Would Syrians never have an Alexei Navalny of their own?

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (Edited by Enab Baladi)

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (Edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi-Diana Rahima

In 2020, the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny survived an assassination attempt, while Germany confirmed that he was poisoned with the Soviet Union developed Novichok nerve agent. 

Showing rare courage and despite the long prison sentence that awaited him, Navalny returned to Russia—not only as the leader of the growing Russian opposition but also as an international icon for resistance against President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin elite.

Russian authorities arrested 5,7000 persons at least, who held large-scale protests in the capital Moscow in support of Navalny. These were arrested for embarking on unauthorized protests, the authorities said.

In addition to arrests, Russian authorities blocked roads and closed metro stations in Moscow, trying to control the protests.

These events catalyzed several questions among Syrian observers. Would any Syrian anti-regime figures return to Syria to fight the popular battle and breathe life into the revolution? Would they dare make Navalny’s decision, who returned to Russia though aware of the Russian regime’s ability to bring him to his demise once he is there?

One other essential question begged an answer. Is a comparison even possible between the two regimes’ means of handling voices of dissent?  

The former President of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, believes that returning to Syria is impossible given that the country is controlled by a “gang,” whether led by the president of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, or any other party.

No international guarantee can ensure the safe return of any Syrian opposition figure should they return to Syria, Ghalioun told Enab Baladi.

Over the past 10 years, Syrians have been aware of the real position of Western countries; their influence, and their willingness to protect civilians and stop the crimes of blind bloodshed and callous violations, which international human rights organizations described as “crimes against humanity and war crimes” carried out by the regime’s government with the intention of coercing Syrians to leave the country, to empty the country of its population, and to deter the displaced from returning home, he added.

Return possible on one condition

Syrian intellectual and opposition figure Burhan Ghalioun

Syrian intellectual and opposition figure Burhan Ghalioun

The return to Syria is possible under one condition. That is when all Syrian citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs and political leanings, feel safe through establishing the rule of law and respect of basic human rights, Ghalioun said.

Ghalioun refused to call the Syrian regime “oppressive” because the label fails to describe its behavior towards its people. Three-quarters of the political regimes around the world are oppressive or undemocratic, but none have used chemical weapons for mass killing and extermination against their own people.

None of the other regimes have waged a war with barrel bombs to displace the population and destroy cities, which remain decimated, or have allowed hundreds of foreign sectarian militias into their countries to tamper with security and terrorize their people, he added.

The Syrian regime is not only oppressive or despotic, as is the case with dozens of the world’s regimes, including the Putinian regime in Russia. The Syrian regime is based on the largest scales of organized crime, which placed the state’s security apparatus, army, and civil administration, as well as hospitals, education, and health facilities at the service of genocide and revenge against its people. The people the regime is used to treat as a herd of slaves, and from whom the word freedom was never expected, Ghalioun added.

The lives of opposition figures, nonpartisan people, and even regime loyalists themselves are no longer safe and the war continues against the entire Syrian people, to subjugate Syrians across the national spectrum, regardless of their political affiliations, he added.

We have 300,000 Navalnies

President of the Syrian National Coalition Naser al-Hariri

President of the Syrian National Coalition Naser al-Hariri

There are 300,000 Syrian Navlanies in the regime’s detention facilities. There are even larger numbers who are subjected to the most hideous forms of torture, and are dying as a result, President of the Syrian National Coalition, Naser al-Hariri, told Enab Baladi.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), over 148,000 persons, documented by name, remain either detained or forcibly disappeared. The Syrian regime has perpetrated 88.24% of these arrests and disappearances.

Certainly, there are several authoritarian regimes around the world, which share important commonalities, al-Hariri said.  Nevertheless, no regime surpasses the Syrian regime, neither in criminality, in repression, nor in the insistence on killing everything that moves in Syria.

There cannot be a bet on the regime, after all the crimes it has committed, and all the weapons it has used against the Syrian people, including barrel bombs, cluster bombs, chemical weapons, and torture to death. No one can expect from the regime the slightest amount of freedom or the space for any democratic exercise, he added.

Navalny’s return is courageous and worthy of praise, and it is part of the continuous efforts made by the Russian opposition against the repressive power of the Kremlin, al-Hariri said.

The Syrian opposition is part of the global struggle for the implementation of human rights, democracy, and freedom, and, in turn, it stands by all fighters for and defenders of these rights, he added.

Al-Hariri pointed out that the revolutionary forces and institutions are now present in the “liberated areas”—northern Syria— and that the headquarters of the Coalition has moved to Syria about two years ago, while most of the meetings are held there.

As for the revolutionary presence abroad, al-Hariri said, it is a matter of logistics related to the follow-up of some issues essential to the Syrian people’s cause.

Of course, I wish to return!

Syrian opposition figure Michel Kilo

Syrian opposition figure Michel Kilo

“Of course, I wish to return to Syria! But what we want is a guarantee so that we can make open our opposition to the world and provide unconditional support for the rights of the people inside the country,” Syrian opposition figure Michel Kilo told Enab Baladi.

“What if we return only to be covered by the international silence about the crimes committed in Syria, recounted to us by one of the knowledgeable and well-informed witnesses (Z30) of Koblenz trial in Germany—the trial of those involved in torture in Syria— who estimated that at least 1.5 million Syrians died under torture, and there are a million other Syrians who died under the bombing of the regime forces,” Kilo said.

He also posed the following question, “are not the dead a matter of concern for Western and international governments, as the opposition figure Navalny, who preoccupied Western countries to the extent that international relations between Russia and the European Union were almost cut off for his sake?”

There is a huge difference between the two situations. Should any opposition figure return to Syria, they will be among the dead within an hour, according to Kilo. “Then what benefit will the revolution make from the return of any figures, who, while abroad, demonstrate some form of the Syrian people’s choice not to accept the Assad regime, and express a voice other than the official voice of the regime’s government?”

Kilo believes that Russia has learned to accept that there is opposition in the country and is working to liquidate its icons, while the Syrian regime still believes the idea that opposition does not exist at all and that it cannot exist per se if an opposition exists.

Two oppressive regimes; are they the same?

Syrian journalist and opposition figure Ayman Abdul Nour

Syrian journalist and opposition figure Ayman Abdul Nour

The former head of the Support for the Syrian Revolution Committee in Russia and member of the command of the opposition-affiliated Democratic People’s Party, Mahmoud Hamza said that as a matter of comparison, the Syrian regime and its Russian counterpart differ “starting with the arrests the Syrian regime’s intelligence agencies carry out against the opposition activists abroad, and even refugees returning to Syria.”

At large, the Russian regime is totalitarian and authoritarian, but still, it provides certain margins of freedom because a significant part of Russia is located in and has strong ties with Europe. Therefore, Russia is forced, in some cases, to take into consideration these ties when dealing with Europe or the U.S. Even so, when the authorities feel that a Russian opposition figure is a threat, they imprison him/her, and there is actually a large number of such dissidents in the Russian prisons.

Despite this, the Russian regime does not allow the freedom of practicing political or democratic work, just like the Syrian regime. Even the elections are a matter of formalities, for in Russia, the United Russia ruling party, is identical to the Ba’ath party in Syria, Russia-based Hamza said.

For its part, the Syrian regime will not accept any Syrian opposition figures’ return home, unless they belong to the group described as those “returning to the bosom of the homeland,” he added. These are not real oppositionists and do not have an influence on the Syrian people.

There are arrest warrants against thousands of pro-opposition Syrians, which will haunt them as soon as they return. In Russia, the situation is different. Consequently, unless the al-Assad regime is ousted, we should not place any hopes on safe return to Syria, whether the returnees are opposition figures or refugees who protested the oppressive regime, Hamza said.

The revolution broke out to effect political change within the regime and transform it from the corrupt oppressive regime it is to a national democratic one, which means the departure of al-Assad. Otherwise, detention, murder, execution will be the fate awaiting pro-opposition figures if they ever return, he added.

The regime has been holding to militarization for 10 years, and it is unlikely that it will divert from it without international pressure. Russia itself is clashing with the regime today, Hamza said, for it wants a political solution and settlement even if it is achieved the Russian way. Russia is acting for its own good during the reconstruction phase and is seeking to utilize Russian investments in Syria, while the Syrian regime, backed by Iran, insists to go on with the military solution.

The Russian regime is quite distinct from its Syrian counterpart. Russia is seeking to realize its interests in a diplomatic way. The regime, however, is after its own good in a “crazy way” and through applying the infamous saying: “Assad or we burn the country.”

Russian version unavailable in Syria

Syrian researcher and opposition figure Mahmoud Hamza

Syrian researcher and opposition figure Mahmoud Hamza

“Should have the Syrian revolution gave rise to leaders with a domestic dimension; a long-standing struggle inside the country; and popular support, like Navalny, and then one of these leaders went abroad for treatment and returned later to Syria, it would have been difficult for the regime to imprison or liquidate them.  Because imprisonment or liquidation would have turned into an external and internal burden to the regime,” the pro-opposition Syrian journalist and head of the Syrian Christians for Peace Association, Ayman Abdul Nour, told Enab Baladi.

“It is why we see, for example, figures from the domestic Syrian opposition, who had weight inside Syria and have always been against the regime, getting kidnapped by the regime. In the case of Aziz al-Khair and Abdel-Majid Mnjouna, the regime decided to kidnap, not arrest, them for fear of international claim to these persons.”

The regime did not mind the decision of the domestic opposition figures, who had weight inside the country, to go abroad. These figures’ departure has actually relieved the popular pressure they caused at home. The regime made the best of this point, Abdul Nour said. “Unfortunately, all the opposition leaders that had influence inside Syria have left.”

The existing entities of the Syrian opposition were all founded outside Syria or have emerged after the revolution. Therefore, they do not own an extension or partisan base in Syria, while unable to hold any visits to the country. The regime was careful not to allow any of the popular figures to stay in Syria, either incarcerating these figures or cutting them off the world outside, he added.

According to Abdul Nour, the Russia-propagated return scenario can be applied only after a political solution is put in place; a new constitution is adopted; changes are made within the army and security services so that they belong to the state, not to the al-Assad family. Because, only then, the army and security services would protect the opposition by defending the homeland, not the rule, nor the ruling family’s regime.

When the said conditions are met, opposition figures must return home and be active, work, and mobilize energies. Only by then, competition inside Syria is rendered normal, since risking life is part of political action.

Not only opponents, but also their relatives are detained

Freedom of expression is absent in Syria due to the absolute encroachment of the regime’s security services on every aspect of the Syrian people’s life. The regime’s practices over the past 10 years stand as an example, for the regime, before 2011, has approved laws based on which it built exceptional, security, and political courts aimed at ending its political opponents.

One SNHR report notes that the vast majority of laws issued by the Syrian regime (through decrees, or via the People’s Assembly which is wholly subservient to the regime) explicitly contradict international human rights law, and frighteningly restrict freedom of opinion and expression.

According to the SNHR’s figures, at least 20,842 people, including 13 children and 27 women, are still under arrest or forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime forces, due to their close ties with participants in the popular movement against the Syrian regime, arrested throughout the period between March 2011 and 21 December 2020.

Chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) Fadel Abdul Ghany

Chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) Fadel Abdul Ghany

There is no comparison between the dictatorial regime in Russia, with the space of freedom and resistance to power it allows, and the dictatorial regime in Syria, because the extent of violence and brutality exceeds practiced by the latter exceeds even that attributed to the Iranian regime. Speaking of brutality, the Syrian regime is more analogous to the North Korean regime, Chairman of SNHR, Fadel Abdul Ghany, told Enab Baladi. 

When detained, opposition-affiliated persons are not held captive for a period of three years, nor their sentence is subsequently reduced, or allowed regular visits, he added. Ordinary activists, if they return to Syria or even their families, will be destined to disappear and be killed under torture. Not even lawyers can access these people, Abdul Ghany added.

In Russia, both the populace and the media pressed the authorities. This pressure has ultimately resulted in easing the sentence against Navalny. When it comes to Syria, it is impossible to approach the regime with similar pressure, neither from the people themselves, nor the countries worldwide. This is because the regime is indifferent to its image in front of the people, while Putin toiled to polish his image in front of his people.

Abdul Ghany based his reading into the situation on the experiences of citizens who returned to Syria, particularly those who were not politically active. These people were arrested the moment they entered Syria, leaving their countries of asylum. A large segment of these was forcibly disappeared; some were forcibly recruited into the regime’s army.

Unlike the Russian regime, the Syrian regime has looted opponents’ assets. The Navalny family was not subjected to such abuses, he added.

Nuancing arrests of politically involved opposition figures, Abdul Ghany referred to the arrest of the brother of the chief negotiator in the High Negotiating Committee (HNC), Mohammad Sabra. The said brother was arrested shortly after the first round of the Geneva Talks, even though the regime has repeatedly promised the U.N. it will not harass opposition figures’ relatives.

Of the total persons detained in Syria, nearly 84,000 are forcibly disappeared by the regime and are mostly considered as political detainees, because the SNHR documents cases of arrest carried out on political pretexts. The SNHR does not record arrests perpetrated on the grounds of criminal offenses, clan disputes, or family feuds. The network’s scope of documentation covers persons arrested and disappeared for their political activities against the ruling authority, whether this authority is the regime or any other actor in the Syrian conflict.

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