November 24, 2013
By Jacob Wirtschafter and Abdulrahman al-Masri
AMMAN: In July 2011, Doctor Kamal al-Labwani was given a chance to leave his cell in the Adra prison 25 km northeast of his home in the outer Damascus town of Zabadani.
“How much time is left in your sentence?” asked an official who identified himself as a messenger from the presidential palace.
“How would you feel if you could leave today?” teased Bashar al-Assad’s emissary.
Al-Labwani, who had been detained on political charges in 1980, imprisoned between 2001 and 2004 and imprisoned again in 2009, listened to the government’s offer.
“You can leave but we want you to talk about two things,” said the presidential messenger.
The official told al-Labwani to “speak out against calls for international intervention in Syria and refuse to support the armed opposition.” In exchange, al-Labwani would have opportunities to appear on regime friendly TV stations and permission to speak to the international press.
“We’ll give you a roof way higher than we’ve given anyone else,” the official assured him.
Kamal al-Labwani, who rejected a deal from the regime for his release from prison in 2011, now believes the Syrian National Coalition will not attend Geneva II until the regime is defeated inside Syria. Photo courtesy of SNC.
Al-Labwani refused the offer and served his full sentence, after which he fled the country, eventually obtaining asylum in Sweden.
The government has drawn boundaries for a small cluster of non-Baathist politicians known as the National Opposition: these politicians must denounce the opposition’s armed resistance to the regime and criticize calls for foreign intervention in Syria.
“This is the deal that Qadri Jamil took,” said al-Labwani, referring to the former Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the small Marxist “People’s Will Party.” Jamil was relieved of his post last month after a meeting in Moscow with US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, for which he had not obtained official permission.
Jamil’s People’s Will Party is often omitted from the list of tolerated opposition groups, and is sometimes referred to as an example of the “loyal opposition,” which in turn has organized under the banner of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation.
Qadri Jamil, leader of the People’s Will Party, was recently relieved of his duties as the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs. Photo courtesy of kassioun.
National Coordination Committee chairman Hassan Abdel Azim, 81, and spokesman Haitham Manna, 62, have led long careers in a tightly monitored space comprising 13 left-leaning political parties, among them Saleh Musalem’s Kurdish PYD. Within this arena, their “anti-imperialist” credentials have allowed them limited room for independent expression.
Last month, UN Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi held meetings with a delegation from the National Coordination Committee in Damascus.
As media attention was drawn toward the “starving suburb” of Moadimiyet a-Sham, Hassan Abdel Azim called on Brahimi to organize an immediate ceasefire and to send aid convoys to Damascus’s blockaded suburbs.
Hassan Abdel Azim, a leader of the regime-tolerated National Coordination Committee, publicly called on U.N. Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in October to organize a ceasefire in the Damascus suburbs. Photo courtesy of Syrianncb.
Assad allowed the meeting but maintained his stranglehold on the pro-rebel suburbs.
“The regime realizes that it will have to deal with the opposition, sooner or later,” said Sami Moubayed, a Syrian historian who completed his tenure last month as a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. He added that the government-tolerated National Coordination Committee must be taken seriously if the Geneva II negotiations for a political transition in Damascus are to succeed.
“The SNC’s main components are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. The NCC is more independent. Its leaders have been hosted by Russia, for example, but they were not created by Russia,” said Moubayed.
“The Coalition doesn’t hide its Western connection. They were formed in Istanbul in 2011, whereas the National Coordination Committee was formed in Damascus,” said Moubayed, contrasting Assad’s tolerated opposition with the Istanbul-based organization that receives its funding from countries in the Friends of Syria group.
Coalition officials dismiss the notion that the National Opposition has earned its place at the bargaining table in Geneva due to a greater presence on the ground than the SNC.
“There’s this impression that the SNC is the external, the diaspora opposition. We have members who live inside Syria,” insisted Khaled Saleh, President of the Syrian National Coalition’s Media Office.
“When the chemical weapons attacks took place, we actually had coalition members inside Rif Dimashq. When the chemical weapons inspectors came, we had a coalition member organizing that on the ground with them,” said Saleh.
The coalition official insists his group will present a united front should the Geneva II talks take place, indicating that the National Opposition is free to participate alongside the regime officials who tolerated them.
“In terms of their participation in Geneva, what we know is that the opposition is going to have one delegation, and the Syrian Coalition is that delegation,” said Saleh.
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