The growing threat posed by the Assad regime against nearly 3.5 million civilians in Idlib, northwestern Syria, continues to be at the top of the agenda for the international community.
The world cannot leave the Syrian people at the mercy of Bashar Assad and his regime, which is looking to wipe out its opposition in Idlib with its latest offensive, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in an opinion piece to the Wall Street Journal published last week.
While Turkey is taking the initiative to establish a permanent cease-fire against the possibility of a humanitarian tragedy in the region, the international community is still inadequate in meeting with this common ground.
Giving an exclusive interview to Daily Sabah on the latest developments in Idlib, National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Chairman Abdurrahman Mustafa signified the city's prominence by referring to it as "the last bastion of the opposition." Mustafa added that recent attacks on Idlib have been forcing people out of the province, causing a change in the demographics of the region.
Mustafa was elected as the head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in May 2018.
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which is commonly known as the Syrian National Coalition, is a coalition of Syrian moderate opposition groups. It was founded in November 2012 in the Qatari capital Doha. Former imam of the famous Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Moaz al-Khatib was elected as the president of the coalition. The coalition has a council of 114 seats.
In May 2013, the coalition gave membership to 15 representatives of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), allowing direct representation of the opposition from Syria in a political group for the first time.
INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY CANNOT RUN AWAY FROM ITS RESPONSIBILITIES
Turkey and other international actors have repeatedly warned the Assad regime and its backers – Russia and Iran – to avoid any offensive on Idlib due to the possibility of a humanitarian catastrophe that would cause massive casualties and a new wave of migration.
In an effort to restore calm in the region and improve the humanitarian situation, the three cease-fire guarantor states – Turkey, Iran and Russia – launched the Astana process on Jan. 23, 2017 to complement the U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva.
Idlib is one of the de-escalation areas designated in the Astana talks between Turkey and the regime's allies, Russia and Iran, and has been turned into a shelter for opposition fighters and their families who were evacuated from different parts of the war-torn country.
Sharing his comments on these processes to stop the crisis in Idlib, Mustafa expressed that all guarantors, with the exception of Turkey, relinquished their responsibilities, allowing Syrian regime forces to capture Hums and Daraa.
"People living in these regions were forced to immigrate; of course, the existence of terrorist organizations also accelerated this process. Ultimately, by using terrorist organizations as an excuse, Russia started to change the demographic structure there," Mustafa said.
Moreover, he asserted that civilians and hospitals instead of terrorists were bombed since September 2015 intentionally to further this demographic shift.
Mustafa claimed that Iran and Russia are also pursuing a similar policy in Syria; he said that this pushed all people toward Idlib which is one of the de-escalation zones under the supervision of Turkey.
Mustafa claims that the Syrian regime along with its supporters Russia and Iran want to realize a military operation to the city, using Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's (HTS) presence as an excuse.
"There are almost three million civilians there. As the Syrian opposition, we have always stood against terrorist organizations like Daesh, HTS or the al-Qaida affiliated Nusra Front. However, those who sustained these terrorists now want to eliminate the moderate opposition, change the demographics and reestablish Assad's rule," he said.
CONSTANT STIGMATIZATION OF OPPOSITION
Regarding the stigmatization of the opposition, Mustafa asserted that initially they were demanding democratization via peaceful protests but began to arm themselves six months after the beginning of the revolution, following Syrian regime's violent attempts to suppress these protests.
"This is the case today because new terrorist organizations like Daesh, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) [the PKK terrorist group's Syrian affiliate] emerged throughout the process. Now, people who talk about human rights and democracy are under constant pressure from the regime."
He underscored that the indifference of both the international community and U.N. especially toward human rights violations and war crimes like the usage of chemical weapons played into the hands of Assad.
U.S. REEVALUATING THE SITUATION IN SYRIA
Furthermore, Mustafa asserted that the indifference of the international community and the U.N. will possibly lead to a great humanitarian crisis in Idlib while voicing his concerns over the military operation targeting the city.
He added that this burden should not be only Turkey's and that, as Syrian people, they are hopeful seeing the U.S.' special representative Ambassador James Jeffrey being appointed as the new Syrian envoy. According to Mustafa, this means the White House is re-evaluating the situation in Syria.
Despite the apparent differences in outlook regarding the Idlib predicament, Mustafa is hopeful as the recent diplomatic transactions are on the parallel with Turkey's and the Syrian National Council's policies.
"Of course, they should act on it as well. The political resolution that will realize the demands of the real Syrian people is necessary," Mustafa said.
ASTANA AND SOCHI MEETINGS
Reminding readers of Turkey's active involvement after the fall of Aleppo to the regime forces, Mustafa affirmed that de-escalation zones were established to halt Assad from regaining total control over Syria. He underscored that Astana is a military process which emerged after the deadlock in the Geneva meetings organized by the U.N.
Mustafa expressed that they support the Astana process as they believe it would accelerate the political process as well.
"Unfortunately, this was infringed by Russia as they desire to reestablish Assad's control over Syria, especially following Aleppo. They continue to infringe the agreement with actions in Idlib. We are grateful for Turkey's diplomatic initiatives; yet, the international community, especially the U.S. and EU, has to also take part in the realization of the political process," he said.
SYRIAN OPPOSITION SUPPORTS SOCHI PROCESS
Mustafa also expressed that as the Syrian National Council they have supported the Sochi process and that they played an important role in the creation of the Constitution Commission through the High Negotiations Council.
