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Q&A: Syria opposition figure Michel Kilo

In an exclusive interview, veteran Syrian opposition figure Michel Kilo tells MEE why Russia’s intervention is ‘the last throw of the dice for Assad’
Michel Kilo speaks during an 2011 interview in Damascus, before he fled Syria for Paris (AFP)

PARIS - Michel Kilo, one of Syria's leading opposition thinkers, says the revolutionary forces in his country have never been stronger and it is only a matter of time before President Bashar al-Assad is ousted and a national campaign against the Islamic State group begins.

In an exclusive interview with MEE, Kilo, a Syrian Christian, intellectual and human rights activist, said the five-year civil war has reached a turning point which finds a united Free Syrian Army facing a Syrian army that has broken down into militias and a Russian intervention unable to overcome the state's weakness.

"Either Russia agrees on a political solution quickly, which would mean sacrificing Bashar al-Assad, or they have to withdraw," Kilo told MEE.

Over the past half century, Kilo, born in Latakia in 1940, has witnessed or in some way or another participated in almost every political development in the country and had, early on in the civil war, been suggested as a potential transitional leader.

In 1980, when he was a member of the Syrian Communist Party, Kilo was imprisoned for the first time after he spoke out against then-president Hafez al-Assad's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama. He was released in 1983.

After the death in 2000 of Hafez al-Assad, Kilo was one of the leaders of what was called the "Damascus Spring," a period that saw groups of civil society leaders and intellectuals meet in forums, some even moving towards creating political parties. Political prisoners were freed and a notorious prison was closed - but the movement was fleeting, with many of the Spring leaders imprisoned within months as the new president, Bashar al-Assad, settled into his role.

In 2005, Kilo launched the Damascus Declaration, signed by a broad coalition of more than 250 opposition leaders, which called for a multiparty democracy in Syria. By 2006, he was sent back to jail after promoting the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, which called on Syria to recognise Lebanese sovereignty.

After serving a three-year prison sentence, Kilo moved to Paris in 2009.

The uprisings that flared across Syria in 2011 were led by Syrian civil society, but Assad, he said, used "extreme violence" that eventually separated different groups and sects.

"He put the leaders of the revolution under extreme pressure, both confessional and military. Assad did everything he could to make sure Islamic extremists led the revolution, so that the peaceful leadership would be extinguished," he said.

Kilo told MEE that he urged the country's Orthodox church to back the revolution, but instead they chose to stand with the government, committing, he said, "a grave sin".

He describes a Syrian opposition that, though war-torn and combatting both the Syrian army and now Russian forces and split into many groups, could still unite around a desire for freedom and against the Islamic State group (IS), also referred to by the Arabic acronym Daesh.

"Ninety percent of those who are fighting under the banner of Islam are against Daesh," he said. "Civil society in Syria is against Daesh, against any form of political extremism."

MEE: You are an influential voice in the Syrian Christian community.

Michel Kilo: I have never considered myself a voice of the Christian community in Syria. There is no chance for Christians if they cannot adapt to secular ways, because sectarian diversity can actually destroy the country. George Tarabishi [a Syrian writer] is a respected thinker and he once wrote that secularism is the way to stop a civil war, even within the Islamic confession. I think this is true.

MEE: How did the Syrian Christians react to the initial demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad?

MK: We consider the Orthodox church the national church. As for the other churches in Syria, their point of view is Western - the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the Catholics and others. When their leader and representative chose to stand with the regime, the Orthodox church in Syria committed a grave sin.

A sizeable majority of Christian Syrians were against the regime, and they saw the revolution as a way to get their freedom. There was great sympathy with the revolution, especially among the youth, and many of them participated in the protests. Many used to go to the mosques because that is where the demonstrations started. A lot of them did not know Muslim rituals, so in order not to embarrass them, the imams asked them to stand in a special place within the mosque during prayers.

In a Damascus neighbourhood, they established a coordination committee, the majority of which were Christians. In another neighbourhood, 22 Christian girls participated in a Muslim funeral. When the imams saw they were coming, and they knew they were Christians because they were not wearing the hijab, the imam told the congregation: “Whenever I say Allahu Akbar, you say; ‘God is love’.”

MEE: Did all strata of the community react in the same way?

