Interview with Haitham al-Maleh - transcript

Rebecca Lowe (RL) I am Rebecca Lowe from the IBA and joining me today at the Annual Conference in Dubai is Haitham al-Maleh.

Mr Maleh founded the Syrian Human Rights Association in 2001 and has been arrested several times by the Syrian authorities for speaking out against the government.  In 2009, he was convicted of spreading false and malicious information that would 'affect the morale of the nation' and spent eighteen months in prison.

Mr Maleh, welcome to Dubai.

Haitham al-Maleh (HM) Thank you very much.

RL Now, you said, a few months ago, that the Syrian regime would be finished within weeks, yet here we are in November and it's still there and it's still going strong.  What made you say that? ... and why do you think this prognosis hasn't come true?

HM In the beginning, on 15th March, it was a few people, not a lot and the people asked for freedom.  They wanted change, this is their right.  The regime started shooting the people ... killed the people without any reason, even they are peacefully ... they make strike, they make movement through the street, peacefully, without using any kind of weapon. I was in the street with the people also.  They do not think in their head using force, and myself and the others – the leaders in Syria – always we said for those youths who are in the street, they make the real revolution ... please continue as you are peacefully: we don't want to use any kind of force, even though those people, they have nothing

Even the knives – there are no knives ... even sticks – there are no sticks ... but they are facing the Intelligence Service who attack them, without any reason, by force, by sticks – electronic sticks, you know, and pistols, guns. They shoot the people directly, to be killed ... and the blood start, over the street. 

So when, after around a month, I have in the media ... inside Damascus, I said ‘This must be finished’, because when the regime kills its people, what does it mean? 

After two months of the revolution, the regime used the Army against the people ... so you see, they cover Syria with three thousand tanks.  You cannot imagine it. 

And, after that, he started using air force, aeroplanes, helicopter and other kinds of aeroplane, and before two months, he was [using] ships from the sea to attack the cities beside the sea. 

So what do you think about this regime?  Now, we have lost more than five thousand persons killed in Syria; and about the same number disappeared.  So, now, all the jails are full. He put the prisoners in schools, in sports area ... and we have around two hundred and fifty children, below thirteen years old, killed.  They attack the shops by streets – take everything from shops. So this kind of regime must be finished, I suppose.

RL ... Is it finished?  I mean, how will it finish?, because it seems that President Assad is not going to step down voluntarily.  He's just going to keep the violence going, upping the ante all the time. So, surely, it's just going to descend into a civil war, isn't it?

HM I don't think that we are going to a kind of civil war, even the regime is pushing the ... several backgrounds of the people – like Alawis par example, or some Druze. But, normally, he believes that he is Alawist and he is pushing the Alawis people to attack the others. This is dangerous. Most of the people – majority in Syria – they think that if they go in this way, so it will be very dangerous, not for the regime, but for society itself.  For that, until now the people on the street are very brave and clever.  So they still, ‘til now, going in safety way, even there is separate from other side of the Army.  Now, if there is some force used in Syria is from the side of the Army, or separate from the Army ...

RL So none of the demonstrators have used any force?

HM No, no.  There is not one of the demonstrators that has any kind of weapon, or pistols, or anything like this. I talk a lot with those people who are separate from the regime – some of them are majors, or generals – I talk with some of them in Turkey [?], by Skype, by telephone, from here, from Europe, from Germany.  They are planning to attack against the regime; they are planning to protect the demonstrators, you see. So, those army people who are separate from the Army, they believe themselves that they have to protect the demonstrators.

RL That sounds like a civil war though, doesn't it?  I mean, if you have, then, the Army attacking itself; you have defectors then taking up arms and then fighting the government ... I mean, is that not ...?

HM This is one of the scenarios of ... may happen in Syria.  Those who are separate from the Army, in my opinion, will attack the regime itself and finish it.

RL So it will be quick?

HM Maybe it will be not long – it will not take a long time, in my opinion.  And the second point is the economy.  The economy is not easy ... not a weak point – it is a very strong point. 

Now, the economy in Syria is low down, not firm, no fabric. There are no jobs, no export, all the hotels are empty and it is dangerous. Myself, I sent my word to the people to stop paying the taxes, or the value for water, for electricity.  They have to fight peacefully against the regime.  

This is ... some points for inside Syria. There are some points from outside Syria ... you see.  Par exemple, through my movement in Europe, I asked European countries to pull out their ambassadors from Damascus and to throw out the Syrian ambassadors, because the Syrian ambassadors are Intelligence Service, they are not political.

And, usually, they took pictures from demonstrators in Europe, send the pictures to Syria – to punish, to bother the family of the demonstrator outside, you see. 

