‘There is no agreement between the Syrian National Council and the Turkish government’

Interview with Dr.  ʿAbdulbasit Sayda, member of the Executive Committee of the Syrian National Council by KURDWATCH:

Dr. ʿAbdulbasit Sayda (b. 1956, doctorate in philosophy, married, four children) has been living in exile in Sweden since 1994. In 2003 his book ‘The Kurdish Question in Syria’ was published. In a conversation with KURDWATCH, ʿAbdulbasit Sayda spoke about the work of the Syrian National Council, an oppositional coalition that was founded in Istanbul on October 2, 2011. 

KurdWatch: Can you tell us about the beginnings of the Syrian National Council and Kurdish involvement in it?


Dr. ʿAbdulbasit Sayda: Before the founding of the Syrian National Council, there were several Syrian oppositional conferences abroad. Everyone hoped that these conferences would help the Syrian revolution succeed. Unfortunately this was not the case. On the plus side, however, Syrians got to know each other at these conferences. Prior to this, this was not the case. Thus, for example, the people from al-Qamishli did not know the people from Daraa and vice versa. But we were not satisfied with this outcome. In order to achieve better results, we, twenty-five Syrian academics and experts from all over the world, met in August in Istanbul. We became convinced that we should establish a Syrian National Council. At the time this was still a dream. We decided to make contact with all oppositional groups in order to convince them of the idea of the Syrian National Council. I myself had the task of contacting the Kurds. My goal was to reach all Kurdish parties and groups. I spoke with some personally. Others I contacted via friends and email. The Kurdish Union Party in Syria (Yekîtî) and the Kurdish Freedom Party in Syria (Azadî) were the only Kurdish parties that responded positively. Other parties declined to become involved in the Syrian National Council, and still others didn’t respond at all. The Kurdish youth groups also responded positively. Then the Kurdish Future Movement, representing the parties outside of the Kurdish party bloc that later took part in the Kurdish Patriotic Conference, welcomed our plan as well; they became a member of the National Council.

KurdWatch: How strongly are the Kurds represented in the National Council?

Dr. ʿAbdulbasit Sayda: There are a total of 190 seats. The General Secretariat is composed of twenty-six members, seven of whom are members of the Executive Committee. Aside from me, there are three other Kurds in the General Secretariat. One of them is the common representative of the Azadî and Yekîtî. The Kurdish Future Movement also has a representative. An additional seat is not yet occupied. We are working so that the Kurdish revolutionary youth groups will also receive a seat in this body.

KurdWatch: That means that you sit on the National Council as a representative of the Kurds? 

Dr. ʿAbdulbasit Sayda: Yes.

KurdWatch: There are claims from people affiliated with the Kurdish parties that you became part of the National Council by way of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Dr. ʿAbdulbasit Sayda: That isn’t true. There are people who will praise you when you fulfill their demands. But when you advocate for the interests of the general public and not for the interests of an individual or a specific group, then you become the target of attacks. That’s normal. Dr. Burhan Ghalioun has also become the target of attacks from various sides. As far as the Muslim Brotherhood is concerned, I have said again and again that they are a part of society. One cannot simply ignore them and exclude them from the process. But we also make it clear to them that they should play a role according to their significance, but no more. I have good contacts to all the leading members of the Syrian National Council. Through these contacts, I try to bring the Kurdish question to the fore, because it is in Syria’s interest to find a just and democratic solution to this question. To the Syrian opposition, I say again and again: If you solve the Kurdish question, you will gain as new friends more than twenty million Kurds in Northern Kurdistan, seven million Kurds in Southern Kurdistan, and up to ten million Kurds in Eastern Kurdistan. I use my contacts to the opposition in the interest of finding a solution to the Kurdish question, as well as in the interest of the common patriotic project in Syria.

KurdWatch: What preconditions must be met in order to become a member in the Syrian National Council?

Dr. ʿAbdulbasit Sayda: One must accept the goals of the National Council. Demanding the fall of the regime and supporting the Syrian revolution are very important. Additionally a member must be able to work in a team; his role and his influence in society must be evident. Attention must also be paid to proportional regional representation. And especially important: the percentage of women should not be too low. This is something we all are calling for, but no one holds himself to it. Unfortunately the percentage of women is very small. This shows how backwards we still are.

KurdWatch: The draft of the National Council’s political program states that the ethnic rights of the Kurdish people are to be anchored in the constitution. It further states that the Kurdish question in Syria must be solved democratically and justly, as well as within the framework of the unity of the Syrian state. This also entails that the Kurds receive the same civic rights and duties as all other citizens. This is such an important question. Why can’t you yet present an idea that is acceptable for everyone?

