Assad’s referendum designed to split Syrians, interview


Anas al-Abda from Syrian opposition group The Movement for Justice and Development discusses the proposed referendum, saying it is simply a diversion to allow Bashar al-Assad to remain in power.


TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Joining us now in our London studio is Anas al-Abda. He’s the chairman of the opposition group, the Movement for Justice and Development in Syria. He’s also a member of the Syrian National Council.

Thanks for being there.


TONY JONES: Let’s start, if can I, by getting your reaction to this latest news.

President Assad has ordered a referendum on a new constitution on February 26. That’s just 11 days away. Does that change anything?

ANAS AL-ABDA: Well it looks like the Syrian regime and Bashar Al-Assad is using every trick in the book to divert attention from what’s happening on the ground. Introducing a new constitution while targeting civilians on a daily basis and killing tens and imprisoning hundreds and injuring thousands of people is ludicrous, to say the least.

I think this is just something to divert attention from the war crimes, from the crimes against humanity that the UN high commissioner mentioned a few days ago and the fact that the UN is thinking seriously now to take the Syrian regime and Bashar al-Assad and his thugs to the International Criminal Court.

TONY JONES: What if the army stopped its offensives in places like Homs and the other opposition strongholds, including in Damascus, in order to – as a sign of good faith, if you like, from the regime?

I know there hasn’t been much good faith at all up to this point, but would that change things, if they were able to do that?

ANAS AL-ABDA: Well, I mean – you know, I think the Syrian regime has proved since 15th March last year that it cannot keep to its promises whatsoever. It promised many times to stop targeting civilians, but what we saw on the ground is totally the opposite of that. What’s been happening in Homs is a war crime, is crimes against humanity, against civilians. We do not see any positive sign from the regime whatsoever, especially when after it’s supported by the Russians and the Chinese, the regime now thinks that it can carry on with the targeting civilians without any kind of political implication on it.

TONY JONES: So are you saying it’s simply too late – no matter what kind of reform the regime offered up, it’s simply too late because of the amount of bloodshed and repression that’s already happened?

ANAS AL-ABDA: Well, I mean, we need to know that the problem in Syria is not the constitution. It’s not a constitution problem. The constitution was never a problem. It – because simply it was never respected in the first place, even the existing one. The existing constitution, by the way, enshrines within it the freedom of expression, freedom for speech, the right to demonstrate and all of that.

But it’s never been respected. And I don’t think proposing a new constitution would make any difference at all. I think the problem we have in Syria is that we have a dictatorial regime that controls everything, every aspect of life of the Syrian people, and it has full control over the army, over the security forces, so whatever constitution, even if you propose the best possible constitution in the world, it will just be papers given to the people and it will never be respected.

The main aim of the regime, by doing this, is to consolidate its power and to stay in power. That is the aim of every dictatorial regime. And we don’t have any example in history that a dictatorial regime managed to transfer itself peacefully to democracy. The history tells us that the only way to deal with dictatorial regimes with despotic figures like Bashar or Gaddafi and people like that is to bring them down and to build a new democracy, to build a new alternative to them.

The current regime will never, ever, do anything to transform itself to a democracy because then it knows that it will lose power and it will not do that.

TONY JONES: So, I mean obviously you think the same thing about the proposed election which is meant to follow 90 days later. But I’ve got to ask you this: what if Assad goes ahead with the constitutional referendum, in some parts of the country he gets votes for it. He’ll then claim a mandate in those parts of the country, will he not?

ANAS AL-ABDA: Well I think this would be very dangerous because on the day of the referendum I can assure you there will be hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of Syrians who will be on the street asking for the downfall of the regime. And by doing this I think Bashar is playing a very dangerous game. He’s trying to split the Syrian society.

We know that in every revolution you don’t have a situation where everybody is participating in it, you know. Then, in this case, the – Bashar al-Assad and his regime is trying to split the Syrian people and this is very dangerous move. I think they will be – the majority of the Syrian people will reject it. They will be voting by their feet on the street by saying very clearly that they want the downfall of the regime and they have been doing that for the past 11 months.

I mean, we’re not talking about a few weeks or just, you know, a very recent phenomenon. The Syrian people have been asking for their freedom and dignity for many, many years, and for the past 11 months they paid more than 10,000 in terms of dead and more than 20,000 in terms of prisoners.

So, for the Syrian people, the struggle goes on regardless of the tricks that the regime is coming up with every now and then.

TONY JONES: This notion that Assad could split the Syrian people, as you say, it’s a dangerous one. Do you have any fears this could result in a civil war?

ANAS AL-ABDA: There is every possibility that if the current regime continues in its war against the Syrian people, things will descend into civil war. This is something that we don’t want. We are trying our best to avoid. And we are working with our activists and with our Free Syrian Army comrades all the time in order to avoid. That’s why the Free Syrian Army is working very hard in order to protect civilians, demonstrations and the areas that the demonstrations are very, you know, dominant.

So, we are trying our best to avoid that scenario. The regime is working for it because it knows that through civil war it will have much more, you know, time and much more options to stay in power. And we are saying very clearly that we will succeed in our revolution and the people of Syria will succeed in dislodging this despotic regime, but it will take time and it will take more sacrifices. And what we are asking from the outside world is help.

