Atassi family from the Homs Province has always been influential in the political sphere of Syria. From the Atassi family, certain figures became eminent; Nureddin al-Atassi who had performed as the Head of State from 1966 to 1970 and one of the leading figures of the Ba’ath Party Jamal al-Atassi who also had performed as a minister. Today, the Atassi family continues to have significant roles. One of the crucial groups from the Syrian Opponents is especially the ones specializing on civil society communities. For example, established by Suhair Atassi, “Jamal al-Atassi Forum” maintains its regime-opposing projects on internet after the ban on its activities. Another member of the opponent Atassi family is Emel Atassi who is a human rights defender living in France. Being quite effective in France and having the potential to influence the French decision makers, Emel al-Atassi was our interviewee during the Antalya Conference. Atassi shared her ideas with the ORSAM regarding the perspective of the liberal part on the public insurgencies in Syria and her expectations about the period after Bashar al-Assad.
Is the Syrian regime totally an illegitimate one or can we say that it has legitimacy to a certain extent within the Syrian community?
It is not true to define the Syrian regime as the Arab Alawite one. The rulers of Syria and the ones gathering the economic sources are not more than 200 people. To define the regime as the Assad family is more right. Not as the Arab Allawite regime. Assad and the ones around him have Arab Allawite origins but they do not act according to the Arab Allawite thinking. In fact, we do not like to talk like Arab Alawites or Christians. Here, in Antalya, all the people from these groups are together.
What are the positions of the 200-ruling-personnel that you have mentioned?
Most of them are at the top military positions. Furthermore, the cousin of Bashar al-Assad, Rami Malouf is in charge of the country’s economy. All the national revenues go to this family. Around this structure in the centre, there are groups linked to this structure based on money and interest relations. For example, in Damascus, buildings having more than 3 floors cannot be constructed. Now by giving permission to these people, one strives hard to get connections with the rich people of Damascus and Aleppo. Currently, people on the street are poor. To cite an example, my family is from Homs. Atassi family is from this city. Being a leading family, they support the protestors on the street. The administration tries to buy the Kurds as well; however, by giving nationality, they cannot get them supporting themselves.
In case the Syrian Kurds are given more rights, is it possible from them to pass to the regime-proponent side?
This is very unlikely. It is even impossible because the psychology of the Kurdish public is different from the ones living in Damascus or the Arab Bedouins. They cannot buy the Kurds. The Kurds do not forget the past, they demand more rights. As a response to your first question, I can say that only poor people that are bought support the regime. I do not like to talk about the religious divisions because this does not integrate us but divides us. Lots of people in Syria need support and money, and it is easy for the regime to find supporters. For example, we know that to make people attend the regime-supporting activities in Damascus, they went to the schools and pressured them to join themselves. I am talking about people who could not do anything but to join them. The people are afraid of the regime. One opts for violence and torture. If you do not obey them, there is a possibility of going into jail. Consequently, within the Syrian community, we can say that about 20 or 30% support the regime. In fact, since this is a relationship based on self-interest, it would not be fair argue that it is total support. About 17% of the Syrians live out of the country. They should be counted as regime-opponents as well.
In case the regime changes; is there any possibility that there will be a civil war like in the case of Iraq?
Syria has different features compared to Iraq and Libya. Here, in Antalya, we try to make a dialogue amongst people thinking differently. I talk to people that are Islamist, communist or the ones having different views and we aim to find a common point. We leave the negative sides aside. The different sides in Syria were afraid of each other because they did not know about each other. We have just started to get to know each other. I am living in Europe and I am not afraid of the Islamists. But I do not know them very well. When I talk to them here, I see that they are very open-minded. They talk about democracy and separation of powers.
However, one of the realities of the Middle East is that ethnic and denominational definitions have an impact on politics. For example, when Mubarak left office in Egypt, there were some attacks made on the Christians. Is there any possibility like that in Syria?
Syria is completely different, an incident like that will not occur in Syria. In Syria, the public hates the Ba’ath Party and the Assad family. But they do not hate the Arab Alawites. The Arab Alawites are here with us. One of the leading sides of the Syrian Revolution is the Syrian youth. Maturity is very crucial and I am proud of the maturity of Syria. We work here so as to prevent any instability in Syria.
So, do you argue that the Syrian identity is stronger and there will be a peaceful transition?
I think it will be case. If the regime falls, I do not think that the process will not be faster than the ones in other countries, I hope so. But, there are still lots of things we are supposed to do. As the 17% of the Syrian population living out of the country, we are high-educated and we have an intellectual past. We need to work more.
How do you think the people living out of the country will influence the regime change in Syria?
If the regime falls, we believe that we have a lot to give to Syria. For example, the Tunisians living in France have contributed a lot to the transition period after the revolution. They have contributed considerably in economy and human rights. Similar to that, our organization can work for a new constitution. We know that we have lots of things to do and we are ready for that.
