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Syrian opposition calls for civilian protection

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (bottom R) meets a small group of Syrian opposition members in Geneva on December 6 Reuters

Meeting Hillary Clinton in Geneva this week, Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), stressed “the need to protect civilians”.

For her part the US Secretary of State underlined “the need to build a society based on the rule of law and respect of minorities” should President Bashar al-Assad be ousted. The US has repeatedly demanded he step down after his government began a crackdown on the Arab Spring revolution eight months ago.

In an exclusive interview with after his meeting with Clinton, Ghalioun talks about US support for the SNC and the issue of international recognition of the opposition council.

Ghalioun also explains his position on efforts to unify the opposition around “a united programme under the sponsorship of the Arab League” and talks about what the Syrian opposition expects from the Swiss authorities. You met Clinton in Geneva for the first time on Tuesday. You were accompanied by six members of the SNC. At whose request was this meeting held and in what context?

Burhan Ghalioun: In fact, we have been in contact with the US diplomatic service for some time. They are also in contact with the Europeans and Arabs. But this meeting was held at the request of the Americans themselves. I think it was also meant to underline their backing for the rights of the Syrian people, and for the efforts made by the SNC to support their people in achieving their goals. What are the most important points you discussed with the US delegation at this meeting in Geneva which took more than one and a quarter hours?

B.G.: Our goals are always clear with all Arab and international diplomacy. The most important thing today is to provide urgent humanitarian aid to a people facing a real disaster, in afflicted cities; Hamah, Homs and all other Syrian cities. There is a large-scale security crackdown. There is killing, kidnapping, rape, and destruction of homes.

We emphasised to the Americans, as we have to other diplomatic services, that this must be stopped, and measures must be taken to allow delivery of aid to the affected population.

Of course, the second point that we always discuss with foreign governments is the protection of unarmed civilians, who are being killed every day by those working for the regime…

We say that the international community, including the Americans, cannot stand back or delay in working to create mechanisms to protect civilians in Syria. These are the most important points we raised. What was the American response to your requests, or at least what did you sense at this meeting?

B.G.: The US emphasised that it is cooperating with other Arab and international foreign services. It has stressed more than once previously the importance of the Arabs playing the main role in any future action aimed at protecting civilians. In other words, the Americans believe that they have responsibilities, but joint responsibilities with other countries, and essentially the Arab group. Some voices have recently demanded humanitarian corridors to deliver aid to Syrian civilians, what is the stance of the SNC on this?

B.G.: We have said that all options are on the table to secure international protection for civilians, to stop the killing machine, and to force the regime to respect human rights, as well as to secure humanitarian aid for the afflicted population.

This is the issue under discussion by foreign diplomatic services, the SNC, and the Syrian opposition. The SNC, when it was established in October, called for international recognition as well as urging civilian protection. What has been achieved in this respect?

B.G.: There is international recognition of the council. The fact there has been a meeting in Geneva with a senior American delegation headed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton means that we are recognised as a political organisation representing the will for change of the Syrian people. Otherwise, why was that meeting held? But we are not yet an alternative government that can be recognised in place of the old government. But we are recognised as a key force in organising the struggle of the Syrian people to free themselves from the current regime. It is known that there is still disunity among the Syrian opposition. Do you not think the continuation of this split may lead to a delay in the international community recognising the opposition over the current regime?

B.G.: That is right, but no country has  one unified opposition. This is not what is required. What is required of us, and our duty at the SNC, which I believe we are working towards, is to unify the plans of the opposition and find a consolidated vision, a single working platform, and a single roadmap for the Syrian opposition with its various trends and orientations. Today though we represent the biggest, the strongest and the most representative party.

But we believe that a unified working plan for the opposition has to be found. This is what has now happened in Cairo where the different opposition parties have agreed on a joint working paper. We will hold a conference of the opposition in the coming days under the supervision of the Arab League to discuss this paper and come out with a united stance for the Syrian opposition. Since you are now in Geneva, do you have contacts with the Swiss authorities? What does the SNC expect from Bern at this stage?

B.G.: …Certainly, Switzerland has a role to support the Syrian people and protect the unarmed population against attack. I believe that the importance of Swiss diplomacy should not be downplayed. Its contribution will be welcomed, not only by the SNC, but also by the Syrian people.

Syria has a population of 22.5 million, half of whom live in urban areas; 52% are under 25.

The bulk of the population are Arab (89%); other ethnic groups include Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Circassians and Turcoman.

Along with the native population, it has several hundred thousand Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.

Sunni Muslims form the largest religious community (72%); there are also Shiite Muslims, and several Muslim sects, including Alawites (to which the Assad family belongs) and Ismailis. Christians are estimated at about 10% of the population, divided between a range of Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches, with a small number of Protestants. There is also a small number of Yazidis, a secretive sect whose main base is in Iraq.

Modern Syria gained its independence from France in 1946 but has lived through periods of political instability driven by the conflicting interests of these various groups.

Asked by whether Switzerland recognised the newly-formed Syrian National Council, the Swiss foreign ministry said Switzerland recognised states, not governments.

“Switzerland has several times condemned the systematic violation of human rights inflicted on the civilian population by the Syrian security forces,” a spokeswoman added. 

“Switzerland welcomes any initiative aimed at defending the fundamental rights of the Syrian population,” she said.

Switzerland has enforced sanctions against 74 Syrian individuals and 19 companies. The sanctions include a ban on visas and freezing of all assets. They are based on a list established by the European Union.

(Translated from Arabic by Muhammad Shokry)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR