Israeli air strikes in Damascus, allegations of chemical weapons use in Aleppo, revenge massacres on the Syrian coast: to write about Syria nowadays is to become an expert in arms and gruesome forensics. So, what room is there for an opposition politician who calls himself a pacifist?
Haytham Manna, a veteran activist from Dara’a, the city where the Syrian revolt first erupted in March 2011, leads the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB) outside the country. It is Syria’s other opposition; the most visible one, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, is rooted in Turkey and Qatar, while the NCB has more of a political presence inside the country.
Like the National Coalition, the NCB is an umbrella of different groups; but whereas the former leans towards the exiled Muslim Brotherhood and the Sunni Gulf states, the NCB is more secular, a hotchpotch of leftists and Kurdish nationalists, many of whom were formerly working underground. Much of the external opposition is happy to lead the charge for Nato arms or intervention, but Manna and the NCB would prefer to grow the democratic forces within the country – to foment something between a “national dialogue” and a “national revolution”. It has made him unpopular among many Syrians.
When I meet Manna, in London on a rare visit from his base in Paris, I ask about his brother, who was arrested, tortured and killed by Assad’s security services early on in the revolt. Does he understand people who decided then that the only way to get rid of the Syrian regime was through force? “Understanding is one thing,” Manna says. “But recommending it, following it as a political programme, is another. When you’re in a situation like ours, you can’t take on the job of psychotherapist . . . They’ve given the regime a longer life with this way of struggle. We were a really attractive force for the society. Now we are not.”
The Syrian opposition hadn’t quite won the democratic argument, he thinks; given the forces arraigned against it, the best approach was to expand the movement and use pressure from the Arab League and the UN Security Council to force the regime out. But in the early months of the uprising, people were looking to army defectors just to protect their demonstrations – was he against even that? Of course not, he says. “Self-defence means that when someone comes to your house to attack, you can use the right to defend yourself. This is normal in all societies. But from the moment when you go to attack a military unit or confront or occupy a quarter of a city or a village, that’s another thing.”
Manna’s most compelling – and prescient – arguments aren’t moral, but strategic and political. Fighting an armed insurgency is expensive and he worries that, following the Arab spring, Turkey and the oil-rich states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are using their influence among the cashstrapped Syrian rebels to push their own agendas and jockey for regional position. Perhaps as a result, he and his colleagues aren’t often seen on al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, the two Gulfbased satellite channels that have been cheerleading for the armed revolt.
Manna trained as an anthropologist and you can hear it in the timbre of his arguments. “We think that today the organic structure of the society will dominate any violent action,” he says. “It will be sectarian, it will be Islamist, it will be tribal. It will be not be civil or republican.” If Islamist groups dominate, “it will be about vengeance”. But if that’s what most Syrians want, shouldn’t they have it?
“There isn’t a majority for that. If there was, why not? But 40 per cent of Syrian society, the minorities, are not with the Islamist project [Manna includes Kurds, the 10 per cent who are largely Sunni but not Arab, so don’t fit squarely in either camp], and I don’t think that the 60 per cent who are Arab Sunnis will want it either. I don’t think all of them are with the jihadist groups.”
What started out as a movement for freedom and democratic rights may well end up as the foil for a pointless but all-encompassing regional war. For their reliance on the Gulf states, Manna has labelled the external opposition in Turkey and Qatar “traitors” and stands by it. The feeling is mutual, I tell him. At the border between Syria and Turkey last summer, I came across an ageing rebel sentry cradling a Kalashnikov under a tree and asked him what he thought of Manna. “Haytham Manna is a traitor,” he barked. “He works with Bashar al-Assad, and with [Syrian] state security. We will not let him back into Syria when we win.”
James Harkin’s e-book “War Against All: the Struggle for Northern Syria” is out now (Kindle, £1.49)