MK: At that time the revolution was in its spring. It was peaceful. It took the shape of a national festival, a sort of Eid. Everyone participated in it, in increasing numbers, although the regime started using live fire against the protesters. The majority of the protesters were youths. It is what you would call civil society.

Christians took a different direction. The youth were with the revolution, the middle-class Christians were neutral or undecided, and the church leaders were with the regime. One of the deputies of the Patriarch called the intelligence apparatus to arrest the youths, who had come to his office to protest about the church’s stance. This was in spite of the fact there was nothing to show at the time that the Orthodox clergy were pro-regime. The Catholic and Maronite clergy were with the regime, although they were always complaining that the regime was forcing them to take a clear stance in their favour. 

MEE: Can you describe how you attempted to mediate with the Orthodox leaders?

MK: I was a good friend of the Orthodox Patriarch, Ignatius IV Hazim [Orthodox Church of Antioch and All The East from 1979 to 2012]. He asked me to give him monthly briefings about the situation in Syria. When I was arrested, he called Bashar al-Assad and demanded my release. And he said to my wife: “One party sees nobody but himself. We are all prisoners of Bashar.” I told him that Syrian society would go with the Arab Spring and that it was imperative for the church to take a stand against violence in order to prevent a prolonged crisis, because the regime had decided to use violence against the people.

Tawfiq Younes, a general in internal security [Head of the Department for Internal Security of the General Intelligence Directorate, who was sanctioned by the EU for violence against demonstrators], summoned me for a meeting one month before the revolution erupted. He asked me: “Are you going to organise demonstrations?” I told him: “If they are peaceful and call for reform, certainly.” He told me: “Reform or not, demonstrations are banned. We are going to kill anyone who demonstrates in the street. We are the ones who decide when we want to reform and you are participating in a Zionist conspiracy against the country.” I told the Patriarch there were going to be demonstrations and that they would be met by violence from the regime. Therefore the church must call for peace, condemn violence, and call for a solution for the country. 

Four months after the revolution, there was no sign that this revolution was an Islamic one. There were no Islamic communiques, no Islamic leader emerged, and Islamic groups claimed no operations. The Patriarch told me: “If demonstrations are going to be organised, they are going to take an Islamic character. The one who knows is better than the one who does not. We will invite the president in a cordial event and we will tell him we don’t want an Islamic revolution in Syria.”

I told him: “Your honour, so the church wants to exchange pleasantries with the president? A whole nation is at stake. Is this the attitude of the church towards a nation that is demanding its rights? It is going to be difficult for you to preserve Christianity when it stands against the aspiration of the Syrian nation. You are imperilling the church itself.”

I wrote an article with the title “A Church for the People”. I said that the church is not for Christians only. It’s for the whole country, to serve the whole of society. And its role is to make Christians part of society, not part of the region. And it should join Syrians who are calling for their freedom, especially as Christians and non-Christians will all benefit when the regime goes. It’s immoral for people to die for a revolution that will benefit Christians, while the church is working against them.

I asked him: “Your honour, if Jesus Christ were here now, on whose side would he be? Would he be in a tank killing people, or would he be among the demonstrators calling for freedom? If you can’t defend the freedom of the Syrians, you should stand down.” Sadly, the leadership of the church did not. 

MEE: What happened to Christians when Islamists appeared on the scene?

MK: After the Islamic phenomena appeared on the surface, it frightened the Christians and they stopped participating in the revolution, and they became closer to the church leaders and the regime. The middle class, formerly neutral and sympathetic, changed sides. The youth who supported the revolution were eradicated, as was civil society, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Then the regime started arming Christian groups on a sectarian basis against Muslims. The Christian shabiha vigilantes committed atrocities. They took over a town called Marmarita, which is close to a village called Azara. The regime took over Azara and Castle des Chevaliers. One of them killed 400 residents in one week and threw their bodies into the Southern Great River.

I accused these militias on social media of these crimes. They told me they were going to kill my brothers, my nephews and their nephews in Latakia. I wrote an open letter to the interior minister responsible for reconciliation. I wrote: “You said these crimes were the work of infiltrators, but we have got the names. These are your enemies. Go and arrest them.” Nothing happened. I talked to the Free Syrian Army.

MEE: There are those who now claim the revolution was armed from the start.

