Mohammed Riad Al-Shaqfa: Assad’s regime doesn’t understand any concept but force
The Majalla has met with the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Mohammed Riad Al-Shaqfa. In an expansive interview, Shaqfa expressed dissatisfaction with the vacillations of international actors over how to best resolve the Syrian crisis. Crucially, he insisted that the Assad regime cannot be a part of any political solution, as a consequence of the year-long violent crackdown organized by the government.
Frustrated by the lack of any action to meet the international condemnation of Assad’s brutal tactics, Shaqfa asserted that “humanitarian corridors and safe zones have become an urgent necessity to protect the Syrian people.” He also called for the Syrian opposition groups to be supplied arms: “The Syrian regime doesn’t understand any concept but the use of force. This should, in turn, be met with force and the Syrian people have the right to obtain weapons to defend themselves.”
While playing down the potential role of the Muslim Brotherhood in a potential post-Assad Syria, Shaqfa claimed that myriad rifts within the sprawling opposition are not too great to be healed. In fact, he was optimistic that all the various elements of Syrian society can peacefully coexist in the future.
The Majalla: In what direction is the situation in Syria going while the international community is confused and unable to take a stance on the regime?
The Syrian people have spontaneously made the revolution, relying on God and themselves, due to decades of injustice. Today they are determined to topple the regime no matter what sacrifices are involved. The international community holds an ethical responsibility to support the revolution, but instead they hesitate. This indecisiveness will lead to more bloodshed.
Q: What is the significance of the mission of the UN-Arab League joint special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan?
I believe the visit will be insignificant as long as the Syrian regime does not cooperate with those international and humanitarian efforts. It seems that such means are not useful with this regime, which only understands the language of force. The people are determined to topple the regime.
Q: Are you still convinced of the need for humanitarian aid, the international efforts to deliver aid and the creation of safe zones or the imposition of an international ban?
The international community’s stance is still weak and is not yet equal to the sacrifices of the Syrian people. We do not hear anything except statements; in reality nothing happens. We believe that safe corridors and safe areas are now an urgent necessity in order to protect the Syrian people.
Q: Are you concerned about the repetition of the Libyan scenario in Syria?
We don’t believe the Libyan scenario will be repeated in Syria, as we stress our demand for the protection of civilians, which is an international legal and humanitarian obligation.
Q: The international position has become clearer since the end of the conference in Tunisia: there is no possibility of a military solution, which implicitly means that we have to search for political solutions with the regime. Do you agree?
The Syrian regime can’t be part of any political solution after its insistence on using military force and killing. The regime has killed more than ten thousand martyrs, and tens of thousands of men, women, elders and children have been wounded, lost, or detained. We believe the Syrian people are capable of ending the battle in their favor if protection is provided. The people have decided to continue the revolution until the regime is toppled. The international community should carry out its duty to protect civilians, and this should be done at the lowest cost [in lives].
Q: What is the most likely replacement for the regime in Damascus?
The replacement will be a pluralistic, democratic and civilian regime in which all members of the Syrian people will take part. Domination will not be seized by one party or one sect: our people are tired of individualism and exclusion.
Q: Will there be Syrian divisions inspired by the Lebanese experience?
Those efforts don’t worry me, and I believe that the Syrian condition is different from that of Lebanon. I believe that the Syrian society, even with all its sects, is capable of understanding and coexisting despite the attempts of the Syrian regime to make them frightened of each other.
Gulf State Involvement
Q: There has been a significant Arab influence on the development of the Syrian crisis. How far has the position of the opposition moved from alignment with Europe to reflect the influence of the Gulf States?
From the beginning, the opposition sought Arab and regional assistance; particularly as the Western position didn’t exceed mere rhetoric. Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, took practical steps and began to finance the opposition in order to support the Syrian people. We hope to use this support to fulfill the ambitions of the Syrian people to topple the Syrian regime.
People in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have properly assessed the situation: that the Syrian regime doesn’t understand any concept but force and it should be faced by force. The Syrian people have the right to acquire weapons to defend themselves. The Syrian people appreciate their support.
Q: Why didn’t the National Council withdraw from the Friends of Syria conference, just as Saudi Arabia did?
Although the resolutions of the conference were not up to [our] expectations, we see them as a significant development in international attitudes. The withdrawal of the National Council would have caused the failure of the conference, though we understand the action of the Saudi delegation, which withdrew from one of the sessions—not the conference.
Q: Did Turkey really change its attitude when Tehran warned Ankara against any settlement at the expense of the Syrian regime?