So I ask to do that – this is a very important step for us.  Italy did it, and Switzerland. Some countries have their idea – like Germany, like France – they said that their ambassadors in Syria are active and it's ... they prefer to stay ... to leave their ambassador in Syria.  I said ‘Maybe, yes’ for some ambassadors, not all of them ... not all of them are the same ... not all of them are active.  And, also, asked the same from Arabic countries ... you know.  Now, Saudi Arabia – Qatar and Bahrain, Kuwait – pulled out their ambassador ...

RL ... and the US recently pulled out their ambassador ...

HM ... the US, yes ... the US is far, but it is very important for the Arabic countries.  Tunis pulled out their ambassador.  I took a promise from a Minister of Egypt – Foreign Affairs of Egypt – to not send an ambassador, because the ambassador had finished his time and then he will go back to Egypt and they will not send another one. 

Now, there is the United Emirates here – Dubai, Abu Dhabi and so on.  We asked to pull out their ambassador from Damascus, because you can see south of Syria is closed and we want to leave this regime alone. No one wants to shake hands.  How can any country shake hands for this kind of regime – killer regime?

RL And do you think that the international reaction to Syrian uprisings has been sufficient, because we couldn't even get a consensus on UN sanctions, and that you stepped up sanctions on Syria – banned oil imports – but there's been no move to, say, have a no-fly zone, or any sort of military intervention.  What do you think about that? Should more be being done?

HM Yes, I think we have some point this side. Europe – major European countries, like Germany, like Britain, like France, they have, or they can use some political pressure upon Russia to change their idea ... or China ... for not using a veto in the Security Council in New York and, secondly, we want to push the Security Council and the United Nations to take important steps against Syria – against the regime I mean – to send his file to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. 

Myself, I have visited as I said, the Court, and they are waiting for a decision from the Security Council, because what is going on in Syria is a kind of massacre against humanity – it's a crime against humanity – and the international community is responsible about this point, to protect the people – there's millions of people – to stop this regime to continue bloodshed. It is very important.

RL How sectarian is the conflict in Syria? Because, obviously, you have President Assad being Shia muslim, but you have the majority of the population being Sunni.  Is that religious aspect a large part of the tensions there? Or is it more to do specifically with civil or political ranks?

HM In our opinion, the majority in Syria are in the middle.  You can fight some people in the Far Left or Far Right – like any other nation.  You know, between Ireland and Britain, how many years were they fighting for religious war ... Catholic and so on. 

So, it happens in any nation, in any country, in any kind of people ... there are some people on the far Left or far Right, but the majority in Syria are in the middle.  We do not think about fighting between ethnic, or between religions. 

The people ... myself, I have a lot of friends that I do not know if they are Muslim or non-Muslim – it's not my job to ask them ‘Are you Christian?, or ‘Are you Arabist?’, or ‘Are you Shiite?’ It's not my job.  This is in the future.  God will ask them, not me ... it's not.  We must create a nice life for the future, for our children.

RL Egypt and Tunisia: one of the main factors in the revolution was the young age of the population.  In Egypt, I think, sixty per cent of the population is under the age of thirty.  What's the demographic of Syria?  Is this a youth uprising, in the same way it was in Tunisia and Egypt?

HM Yes, I think so.  The same ... most of the people are youth – below thirty years old – yes.  In Syria, for fifty years we have been under fascist dictatorship regime – police, a kind of army or police regime.  Most of the leaders are outside. They push the people to go outside, or to keep silent, or a lot of them have died.  So we couldn't build political parties in Syria. All the parties are very small and few, and weak also. 

I call it that desert ... we have desert thinking in the sight of political, because through fifty years underground, you cannot build a good life, for leaders, for the future.  Now, all the youth want to change this ... so, for that, they make their revolution; they create the revolution; they are on the street – out of any background thinking as parties, or politically.

They want only to change their life from this kind of regime – dictatorship regime – to democracy, to future ... good future.  By the way, this regime – the Assad family and the stuff around him – they took eighty-five per cent of our income – the national income, as you say it – and fifteen per cent for the others. Now, we have sixty per cent of the Assad [?] society in Syria ... and the level of poverty ... you see.  It is very dangerous.  We have thirty per cent of workers without a job.

RL Well I wanted to ask you about that, actually, because we’ve talked a lot about civil and political rights, about freedom of speech, human rights, democracy.  But, in Egypt, a large part of the unrest was about the corruption and the economy ... rising food prices.  In Syria, how much of the dissatisfaction is about corrupt elements in politics affecting the economy and affecting their own personal wealth and wellbeing?

HM Corruption in Syria is everywhere.  Everywhere you go, you can find corruption. From the police to the President himself. 

So, for that, I said now, you know, the main point ... the main job for any parliament all over the world is to control the government, to control the money – where is the money? Where do you spend the money?  This is our money. 