Dr. ʿAbdulbasit Sayda: Our main goal is the fall of the regime. We can’t say that we have been legitimized. But one also cannot say that we have no legitimacy. We find ourselves in an exceptional situation. Thus far we have not dealt with details. There are two ways of thinking. One is already calling for a detailed plan and the solution to all of the problems of the new Syrian state. The other approach says that one should answer general questions now and take up specific problems later. The draft of our political program has reassured people. This program will be discussed at the first assembly of the National Council. But our main objective must be to overthrow the regime. At the moment, no one can offer any guarantees. The National Council was not elected by the people and thus has no legitimacy. Whatever it now decides does not necessarily have to be implemented or accepted by future democratically elected institutions. But the National Council is creating a foundation for the period after the fall of the regime, in order to prepare people for possible changes. One thing is clear: Whoever does not take part in overthrowing the regime will have a hard time implementing their demands later. It is also clear that not only Kurds sit on the National Council, but also Arabs, Muslim Brothers, members of the Damascus Declaration, and others.. Some of them are very skeptical. As a result, one must do a lot of persuading in order to achieve positive results.

KurdWatch: Is the Syrian opposition at all willing to solve the Kurdish question in a way that the Kurds envision? 

Dr. ʿAbdulbasit Sayda: The new Syrian generation is willing to do this. The old generation, which for the past forty years has only known the Baʿth party mindset, is somewhat set in its ways. They are afraid that their supporters will accuse them of betraying Arab interests and bringing Syria into danger. The members of this generation show no trust in themselves and no trust in modern ideas. It is up to us to work on this, to convince them. We can’t achieve such changes overnight. What we in the National Council have suggested goes further than the suggestions of the Damascus Declaration, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the National Union for the Forces of Democratic Change. Of course our vision is not limited to this. But the framework is correct. It is up to us to improve it. All are asked to bring their ideas.

KurdWatch: The President of the National Council, Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, offended many with his comparison of Syrian Kurds to immigrants in France. Should the Kurds expect more such comparisons in the future? 

Dr. ʿAbdulbasit Sayda: What Ghaliuon said was not okay. We, the Kurdish bloc in the National Council, told him that openly. I myself, as a member of the Executive Committee, sent an internal email to all members of the General Secretariat and described openly that the Kurdish question is an old question, that Syrian-Kurdistan was a part of a unified Kurdistan, that Kurdistan was divided and a part was annexed to Syria. I called on them to accept this reality and to grant the Kurds their rights if they are considered a part of Syria. Ghalioun ultimately accepted this and contributed to the fact that the draft of the political program came together as it currently is. We are planning a dialogue in the near future between Kurdish and Arab intellectuals to discuss this topic from all sides. Furthermore we are planning a dialogue between youth groups from both sides. There is a lot that such a dialogue can achieve.

KurdWatch: The PYD/PKK accuses the National Council and especially the Muslim Brotherhood of having made a secret agreement with Turkey. According to this, if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in Syria, the existence of the Kurds is to be denied. What sort of an agreement is this?

Dr. ʿAbdulbasit Sayda: There is no agreement between the Syrian National Council and the Turkish government. Such a claim has no basis whatsoever. This accusation is part of the war against the National Council. We are not a state that could sign an agreement with another state. The Syrian government signed the Treaty of Adana. After massive threats from Turkey in October 1998, Hafiz al~Assad’s Syrian government relented and forced PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to leave Syria. The Treaty of Adana, which was finalized that same month, primarily concerns the suspension of Syrian aid to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its leader Abdullah Öcalan. Thus one should not cooperate with the Syrian government if one is against the aforementioned agreement. In a meeting between the National Council and the Turkish Secretary of State, I said that the region will not settle down until the Kurdish question is solved in Turkey and in Syria. Moreover I said that Turkey can only have good relations with the Arabs if the Kurds receive their rights, given that there are Kurds on both sides of the border. The Secretary accepted this opinion and said that a National Council cannot be a National Council without the Kurds.

KurdWatch: Nevertheless, the role of Turkey is seen critically, especially because most meetings of the Syrian opposition, including those of the National Council, have taken place in Turkey.

Dr. ʿAbdulbasit Sayda: Neither Iraq, nor Lebanon, nor Jordan allows us to organize our meetings there. For practical reasons, we must meet in a neighboring country. The Iraqi and Iranian opposition has had similar experiences. We remind ourselves that the Kurds from Northern Kurdistan were in Syria, although Syria oppressed its Kurds. The Kurds from Southern Kurdistan were in Iran or in Syria, although the Iranian and the Syrian states oppressed the Kurds there. We, the Kurdish members of the National Council, went to Turkey as part of the Syrian opposition. In Turkey we are not guests of the Turkish government. We benefit from the freedom in Turkey. No one interferes with our work. It’s possible that in the future we will hold our meetings in Egypt or Tunisia. As far as the Muslim Brotherhood is concerned, they have contact to the Turkish government. That is their affair. But they cannot force their stance on the National Council. Turkey is a large state and has interests in the region, also in Syria. It is our responsibility to make our decisions without outside influence. We view Turkey as an important neighbor that has made much progress during the rule of the AKP. But this does not prevent us from demanding a solution to the Kurdish question – as we have always done. For without such a solution, there will be no stability in the region and no economic progress. The entire region depends on it.

November 9, 2011

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