Syrian Opposition Group Leader 'The Islamists are Seizing Power for Themselves'
Although the war in Syria is getting bloodier, the power and appeal of the resistance is growing. But Randa Kassis, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, warns that Islamist fighters armed by the Gulf states are sowing discord among the opposition that will only prolong the war.
Suicide bombers, artillery strikes and massacres: The situation in Syria is getting worse every day. Dozens were killed on Thursday in an attack on the village of Tremseh. The Syrian opposition and the United Nations have blamed the assault on the regime of President Bashar Assad, but Damascus continues to deny involvement.
Although early reports said the attack had mainly targeted civilians, UN observers who visited the village on Saturday said the assault was apparently directed at specific homes of army defectors and opposition figures, according to the Associated Press.
A political solution to the conflict in Syria is not likely to come anytime soon. While Assad continues to cling to power in any way he can, the opposition -- though armed and mobilized -- is deeply divided.
Randa Kassis, president of a secular opposition group, paints a gloomy picture of Syria's future an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE. Although resistance to the regime is mounting, Assad has shown that he is willing to crush dissent through any means necessary. Meanwhile, Kassis claims, Islamist rebels supported by the Gulf states are driving a wedge in the opposition by labeling secular adversaries of Assad enemies.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who is responsible for the massacre in Tremseh last Thursday, in which, according to the latest reports, more than 200 people were killed?
Kassis: Government troops and their backers are responsible. Whole city neighborhoods and villages are being targeted. Bashar Assad wants to intimidate each and every Syrians, without exception. He wants to force all of us to our knees and gag us. Literally every Syrian is supposed to experience first-hand what it means to put up resistance. There will be more massacres.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is the relative strength of the regime vis-à-vis the rebels?
Kassis: In contrast to the situation at the beginning of the revolution, today more than 80 percent of Syrians oppose the Assad clique. Over time, the opposition has also become well-armed thanks to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But the army and other state security forces command the most sophisticated weaponry. If they use them with impunity, there will be no quick end to the atrocities in sight.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are arms supplied by Russia and Iran to the Assad regime prolonging the conflict?
Kassis: This is, of course, an important factor, but the regime already had enough firepower in any case. The reason the opposition has not been able to achieve a military breakthrough is also partially due to the insurmountable differences arising between the Islamist jihadi fighters and the majority of the population. The Islamist groups, which are superbly financed and equipped by the Gulf states, are ruthlessly seizing decision-making power for themselves. Syrians who are taking up arms against the dictator but not putting themselves under the jihadists' command are being branded as unpatriotic and as heretics. This is also affecting the many soldiers and officers who have defected to the opposition but who aren't willing to replace the corrupt terrorism of the Assad regime with a religious tyranny.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But aren't the majority of Syrians pious Muslims?
Kassis: Yet at least half of Syrians are in favor of retaining a separation of church and state -- and I don't see any contradiction there. The conflict between the power-hungry, appallingly intolerant Islamists and the opposition fighters who are not motivated by religion -- and who don't have anyone lending them a hand -- makes a rapid end to the war unlikely. And that's not to mention the scorched earth that government troops are leaving behind them all over the country.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is there no way to stop the bloodbath?
Kassis: The Assad regime has to stop the murder and voluntarily step down from power. And the Islamist fighters among the opposition need to accept the non-religious opposition groups as partners with equal rights and no longer treat them like political adversaries. Then the members of the Baath party who haven't done anything wrong but have opposed Assad and gone underground in Iraq will also report back.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Baath party members as a beacon of hope for a democratic new beginning?
Kassis: Why not? In Iraq, the United States accepted the democratically inclined former Baathist Ayad Allawi as prime minister. To millions of Iraqis, his more democratic values were more appealing than those of the religious government leader Nouri al-Maliki and his ministers in Baghdad.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Aren't you putting more hope in the United States, which is energetically pushing for a democratic Syria?
Kassis: In the countries affected by the Arab Spring, the Americans have put their money on the Muslim Brotherhood. They believe it will be the dominant power of tomorrow, and they are adjusting to that fact.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How long will it take before Assad gives up?
Kassis: I hope that he will be taken care of in few weeks' time. But, in pure military terms, it could last several more months -- unless there's a miracle.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What could that look like?
Kassis: Miracles are unpredictable, just like the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. I don't know anyone who had anticipated such changes in the course of history, changes that were so completely unexpected and had appeared absurd for decades.
Interview conducted by Volkhard Windfuhr