How do you evaluate an international intervention like in Libya?
How do you evaluate an international intervention like in Libya?
This is impossible for Syria. We expect the Syrian army to cease its support for the regime and join us.
Is there such a possibility?
Is there such a possibility?
It is possible. It seems difficult for now, but it is possible.
If you see international intervention impossible, for the regime change is the army’s changing sides the only to manage that?
In Syria, not all Arab Alawites are supporting Assad. Some prominent religious figures from the Arab Alawites may compel Assad to leave office because outside of the regime they can see that the whole Syrian public is a whole. At the same time, I think that the Arab Alawite intellectuals can see this reality as well. This is another possibility for the regime change. Another possibility is that we are people working in the West. For example, I work in France. The Syrians that are effective abroad can pressurize the administrations of the countries they live in and the United Nations so as to invite them to find a solution. France and some other European countries apply political pressure on Syria. None of us want to live with the Assad regime. And if the administration continues to kill innocent people, international intervention, even if we do not demand it, will be a reality with the decision of the world. The Syrian public is not alone. Protection of human rights is a responsibility of the whole humanity. The world cannot remain silent to the murders of people like Hamza.
Can we say that the groups in the Antalya Conference are effective in Syria?
Some come to Syria and they are quite effective. The Syrian Revolution is not based on Islam or any party. The political parties in Syria are weak as a political life is out of question. Therefore, the ones making the revolution in Syria are not the parties, but the ordinary public, youth. In this conference, there are lots of ordinary young people.
In case the regime falls, which political power do you think will be closer to the government? Does the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood’s taking control make you nervous?
The important thing is to establish a democratic political structure. For example, after the revolution in Tunisia, lots of political parties were established. Maybe, it can be the case in Syria. This is an option.
In case the regime falls, what kind of Syria do you expect to emerge?
We want the Turkish model to be applied. I do not think that the Turkish model is an Islamic democracy. I know that the Syrian public trusts Turkey and adores the Prime Minister Erdogan. The Syrian public wants to open to the West. People dream of becoming like Turkey.
What can Turkey do so as to support the Syrian opponents?
Turkey can help us. Turkey can understand us. We reject any kind of Western intervention. However, we prefer Turkey and France because we have a history with Turkey. We know each other. The broadcast of Turkish TV series and movies in the Middle East enhanced the familiarity with Turkey. The Syrian public does not trust Israel or West. Turkey can support the Syrian opponents by pressuring the Syrian regime and using its influence on the West. Turkey has effectiveness on the Obama administration; she is close with the West. To illustrate, Turkey can withdraw her Damascus ambassador. I, as a French citizen, strive hard to make the French ambassador to Damascus to be withdrawn. Moreover, Turkey has economic relations with the Aleppo City. The city and businessmen do not support the protests due to their commercial interests. They support the regime. Turkey has an impact on trade at this point. By using this power, Aleppo can be made to change its side in favour of us.
Can we say that some minority groups in Aleppo support the regime?
Yes, for example, some Armenians live in Aleppo. There are lots of Armenians in France. When I told them to attend these conferences, they rejected. The Kurds in Aleppo are silent, too. In the Aleppo University, there was 500-person protest but his number is very low.
The Syrian Kurds defend that there has to be equality between themselves and the Arabs. Do the Arabs accept this equality?
The Kurds do not trust the Arabs. I can understand that. But in new Syria, there will be democracy. They will have the right to live their lives. They will be able to speak the Kurdish language. The official language and language of education will be Arabic, yet in schools, the Kurdish will be the second language. If their customs are respected, they are allowed to be organizing and given the same rights with the other Syrians; I do not think that there will be problems.
Some Syrian Kurdish parties demand an autonomous structure similar to the Iraqi one. How do you and the conference evaluate these demands?
We believe that the Kurds want to live with us. We believe that they will stay as our brothers. In France, there is the problem of Corsica, in Spain, there is the problem of Basque, and in Turkey you have similar problems. One can sit and talk to the Kurds. If there is a dialogue, I believe that we can understand each other better. I think this problem can be solved through liberal values and freedom. One should be optimistic and find the best solution.
Do you think that the opponents in Antalya have the potential to change the regime?
We cannot change the regime by ourselves. We are here to support the Syrian Revolution. Only the Syrian public can realize a regime change. There are lots of things we need to do as well. We are here because the Syrian public wants this.
Finally, can we learn about your expectations from this conference?
The opponents and some businessmen organize this conference. This conference is an opportunity for different groups to discover each other. I believe that the Syrian Revolution will embrace victory. It is the target of lots of groups and people. The conference will contribute to this process.
Ms. Atassi, thank you very much.
*This interview was conducted on June 1, 2011 during the conference in Antalya “Change in Syria Conference” by the ORSAM Middle East Advisor Assoc. Prof. Dr. Veysel Ayhan and ORSAM Middle East Specialist Oytun Orhan.