphate, a dictatorship, or any other form of totalitarian government. Rather, you and your allies are aligned to bring freedom from dictatorship to all of Syria's citizens. This must be your trumpet call, and you must do all that you can to convince the minorities of Syria that to side with you will not be to surrender their rights, but rather to ensure that they are protected.

Powers

So, what power do you have to achieve this? Not much. International recognition has made you the de facto borrowing power for Syria. This means that all money and aid coming into the Syrian opposition should theoretically go to your government. This gives you some leverage when dealing with rebel groups. Those who agree to follow you, such as the Free Syrian Army, can be given arms, money, and other material supplies. It also allows you to invest what limited funds you have in the rebuilding of bombed out areas, a demonstration that another option to Assad's government does exist. Still, the funds are limited, and your ability to control rebel groups is linked to those tiny purse strings. To this end, you must secure more funds and aid from the international community. This means demonstrating that your forces are interested in freedom for all, not in the creation of an Islamist nation. It means demonstrating that you are capable and willing to engage in responsible ruling and that you will respect international norms. Essentially, you have to sell the idea of a new Syria to the world community. Several major players are sitting on the sidelines. Nations like the U.S. and France have provided some non-lethal aid and some funds, but you need much more. You must engage these nations in discourse and determine what is necessary for them to back you more fully.

On the flip side of this, you must push for stronger sanctions on Syria. You must do all that you can to cast shame on those nations who would support the dictatorship of Assad. Already, countries like Russia are beginning to feel the international pressure. But, it will take much more for them to abandon their allies. Groups like Hezbollah might prove easier to convince. You must make it clear to such nations or groups that your side will be the winner, that you will establish a viable government, and that it is in their best interests to stop aiding Assad.


Israel and Palestine

Here, like everywhere else in the Middle East, the Israeli Palestinian conflict plays a role. Your coalition is not known for having a good relationship with Israel, a point that probably strengthens your credibility with the people of your nation. You will be approached with deals that promise support if you are willing to renounce claims to the Golan Heights, or make other capitulations to Israel. These are things that you should not consider. You believe that Israel is occupying Palestinian and Lebanese lands, and that it must be made to abide by the Oslo and Camp David accords. This is a belief that you cannot be shy of espousing. There is a reason why you make it clear that you will maintain control of Syrian sovereignty; if you can be painted as being in the pocket of the U.S. and Israel it would instantly undermine your credibility as a leader.

This is not to say that you should alienate the U.S. by attacking Israel, rather it is to say that you should make clear that you support Palestine and a two state solution. You must make it clear that you are with the Arabs and support the cause of the Palestinians. Groups like Hamas have pulled their support from Assad, and Iran has punished them for it. Assad has relied on his opposition to Israel as a source of legitimacy for ages now. If you can show that you are likewise opposed to Israeli occupation, you can undercut Assad on this point.

Once again, though, you must tread carefully here. The U.S. and Israel rightly fear this revolution. They fear that your government may destabilize Israel's northern border and may lead to another war. This has made them leery about supporting you. You must strike a sweet spot here, opposing Israeli occupation while making it clear to the U.S. that you are a responsible member of the Middle East, and that Israel's security will not be jeopardized. This is not an easy task. It forces you to attempt to navigate between increased aid from abroad and increased support at home. The goal is not to lose either. Moderation is the key in this pursuit, as it is with the process of attaining most of your political goals.

There’s one other thing to keep in mind. You are well aware that the support of Russia, along with Iran and Hezbollah, has massively strengthened Assad and his forces, such that you now face almost insurmountable odds in your battle to bring democracy to Syria and to rid your nation of the Assad regime. One wild card, however, is the growing tension between Israel and both Syria and Iran, the latter of whom has a growing number of forces in Syria. Israel has been continually willing to bomb Syria, so as to eliminate what it views as military threats largely linked to Iranian support of Syria and Iranian military presence in Syria, and by 2018 it was also emboldened to act militarily against what it sees as Iranian provocations. Although it is unlikely that either Iran or Israel would be willing to push beyond skirmishes to actual military engagement, this remains a possibility, and one that could totally upset what there is of a status quo in Syria, such that the opposition forces may have an opportunity to regain their footing in Syria. The odds of things playing out to the opposition’s advantage in this way are small, but it is something for you and your allies to carefully watch.

In the end, you are still faced with a huge task and relatively few tools. However, you have no other choice but to push forward. Remember that your position is tenuous, so be careful and thoughtful in your actions, and in your decision-making.

A Final Note

All of your predecessors have found this job to be a very difficult one. There are many reasons for this, but they include the fact that the leadership, for reasons of personal safety, has been based outside of Syria. One negative consequence of this is that you’re perceived to be somewhat disengaged from the fight, and you have pledged to address this during your time in office. Your forces have also faced another kind of credibility issue, which is that it has largely been the Islamist forces that have had the greatest success making military inroads against government forces. The western powers have been reluctant to make a strong commitment in Syria, fearing getting drawn into a protracted battle, and also being concerned that weapons they might send in would fall into the hands of Islamist forces. Looked at from another perspective, many westerners were openly debating whether things might be better if Assad were to retain power, fearing the devil they don’t know (ISIS, or various al-Qaeda related militias like Jabhat al-Nusra) more than the devil they do (Assad).

Of course, making such a calculation is repugnant to you, and part of the work done by your predecessors is to gain a stronger commitment from Europe and the US to overthrowing Assad at all costs. Partly to counter their fears over growing Iranian/Shi’ite regional influence, and partly out of their desire for the kind of regional stability that will keep the oil flowing, the Saudis (along with the Turks) have been somewhat more open about supporting opposition forces, including (but not at all limited to) your forces. The Russians have helped Assad, as have the Iranians, so your forces definitely aren’t playing a strong hand. Still, there appears to be some momentum towards negotiations, and you must do your utmost to take advantage of this moment and make your case, firmly and strongly, in the media and in diplomatic negotiations.

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