MK: The regime knew that the revolution was led by civil society and that the carrier of the revolution was traditional society. Assad went about separating society by using extreme violence. In other words, he put the leaders of the revolution under extreme pressure, both confessional and military. Assad did everything he could to make sure Islamic extremists led the revolution so that the peaceful leadership would be extinguished.

Like everyone else, the Christian youth fell under a wave of extreme repression and they were almost annihilated. He released 85 Islamists from prison. One of them announced on film that he had made a chemical weapon, which he had tested on rats, and he would use this gas against the Eighth Army in the coming days. This was two years before the gas attacks in Goutha.

MEE: What has been the effect of the Russian airstrikes?

MK: The Free Syrian Army has become the strongest opposition force in the areas where the regime is in control. The FSA is the biggest military threat to the regime, not Daesh. Daesh controls areas that are far from the heartland of the regime, like Homs, Hama, and Damascus. [Jabhat al-]Nusra is fighting the Free Syrian Army, but it has a very acrimonious relationship with Daesh. Nusra [also known as the al-Nusra Front] does not have enough forces to threaten the regime.

Russian aircraft do not attack targets other than the Free Syrian Army. Only a few attacks are launched against Nusra and Daesh. Two weeks ago Daesh sent a convoy of 1,000 soldiers from Azaz. The convoy was out in the open. Russian planes were in the air but did not attack them. They attacked Aleppo instead.

Russia announced it had destroyed 94 terrorist headquarters, as if any sane person would believe that. Russia does not distinguish between moderate and extremist opponents - anyone who fights against the regime is a terrorist. Yesterday Russian planes attacked one of the branches of Daesh in Raqqa. Daesh has a chemical weapons factory in the area near an army base called Unit 17. Russia knows that, and so do the Americans. In that factory, there are containers with depleted uranium from Iraq. The Syrian army left chemical manufacturing equipment in Tabaqa airport, near Raqqa. And the chlorine gas Daesh is using was manufactured by equipment left by the Syrian Army.

The battle being waged is against the Free Syrian Army and the civilians living in areas under their control and, until now, the Syrian Army has not made great progress. The reason is because there is nothing left of the Syrian Army. It has become a series of small militias, and what is called the Defence Army is organised and run by Iranian generals and officers. It is not under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s army is too weak to make a difference on the ground, despite the relative success of the Russian attacks.

There are those who say the Russians have intervened to weaken the influence of Iran on Syria and lever Assad out of power. Russia does not have enough power on the ground to weaken Iranian forces. Those forces are much stronger than what Russia has on the ground thus far. Iran has just announced it will increase its forces. When the names of its dead soldiers are published, they are all generals high up in the Iranian army. It’s difficult to say how many there are. My estimate is about 6,000, and if you include Hezbollah and its soldiers it’s not possible for Russia to weaken them.

MEE: What are the future scenarios for the war?

MK: It’s difficult to say. There are many variants. If any Arab country supplied the Free Syrian Army with surface-to-air missiles, the situation would be very difficult for the Russians. The Syrian army is not able to make any difference on the ground. If the Americans decided to turn Syria into a Russian quagmire, then Russia will be forced to send in ground troops, and then itself become hostage to the conflict.

Either Russia agrees on a political solution quickly, which would mean sacrificing Bashar al-Assad, or they have to withdraw. According to our information, Russia does not have the capacity to fight a long campaign in Syria, and is not in a position to keep the balance of power with the Iranians in Syria, especially as Iran is increasing its forces in Syria.

On the rebel side, the Free Syrian Army has unified its forces in four regions and they have established a unified leadership. They have control over a force ranging between 35,000 and 50,000 battle-hardened troops. As the Syrian Army has fractured into militias, the militias of the rebels have transformed themselves into an army.

MEE: So you are optimistic that the FSA will win?

MK: Yes, I am optimistic the FSA will withstand the Russian offensive. I think this is the last throw of the dice for Assad. There are now possibilities which will open the door to a political solution, but only if there is a Russian defeat. The revolution is now the strongest that it has ever been since it broke out, and certainly in the last two or three years the regime really has been weakened. The Iranians are in a real trap, and Russia lacks the force to bring a decisive outcome to the conflict. 

MEE: The Americans say that if Damascus fell in these circumstances there would be a bloodbath.