He underlined that Turkey will propose candidates for the commission as the guarantor of the Syrian opposition while Iran, Russia and Steffan de Mistura will propose their list of candidates.
"Some 45 of the 150 proposed candidates will be appointed to the Constitution Commission. We are in coordination with Turkey," added Mustafa.
He also asserted that de Mistura has to be objective in these matters so that a political resolution is possible in Syria.
A POLITICAL RESOLUTION IMPAIRED BY TERRORISM
While underscoring that the U.S.' passivity in the matters have allowed Russia to gain more ground in Syria, Mustafa claimed that a permanent resolution in Syria would only be possible if it adheres to the demands of the Syrian people.
He expressed that the Syrian opposition always advocated political resolution and even negotiated with the regime during the Geneva process in 2014 with the initiative of de Mistura.
Mustafa asserted that the supporters of the regime should be stopped, saying, "The international community has to halt these supporters. As the opposition, we have always advocated a political resolution. However, Russia seeks a military resolution; it's Russia which tries to undermine the de-escalation zones."
He added that terrorism is also a serious issue in Syria which impairs the quest for a political resolution. According to Mustafa, terrorism emerged due to the actions of the Syrian regime and that terrorist organizations were supported by the regime in accordance with their own interests.
TERROR GROUPS NOT IN CONFLICT WITH ASSAD REGIME
The Syrian regime supported terrorist organizations in accordance with their own interests. He underlined that none of the terrorist organizations attacked the regime or its forces.
"If you look at it carefully, you will see that these terrorist organizations like the PYD, the Nusra Front and Daesh have taken our lands and passed them on to others. For instance, Daesh left certain territories to the PYD and others to the regime," he said.
"There's a similar case in Ghouta with the Nusra Front. Therefore, terrorist organizations and radical groups actually serve those who are in control of territories once liberated by the opposition. It's obviously a plan; PKK and its offspring PYD are present there with the excuse of fighting against Daesh," he added.
Mustafa also claimed that Daesh never ceased to exist and that it emerges and disappears when the order is given by a certain power.
POSSIBLE OUTCOMES OF A MILITARY OPERATION WOULD BE DRAMATIC
Expressing that organizations like al-Qaida and the Nusra Front are all terrorist, Mustafa stated that the number of HTS militants are estimated to be around 10,000 by various sources but he believes it's less than that.
Meanwhile, he asserted that fighting terrorism in a way which leads to civilian casualties is unacceptable and that the lives of civilians should be secured through the establishment of de-escalation zones before launching a counterterrorism operation.
"Terrorism is a global issue and all should join this fight. The moderate opposition and the Free Syrian Army are always ready to realize their duties in this regard. For this reason, we are in Idlib. We have the numbers to resolve this issue but it requires global cooperation," Mustafa said.
NEW REFUGEE INFLUX WILL FUEL INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CRISIS AND TERROR
Affirming that a military intervention with disregard to civilian lives in Idlib could result in the mobilization of 2-3 million people, he said the situation might evolve into another international refugee crisis along with an international security and terror crisis.
Mustafa also asserted that it would be nearly impossible to distinguish terrorists from innocent civilians when the numbers are in the millions.
"There are militants among these people, the HTS and various other terrorist organizations. Moreover, Assad also has militants there; they're also a terrorist element. They might realize certain attacks in Europe and all around the world to provoke," he said.
NECESSITY OF A POLITICAL SOLUTION
In this respect, Mustafa called all parties to maintain the de-escalation zone in Idlib and to eliminate terrorist elements there. He claimed that terrorism has caused most harm to the Syrian people and that they had to fight hard against terrorist organizations.
Proposing a coalition similar to the one established against Daesh for the elimination of terrorist elements in Idlib, Mustafa underlined the necessity of a joint strategy.
According to him, this might lead to the acceleration of the political settlement and a popular constitution which is based on the rights of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 and the principles of the Geneva meetings.
ASSAD'A DEPARTURE NOT PRECONDITION BUT THE ULTIMATE GOAL
Mustafa expressed that even though they have accepted negotiations without preconditions during the Riyadh meetings, they envision the future of Syria without Assad.
"Ultimately, we wouldn't want a terrorist which has massacred the Syrian people, turned Syria into a nest of terrorism and made the whole word focus on our country to remain in power. We didn't set this as a precondition as we desire to support the political process and negotiations with U.N. decisions; however, as the Syrian revolutionaries and the Syrian National Council, our ultimate goal is a Syria without Assad," he asserted.
Mustafa affirmed that Assad is a terrorist threat to the globe greater than Daesh and that Idlib is the last opposition bastion.
"We hope that the international community becomes more sensitive toward this subject and actively seeks a fair political resolution for Syria," he stated.
ASSAD CONDUCTED CHLORINE ATTACKS 3 TIMES IN 2018
Regarding the usage of chemical weapons, Mustafa asserted that there is no difference between conventional and chemical weapons as both of them extinguish precious human life. He affirmed that the acquisition and stockpiling of chemical weapons is a crime according to international law and that this is being disregarded by all parties.
"The U.N. has an investigative commission on the usage of chemical weapons in Syria. According to the report dated Sept. 12, 2018 of this independent investigative commission, three chlorine attacks took place in 2018. They have the findings, they document these findings; yet, the U.N. neither condemns these attacks nor forces sanctions on the perpetrator despite the infringement of international law. [Former U.S. President Barack] Obama had claimed that his administration had disarmed Assad of these chemical weapons through negotiations. It's now revealed that this was nothing but a lie," he concluded.