We do need help from the outside world in terms of helping us with the humanitarian situation and in terms of supporting the Free Syrian Army.

TONY JONES: OK. Yeah, let me ask you specifically about that, because the – on Sunday the Arab League appeared to open the way for sympathetic Arab states to supply weapons to the Free Syrian Army.


TONY JONES: Do you support that?

ANAS AL-ABDA: Absolutely. The main aim of the Free Syrian Army is to protect civilians, because the Syrian regime, the Syrian state abandoned its basic duty of protecting Syrian lives and Syrian civilians. So, the Free Syrian Army is taking that role now, but it is poorly equipped. It is targeted by the Syrian Army all the time. So it requires support, logistical support, it requires better equipment, better armament.

We’re not talking about, you know, huge armament; we’re talking about small arms that will enable the Free Syrian Army to protect itself.

TONY JONES: Among them anti-tank weapons, I imagine, because a single man carrying an anti-tank weapon can stop a tank.

ANAS AL-ABDA: Absolutely. Anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft weapons, personal weapons. I mean, that is something that can be arranged and it can be supplied and we do see now a political will, not only of the Arab side, but also of the international community side, in a way, to help support it.

TONY JONES: I’m sorry to interrupt you. Where would the weapons come from and how quickly would you expect them to start flowing to the Free Syrian Army, and a corollary to that, are you already in negotiations to see that happening?

ANAS AL-ABDA: Um, first of all, you know, Syria is surrounded by other countries which have, you know, a history in terms of, you know, smuggling arms and stuff like that. Syria – don’t forget that since 2003, you know, helped a lot in terms of transferring weapons and people to Iraq in order to fight the Americans.

So, the area is, you know, is well known for its ability to arm itself if there is a political will and if there are financial resources behind it. We’re talking about countries like Turkey who can play a positive role in this, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

You know, we can definitely arrange that through these countries and it doesn’t have to be through the official governments and the official way. And also, from within Syria, we can also buy arms from the Syrian Army itself, providing that we – you know, we give them the right price.

Don’t forget that the Syrian Army is well known for its corruption, so we can make use of that as well. The main aim here is to have an alternative within the revolution because the Free Syrian Army is now becoming an essential part of the revolution and it’s the only part that we can depend on to protect civilians.

TONY JONES: Are you concerned by reports that Sunni insurgents from Iraq, some of them backed or linked to – backed by or linked to Al-Qaeda, are beginning to already make that journey from Iraq into Syria to fight against the Assad regime?

ANAS AL-ABDA: I think this will only help the propaganda of the regime. The Al Qaeda does not exist in Syria. It does not have any bases in Syria, and Al Qaeda exists only in an atmosphere of polarisation.

The regime is – has supported Al Qaeda for many years and provided many logistical support for it. Only recently, by the way, the Syrian regime released a top Al Qaeda leader in Aleppo who was arrested in Pakistan and handed to the Syrians.

His name is Abu Musab al-Suri. He’s one of the top Al Qaeda leaders. He was released in Aleppo just around Christmastime along with some of his aids. So, the Syrian regime is trying to play the Al Qaeda card exactly like other regime tried. You remember the Tunisian leader said that. Egyptian leader said that. And Gaddafi …

TONY JONES: Sure. But are you saying it’s not happening at all or that it’s being exaggerated? Because we are getting reports from a few areas after Iman al-Zawahiri’s call for Al Qaeda to take up arms against the regime, that that is actually happening?

ANAS AL-ABDA: Well we don’t see – we don’t have any evidence of that. We have seen some people talking over the Facebook and over the web and some of the websites about this, but we have not seen any evidence for it on the ground and we don’t support it in any way or shape.

We don’t want Al Qaeda and we don’t want Hezbollah to be interfering in anything to do with our revolution. Our revolution is done by the Syrian people and it would be accomplished by the Syrian people and we don’t require any outside help, especially from the extreme organisations.

TONY JONES: OK. We don’t have much time, but a final question: are you concerned that this could become a kind of Shia-Sunni battle – actually put Alawites in with the Shia in this regard since that what Assad is? Because he’s linked, obviously, to Hezbollah, he’s linked to Iran. And of course the countries most closely backing the Free Syrian Army and your cause are countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are Sunni countries.

ANAS AL-ABDA: Well I hope it will not be that way and it will not be interpreted that way. Iran, by the way, would like it to be this because Iran is specialised in supporting civil wars. The Syrian regime would like it to be portrayed and perceived like this. But we are saying very clearly that the majority of the Syrian people are looking for freedom and dignity like what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and we are going to get it regardless of the alliance that the Syrian regime is putting itself within.

Iran is helping a lot, by the way. It is helping the Syrian regime in every way possible – militarily, financially, politically and logistically. And because they are in an alliance, and this is something that we can understand, but, you know, it will not be a Shia-Sunni war whatsoever. This is a war between the Syrian people in one hand who would like freedom and dignity and the Syrian regime on the other hand who would like to stay in power whatever it takes.

TONY JONES: Anas al-Abda, we thank you for explaining some of these issues from your perspective. We thank you very much for being there and hopefully we’ll be able to talk to you again.

Thank you very much.

ANAS AL-ABDA: Thank you.