MK: There is going to be turmoil because society is totally destroyed, and the state itself destroyed it. The current political class is going to be replaced by a new one. Because of the disappointment and disillusionment of Syrians, and the problems involved in moving Syria from the state that it is in to a better alternative - turmoil, strife and conflict are inevitable. Are there going to be massacres? I don’t think so. There will be violence in some places, but there will not be organised massacres, similar to the ones the regime organised against the people in the past four years.

The world is worried about what will happen to the Alawites, but the regime itself organised a massacre against them. In the name of defending them from massacres, Bashar got them involved in a battle in which they lost 50,000. They are not going to face a similar massacre in the future. The democratic forces in Syria will not allow it.

Syrian society is organising itself through democratic procedures in all the places that have been liberated from the regime. There are 3,000 elected councils in the liberated areas. This Syria will not allow massacres against such an essential component of society who are called Alawites. We cannot imagine Syria without Alawites, Kurds, Christians, Muslims and Cherkessians.

MEE: How will the tyranny of ISIS end?

MK: There have been demonstrations against Daesh everywhere they entered. Daesh suppressed Muslims. This is a point that many Europeans have not understood. A Muslim who does not follow Daesh is considered a traitor and infidel, and they will be killed. If you are an atheist, however, you are more likely to be spared because one day you could be converted. A Muslim is killed straight away. Christians who decided to stay in Mosul or Raqqa and pay protection money are not bothered. Of course they are not allowed to worship, or show any religious symbols in public, but their lives are protected.

Daesh is not a Syrian phenomenon. It’s Iraqi. It is a product of a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia in Iraq. In Syria, we don’t have a lot of Shia. In Iraq, it was obvious that Sunnis lost power in the fall of Saddam, and when the Shia came to power they did so with a vengeance.

This problem does not exist in Syria. In Syria, one regime has suppressed everyone - the Sunnis, Shia, Alawites - everyone. Bashar turned a revolution for freedom into a sectarian fight, and Daesh and extremist Muslims helped him to do so. Syrian people were never militant. The last sectarian conflict to happen in Syria was in 1860. It lasted for three days in Damascus and after that it was over. We are not Iraq or Lebanon, where there are sectarian political factions.

The only faction that is organised and in power are the Alawites, this is why it looks like a war between the Alawites and the rest of society. This is a mistake because the war in Syria is not about Alawite power. There is Sunni, Christian bourgeois. The Alawites are the majority in the security forces, administration and political positions. But power itself is not an Alawite power. The regime sees itself as a secular one. In Syria the president is a deity. He is a messianic leader. He is the leader of a religious fraternity, because he is the real god. It is not atheist. It’s like a religion, a religion of the secret services, the army.

After the fall of the regime, there is going to be a national campaign against ISIS. Ninety percent of those who are fighting under the banner of Islam are against Daesh. Civil society in Syria is against Daesh, against any form of political extremism.

MEE: Does the Arab Spring still exist in Syria?

MK: This is the first revolution that we have witnessed in a history of Syria that goes back 2,000 years. We do not have in our political thought the idea of freedom, and also the idea of the individual or the state, or justice, or equality. Today we have a revolution whose symbols and principles are based on the idea of freedom. Civil society, which traditionally was ideologically conservative, is leading the fight for freedom, and making huge sacrifices for it. It went out on to the streets demanding freedom for a united Syria.

It was without weapons and an army, but it succeeded in organising itself and defended itself against the attacks of the regime. By the end of 2012 it managed to expel the regime from 65 percent of the territory and was steadfast against Hezbollah and Iraqi mercenaries. It stood against Iran and is standing today against Russia.

The secularists have not given the revolution a political programme, and because of that the revolution fights with a religious identity without renouncing the principle of freedom. This is a very important development the like of which has never been witnessed in Syria’s history.

The revolution happened throughout Syria. Those organisations that raised the symbols of Islam with Islamic names are rediscovering their national identity and all of them are raising the flag of the revolution. They will accept a parliamentary system based on elections and they all speak about a Syria that is tolerant, and that all Syrians have the right to freedom - be they Druze, Alawite, Christians and other parts of Syrian society. This development, in addition to what might be called a national army, will have the final say in the revolution and the battle of Syria.

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