Now, from 1963, no parliament has done this job.  All years past, and there is no control. 

By the way, the value of the petrol – we said petrol, but where is the value? – is under the control of the President himself.  So where is the back [?] value? 

Mohamad Maluf, the cousin of Bashar Assad, used the jury to make a telephone call to the Minister of Oil. An order to fill the ship in Tartous and the ship went to sea with some persons there to sell the oil and put the value in his pocket. 

So, for that, I ask the European countries to stop buying their oil ... the Syrian oil, because the value does not go to the people ... it goes for their pocket.

RL One concern among those who were watching events unfold in Syria is that the opposition seems fairly disorganised and fragmented. But then recently we had the birth of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and that seemed to dispel some of those concerns.  What do you think about the SNC?  Does this give hope?  Does this mean that the end of the regime is close?

HM It is a step ... maybe it's not a completely good step, but anyway ... because, as I said, we have desert thinking, political thinking, for this fifty years. Most of the conferences happened outside Syria, they built this National Council.  Even in this National Council ... it's not ... collect all the leaders in Syria ... all the important persons in Syria.

RL So, it's mainly a youth movement?, because I understood there were two factions to it: there was the youth element and the old guards, but is it mainly youth who were ...?

HM Yes, mainly youth, yes.  But it is a good step, because the Syrian revolution want to see a side to negotiate ... for dealing with the outside ... with the international community. 

Inside Syria they want to look at one council of the opposition.  Now we have two councils for this side: one council inside Syria ... those inside Syria, they are very afraid, you know, it's not easy to build any opposition council inside Syria, because they will be a target for the regime. 

For that, the National Council outside Syria, I think through couple of days it will build themselves ...and it will be their ... one negotiation, or one leader for the political council for the opposition.

RL And do you think that this one unified oppositional council will receive the same recognition internationally as the Libyan Transitional Council has?

HM Yes, it's not perfect, but similar.  But I heard that they went to Libya and the Libyan opposition, or the Libyan regime now, they gave them an offer to give them some money, or some weapons, or something to help the revolution in Syria, and this time they said ‘We don't need anything from you, but we need some political pressure’. 

The connection between the Syrian National Council and Libya now ... it's a good step.  We hope to have the same steps from other countries, European countries, and the international community.

RL And if we can't enact change in Syria through political pressure alone, you would be happy to have some sort of military intervention, in a similar way as it happened in Libya, with a Security Council consensus?

HM If what happened in Libya happens in Syria, it will be very dangerous, because ... you know, Libya as a country, is double the size of Egypt ... and all Libyans are five millions. Syria is a small country and we have twenty-three million persons, so if any army attacked over Syria, it would be very dangerous. But, myself, I asked, through the Human Rights Council in Geneva ... I asked the international community ... Security Council, to take steps to make some areas safe for the people in Syria, to send a kind of army.  They have ... like in Lebanon now, there is an army ... which follows the Security Council.  The Security Council can take a step in this side and maybe they can connect it with Turkey, because of the border between Syria and Turkey.

RL I mean, al-Assad enjoys very strong support in Lebanon, in Iran, in Palestine.  Some believe if Syria falls, it's going to create chaos across the region.  It could destabilise Turkey – you spoke about Turkey just then – Israel ... really the whole of the Middle East.  Is that a concern?

HM I don't think so.   This regime is the best for Israel.  I think, you know, that the border between Syria and Palestine is very quiet.  Now, forty years Golan is occupied from Israel ... and Syrian regime did not take any step, but it was ... make negotiation under the table by Turkey.  But Babaganda gave some speech in the media ... ‘We are against ... we are against’ – like Saddam Hussein, like Gaddafi ... the same way.  But those Arabic regimes, or leaders, they are not leaders – they are kind of regimes ... they are only thinking about the ways to keep their power, because they took the money; they stole the country. I said myself, before, several times in the media, they stole the country.

RL I would just like to ask you some questions more generally about the Arab Spring.  Firstly, about Saudi Arabia: it's often been seen as the regional power broker in the region ... and how do you think relations will develop between Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East, as a result of that Arab Spring?

HM If Syria changes, and I'm believing it will succeed, all the area will be changed. Syria can be like Japan in the Far East – not because I am Syrian – the Syrian people are clever, strong, can create a good life. 

Through the Second War, there were no imports, no economy. In Syria we did everything we needed – we did not import anything from outside; the people inside can create, can build anything, and they are clever enough. 

So, we need you to help us; not for us – for both of us. We are a neighbour; we are like a corporation ... like a company. We are together; we are a nation; we are humanity; we are human beings.  So why do we do not build our life safely, peacefully, without fighting?  This is a big question.

RL Well, it's a very good question to end on, so thank you very much for joining us, Mr Maleh.

HM Thank you too.