I believe that Turkey’s stance is tied with the international situation and not with the Iranian one, and it awaits an international resolution through which it could play its role.
Q: Is it correct that Turkey proposed that the Syrian authorities give the Muslim Brotherhood four ministries, and that Syria accepted this proposal but refused to include a key ministry in the deal?
This information is not correct: Ahmed Dawood Oglo denied that. I believe that Turkey was pressing Assad to make reforms and to stop violence to spare Syria the crisis it has since experienced. Assad doesn’t accept advice.
Turkey supports the demands of the Syrian people and all opposition parties; it advised the opposition to unite and supported the National Council, which combines most of the opposition groups. Turkey’s stance has nothing to do with its relationship with the Brotherhood.
Q: Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Al-Moualem, said recently that “the dispute over the Muslim Brotherhood pushed Syrian-Turkish relations to a point of no return.” What made Turkey sacrifice Syria for the sake of the Brotherhood? Did you offer Turkey any guarantees?
What the Syrian Foreign Minister said has no credibility, particularly after he erased Europe off the world map. Syrian-Turkish relations were pushed to the point of no return because of the crimes committed by the Syrian regime against its people and because of the ethical stance of Turkey to support the Syrian people against the regime’s crimes.
Iran: A Condemned Relationship
Q: How do you see the opinion of Haytham Manna and his concerns over the Islamism of the revolutionary movement and the militarization of the revolution? What do you think of his alleged relations with Iran?
The Syrian people and the revolutionaries have condemned Haytham Manna’s relationship with Iran because of its absolute support of the Syrian regime’s crimes. His stance is the same as that of the Coordination Authority, which was rejected by the Syrian people who declared that it didn’t represent them.
Q: Who backed the agreement with the Coordination Authority, and are there parties inside the Council who want to be open on Iran?
The dialogue with the Coordination Authority is old, as many parties of the National Council participated in it. I believe that the stance concerning Iran is unified inside the Council.
Q: What are the details of the Iranian offer and why did you reject it?
There was no actual Iranian offer. However, there was an attempt by some mediators to start a dialogue with Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood rejected the offer because of Iran’s support of the Syrian regime and its anti-revolution stance.
The Circle of Opposition
Q: How do you explain Europe’s recognition of the National Council even before the Arab countries did?
[There is] no doubt that the stance of the European Union concerning this issue is advanced. Most of the Arab countries [already] deal with the National Council. I believe that the official recognition will take place soon.
Q: Is the Brotherhood afraid of the military power of the Free Army? There are reports on attempts by the Brotherhood to control and co-opt the Free Army.
On the contrary, we support the Free Army of Syria, we coordinate with it and we support it as much as we can. We seek its development to perform its duty of protecting the Syrian people and to beat Assad’s gangs.
Q: It was said that there were disagreements between Riad Al-Asaad, the commander of the Free Syrian Army, and the defector General Mustafa Ahmed Al-Sheikh. Is this true? Was the position of the Free Army consistent?
Yes there were some disagreements and they have been resolved. The agreement has been reached and we had a positive role in that.
Q: Are you comfortable with General Mostafa Ahmed Al-Sheikh? Some of you have criticized his speech about “the civilian state” and his opinion that the Muslim Brotherhood has no weight in Syria and are not playing any significant role in the internal movement against the regime.
We welcomed—and we still welcome—all honorable officers who favored and are still favorable to the revolution of the Syrian people. We don’t suppress the opinion of anyone and we focus on supporting the revolution of our people and easing their suffering. We are not competing with anyone.
Q: To what extend are your efforts aimed at unifying the opposition?
Opposition groups inside the National Council agree on visions and targets, however, it disagrees on intellectual and political orientations, which is normal and which doesn’t harm the opposition. However, we agree with the opposing parties outside the National Council on most issues and I believe that understanding and coordination with them is possible and we seek to achieve that.
Q: How is your relation with Kurds and what’s your stance toward forming a Kurdish council?
There is a representation of our Kurd fellows inside the National Council, and we seek to develop this representation through dialogue. I believe that they have the right to form a council that expresses their stance and private issues.
Q: Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo said, “Christians are the most threatened minority by the civil war.” Do you agree with him?
[The term] ‘civil war’ is a scarecrow used by the regime to frighten the Syrian people. The regime is trying to drag the country into the swamp of sectarianism and civil war, but the awareness and the consistency of the Syrian people prevents this and this is a waste of time.
Q: What is the reality of the presence of Al-Qaeda amongst the revolutionaries?
