“We will continue to say No to the Assad government”

Non-violent Syrian opposition network now backs call for military support

Syrian opposition figure Rafif Jouejati. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Syrian opposition figure Rafif Jouejati. Photograph: Aidan Crawley


Rafif Jouejati was busy working as chief executive of a management consulting firm in Washington DC when the winds blowing from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya reached the country of her birth in early 2011. Up to that point, Jouejati, who had met Bashar al-Assad when he succeeded his father Hafez in 2000, had had little to do with Syria apart from family visits. That all changed that spring.

“I joined the revolution because the first time [Assad] ordered live ammunition to be used against women in a sit-in protest, I realised he was not just his father but perhaps twice as bad.”

More than two years on, Jouejati is spokes woman for the Local Co-ordination Committees of Syria (LCC), a network of pro-opposition bodies that initially disseminated information regarding anti-regime protests and attacks by Assad’s forces but now has expanded its mission to assist with humanitarian aid and also to advocate for the adoption of a code of conduct by armed opposition groups.

Jouejati, who last visited opposition-held northern Syria two months ago, is frustrated by what she describes as “the great many misconceptions” regarding what is happening in the country as the death toll rises above 80,000.

“Let me list the misconceptions: that this was a revolution of Islamists, it was not; that it is entirely an armed struggle – I can tell you the non-violent movement continues, to this day we have at least 200 peaceful demonstrations every week; that it is a civil war – people look at the textbook definition and not the reality on the ground; that it is just like Iraq, Yemen or Libya – it is not, we maintain Syria is a unique country, it has a unique regime and a unique population.” Jouejati acknowledges, however, that as the months grind on, the conflict has taken on a more sectarian hue and radical elements including Salafist-jihadists, many of them foreigners, have gained a foothold.

She talks of how the Assad regime sought from the beginning of the uprising to drive sectarian wedges between communities. “ [The regime] tried to provide weapons to minorities, saying ‘The Muslims are coming, take up arms. ’ Fortunately for us, in many of these communities, they refused to take up weapons.”

Jouejati worries that creeping sectarianism could undermine the efforts of the LCC and other opposition groups which draw members from across Syria’s religious and ethnic lines.

“Now there are extremists, foreign jihadists, coming into Syria, and the narrative is starting to change, and we are seeing some sectarianism. We can’t deny it, we need to confront it and try to stop it.”

The rise of such factions means voices like that of the LCC are in danger of being marginalised. “We are appealing for additional support because we have to keep our movement alive: we speak the language of non-violence and civil resistance, we speak the language of freedom and dignity for all, and we don’t carry weapons. But we are shrinking in number as people are either killed or decide that they can’t take it anymore and need to take up weapons for self-defence.”

Military support
Despite its original commitment to non-violent action against the Assad regime, the LCC’s current position is to back the call for some form of military support for the opposition such as providing weapons or enforcing a no-fly zone.

“There is a recognition that Assad, a dictator that thinks nothing of launching Scud missiles at communities or targeting children who were waiting in breadlines, will not go through peaceful means,” Jouejati explains.

She says that while the LCC welcomes the idea of a negotiated settlement to the conflict, it is firmly opposed to any role for Assad. “We want a proper transition to democracy and we cannot do that with our executioner right there in the middle . . . Would the European powers today have suggested sitting down with Hitler in the middle of the Holocaust? Would they have faulted the Jews for refusing that?”

She describes Assad’s shrinking support base as comprising a mix of diehard loyalists and cronies who have benefitted economically from his largesse, but also Syrians fearful of what might replace him.

“I believe those people’s fears are justified – we should all be afraid of what is next – but the solution is not the murder of 80,000 people, the solution is to work hard to overthrow the regime and establish the kind of country that has been our vision for the past two and a half years.”

Assad determined
Assad told Argentinian media last week that he is determined to stay in power under elections are held in 2014. Jouejati says she has stopped trying to predict what happens next. “Of course it is conceivable that the balance of power will not shift on the ground and that he will be there in 2014,” she sighs.

“Let him call for elections, I believe the people of Syria have spoken in the form of a revolution and we will continue to say No to the Assad government.”