Syrian opposition leader skeptical of US plan to arm rebels
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Syrian opposition leader skeptical of US plan to arm rebels

‘Syria needs institutions before weapons,’ Kamal Labwani says of Obama’s move to rally moderate fighters against Islamic State

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

In this Friday, Jan. 6, 2012 photo, Kamal al-Labwani, 54, speaks to a crowd during an anti-Assad rally in Amman, Jordan (photo credit: AP/Mohammad Hannon)
In this Friday, Jan. 6, 2012 photo, Kamal al-Labwani, 54, speaks to a crowd during an anti-Assad rally in Amman, Jordan (photo credit: AP/Mohammad Hannon)

In its effort to thwart the Islamic State’s expansion in Syria, the United States should invest in institution-building and local leadership before sending military aid, a leading Syrian oppositionist said Thursday, during his first visit to Israel in a personal capacity to attend the annual International Conference on Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya.

Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Kamal al-Labwani, a former political prisoner of the Assad regime currently residing in Sweden, said US President Barack Obama’s policy speech on Wednesday — in which he outlined his plan for eradicating the Islamic State — was important in recognizing the existence of a moderate Syrian opposition in need of strengthening.

Labwani described his 10-day visit to Israel as “academic” and “exploratory” and stated he was prepared to meet with Israeli policymakers “whenever they want.”

He said that America’s top priority in Syria should be investment in local organizations and infrastructure, lest US military support be funneled to extremists.

“Currently, the aid could fall into the wrong hands in the absence of good management and oversight,” Labwani said. “Real authority on the ground requires investment in organization before the aid is even sent.”

Syrian opposition leader Kamal al-Labwani at the ICT conference in Herzliya, September 11, 2014 photo credit: Moti Kahana)
Syrian opposition leader Kamal al-Labwani (right) at the ICT conference in Herzliya, September 11, 2014 (photo credit: Moti Kahana)

On Wednesday, Obama announced that the US has “ramped up its military assistance to the Syrian opposition,” calling on Congress to allocate more funds for training and equipping moderate anti-regime fighters. The US president ruled out the possibility of cooperating with the Assad regime — which he said “will never regain the legitimacy it has lost” — in combating the Islamic State.

Labwani seconded that sentiment.

“We cannot fight terror with terror or crime with crime,” he said. “We must combat all the criminals, be they the regime or the terrorists from the Islamic State and the other gangs. You can’t have the Syrian people choose between a criminal named Bashar Assad or a terrorist named [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi.”

The crimes committed by the Assad regime are “much more numerous, and heinous, than those committed by the Islamic State,” said Labwani, who spent a decade of his life in and out of Assad prisons. He feared that in the West’s eagerness to combat the Islamic State, the Shiite terrorism of Hezbollah and the Assad regime may be neglected, causing the Sunni majority in Syria to feel as though the US is engaged in a sectarian battle against them.

‘They [the Americans] have counted on failed regimes. They gave a portfolio to Qatar and a portfolio to Saudi Arabia … but it’s the Syrians who must take responsibility and run their own lives’

But Syria’s Supreme Military Council, the command center of the moderate Free Syrian Army based in Turkey and headed by Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah- al-Bashir, currently has no control over soldiers on the ground, Labwani said. The Istanbul-based Opposition Coalition, a political organ of which Labwani used to be a member, similarly has no bearing on people inside the country, he said.

“We must reconstruct a new leadership connected to the people,” he said. “This would also require a no-fly zone. It would be pointless to create a system inside and have the [Assad] regime destroy it.”

So far, interested regional powers have been funding military units within Syria that advance their own agendas in the country, a situation Labwani said was unsustainable.

“They [the Americans] have relied on failed regimes. They gave a portfolio to Qatar and a portfolio to Saudi Arabia … but it’s the Syrians who must take responsibility and run their own lives. We could, for instance, form a base in liberated areas in the north and the south and establish good relations with people. But to receive orders from a Saudi sheikh or a Qatari sheikh or from foreign intelligence agencies? That won’t work.”

“How can we turn this chaos into order? We need to build an authority on the ground. This requires a budget, an economy, institutions, reconstruction, protection. Weapons aren’t enough.”

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