November 25, 2013

As the United States, the European Union and Russia advocate for a political solution to the Syrian war, what has yet to emerge is a well-defined Syrian opposition representing the numerous opposition groups, armed and unarmed, with both on-the-ground legitimacy and the willingness to negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian National Coalition, the opposition-in-exile, has expressed its willingness to attend the Geneva II conference but has insisted that negotiations be predicated on President Bashar al-Assad’s departure. The SNC, backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia and with close ties to some Free Syrian Army factions, has been challenged by factionalism, the emerging power of Islamist groups inside Syria and difficulties in rolling out services to the residents of rebel-held areas.

Meanwhile, Bashar al-Assad’s government touts the role of the National Opposition, many of whose members live inside Syria and who purport to oppose al-Assad politically, but reject any armed uprising or foreign intervention in Syria.

Originally from Deir e-Zor, Khalid Saleh lived in Detroit, Michigan and now serves as the director of the Syrian National Coalition’s Media office in Istanbul.

In a conversation with Syria Direct’s Abdulrahman al-Masri, he insisted the SNC works with activists inside Syria, criticized the National Opposition as out of touch with the Syrian people and says the Free Syrian Army will focus on bringing down Assad, not breakaway Kurdish groups in western Syria.

Khalid Saleh

Khalid Saleh, director of the Syrian National Coalition's media office, believes Free Syrian Army battalion leaders should be present at the Geneva II conference. Photo courtesy of the Syrian National Coalition.

Q. How do you explain the difference between the Syrian National Coalition and the so-called National Opposition?

A. The Syrian Coalition is the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It represents 70 to 80 percent of the internal and external opposition. It represents the majority of the revolutionary forces on the ground. It is impossible to claim 100% representation when you have Scud missiles flying around and warplanes bombing civilian areas. But we believe we represent those people who are interested in democracy in Syria, those who have revolted against Bashar al-Assad for the past two and a half years.

Q. How does the Syrian National Coalition regard the opposition within Syria, people like Qadri Jamil, Hassan Abdul Azim, and so on?

A. We’ve been noticing over the last couple months an attempt by the regime and its allies to create a new opposition. Some of those new opposition members are members of the current government, which was overseeing the country when chemical weapons were used against Syrians 30 years ago. It really shows that the Assad regime and its allies are not serious about finding a real political solution.

Q. In the National Opposition, there is Qadri Jamil’s party—the Public Front—and there is Hassan Abdul Azim’s party, the National Coordination Committees. What are the differences between those two, and how do you see their role in Geneva II?

A. One of them I have a tough time describing as opposition. Qadri Jamil was a minister in Assad’s government. I have a tough time understanding how he can be a minister, part of the government, Deputy Prime Minister, and yet call himself opposition. Maybe it’s nice for Assad, but it doesn’t work for the Syrian people.

In terms of the NCC, some of their leaders are worlds apart from the interests and the demands of the Syrian revolution.

What we know is that the opposition is going to have one delegation, and the Syrian Coalition is that delegation.

What matters more than representation are a couple things. How do you make the negotiations successful? I can have a delegation that represents the opposition, but  ifthey don’t have any experience in negotiations, they don’t have any means of representing the street.

Number two is that we need to be able to implement whatever agreements we come to. So I think we need a lot more focus on having representatives of the different FSA brigades. Those carry a lot more weight because those are the guys who are going to be implementing the agreement that takes place in Geneva.

Q. Does the SNC have some former members of that National Opposition? Who are now members of the SNC?

A. There’s this impression that the SNC is the external, the diaspora opposition. We have members who live inside Syria.

When the chemical weapons attacks took place, we actually had coalition members inside Rif Dimashq [the Damascus suburbs]. When the chemical weapons inspectors came, we had a coalition member organizing that on the ground with them.

Q. How can SNC members reach those places?

A. They’ve always lived there. There are members who represent local councils, revolutionary groups or the Supreme Military Council. They’re inside [Syria].

Q. Are there connections between the SNC and Hassan Abdul Azim?

A. There are definitely people within the Syrian Coalition who have known Mr. Hassan Abdul Azim, who have worked with him in the past.

There are people who have left the NCC and joined us.

But, as I said, you have to focus on the Syrian people, on providing services. It’s less sexy, but it’s more important.

Q. The Kurds have announced a new government in the north. They are governing the area there. The president of the [Kurdish group] PYD is a part of Hassan Abdul Azim’s opposition. Is there any relationship between the SNC and the PYD?

A. No. With its latest behavior, we consider the PYD as an enemy of the Syrian revolution. They have unfortunately aligned themselves for the past many, many months with the Assad regime.

The PYD have killed some of their Kurdish revolutionary activists. The PYD have chosen the wrong side.

Q. Are we going to see clashes between the Free Syrian Army and the PYD?

A. We are trying to minimize those. Yes, we have disagreements, and unfortunately the PYD works closely with Bashar al-Assad. But we’re trying to say, listen, our first enemy is Bashar al-Assad. He has the 13th largest army in the world. He is killing Syrians constantly. Yes, the PYD is an enemy of the revolution, yes ISIS is an enemy of the revolution, but they are 10,000 fighters here, 12,000 fighters there, but we should focus on the bigger enemy, and then we deal with the other problems.

Like Syria Direct on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.