Reports about the existence of Al-Qaeda in Syria are made up by the Syrian regime to frighten the world of the forthcoming new government.
About the Muslim Brotherhood
Q: What about the sectarian dimension within Muslim Brotherhood in Syria?
The Brotherhood has issued a paper about the social structure in Syria and our stance on sectarianism, which the regime tries to provoke in order to promote conflict between different sects of Syrian society. We asserted in the paper the principle of equality and partnership among all citizens. Relationships amongst people are based on the principle of citizenship, according to which all are equal in duties and rights.
The Brotherhood also took part in a workshop on the criminalization of sectarianism in Cairo, with numerous personalities who represent the different aspects of the Syrian people. We issued an additional statement about this issue.
Q: How do you evaluate your power in Syria and inside the National Council?
We don’t exist as an organization in Syria because of the declared war against us by the Syrian regime and due to Law 49/1980, which provides for the execution of any member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite this, we are present through our moderate and intermediate Islamic thought and the broad audience who supports our thoughts and orientations. We are part of the moderate Islamic trend in Syria, and the strength of every national trend will be identified in the ballot boxes. But our representation in the Syrian National Council doesn’t exceed 20 percent.
Q: Some fear the regime will do anything before it collapses, including igniting a comprehensive sectarian war, so Bashar can say, “It’s us or nothing.” Are there plans to face this danger?
It is obvious that the regime is willing to commit the most offensive crimes to stay in power, nothing stops it from besieging the cities and destroying their innocent civilian residents. The regime prevents water, food and medicine from reaching citizens and stops relief for wounded people; moreover, it attacks them in hospitals. The regime attempts to prevent the funerals held for martyrs and massacres the people attending those funerals.
To stay in power, the Syrian regime attempts to ignite civil and sectarian war, to provoke citizens, and to turn sects against each other. But those attempts failed to a large extent due to the awareness of our people of all sects.
We rely on the awareness of our people, their ability to coexist, and their recognition of the danger of the impasse that the regime tries to drag them into. We trust our people’s capability to do that.
Q: Does the Turkish experience appeal to you? Will you try to introduce it into Syrian society?
Each society has its own nature and we can’t clone others’ experiences. I believe that the Turkish democratic experience is characterized by the admiration and appreciation of the Syrian people. Syrians also have their own experience of democracy during the age of freedom before this regime, and they are capable—God willing—of updating their experience with the benefit of others’ experiences.
Q: What is the principle of citizenship in light of your beliefs about ‘Islam of the state’ and ‘Islam of the society’?
The Charter of the National Honor, which was issued by the Brotherhood in 2001—and also the political project that was launched in 2004—both assert the principles of freedom, justice and equality. They call for the establishment of a civil, pluralistic, devolutionary institutional state in which all citizens enjoy equal rights and duties, and which is based on the citizenship principle that governs the relationships among citizens equally.
We also assert that our political project and reform program, despite their Islamic reference, are regarded as human endeavors that could be right or wrong, and subject to dialogue, discussion, amendment and correction. We don’t impose our views and programs on anyone. Every citizen has the right to choose the method and the program he wants without compulsion.
Q: What about your stance on secularism?
‘Secularism’ has no single meaning to have a single stance on. Past secularism in Turkey is different from the current one and it is different form that in France, Britain, and the United States. We believe that the civil state we seek guarantees freedom, dignity and equality for all citizens.
Q: Do you see a problem of religious and racial minorities?
There is no problem in Syria of religious and racial minorities. The Syrian people with all their races, religions and ideologies have coexisted since the oldest ages. But the Syrian regime tried to stir disputes among those sects; it deluded them that it is the protector of the minorities and frightened them of each other. The Muslim Brotherhood has previously stated its stance on this issue through its view of the Kurdish case and its vision about the social structure and the sectarianism in Syria, and both are approved by the group.
Q: Identification of responsibilities for men and women, from the point of view of some Islamic parties and movements, may stir concerns of feminist organizations that seek to advance women’s rights. How does the Muslim Brotherhood see women’s rights?
Our political project stresses woman’s role in the society and her complete rights according to the principle that women are partners of men and they have the same rights and duties. It stresses the necessity of liberating women from traditions and legacies that limit their freedom and rights, which have nothing to do with the provisions of the Islamic legislation.
Q: Are you prepared for the period after Bashar? How will the Brotherhood participate in Syria’s future?
We are part of our people, we back them in their revolution and we will not give up on them during their ordeal. We will take part in establishing our country, a new Syria, after overthrowing a corrupt and oppressive regime; side by side with people, of all sects and trends.