Haytham Manna, born in 1951 in the village of Umm al-Mayadhin in Daraa, southern Syria, was a leading member of the Syrian dissident movement long before the current uprising began. Based in Paris, he was known as a leftist intellectual, a staunch critic of U.S. interventions in the Middle East, and a spokesperson for the Arab Commission for Human Rights, a pan-Arab NGO.
He was also a polarizing figure in the Syrian opposition. Some dissidents viewed him as too lenient toward the government of President Bashar al-Assad and as an alliance wrecker who combated pro-U.S. and Islamist dissidents more fervently than he fought the government itself. Others appreciated his hard-line secularism and anti-interventionist policies, as well as his insistence that elements of the regime must also be involved in any transition.
In the early days of Syria’s uprising, which began in March 2011, Manna and his exiled network were able to draw on contacts on the ground in Daraa, the cradle of the rebellion. His brother Maan al-Oudat was a union activist and an important organizer of early demonstrations who was killed by Assad’s forces a few months into the protests. Manna went on to co-found the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB), a small, pacifist, and reformist alliance rooted in the left wing of Syria’s pre-2011 opposition. The NCB’s Damascus-based General Coordinator Hassan Abdul Azim is the head of the Democratic Arab Socialist Union, an Arab nationalist party in the Nasserite tradition. But the group also contains—somewhat incongruously—the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish group linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and Iraq. Russia has taken a liking to the NCB, seeing in it a suitable interlocutor for Assad’s regime, and although Assad’s security services have arrested several key NCB members, the group’s leadership is still allowed to operate quietly in Damascus.
As the NCB’s deputy general coordinator and main spokesperson responsible for organizing supporters in the diaspora, Manna has been relentlessly critical of larger opposition factions like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian National Council, and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, accusing them of having pushed Syria into its current predicament by embracing Islamism, armed struggle, and foreign intervention. His rivals have responded by accusing Manna and the NCB of opposing the revolutionary mainstream and, consciously or not, serving the regime’s interests.
In recent months, Manna’s links to the NCB began to appear strained. In December, reports emerged that he had split from the group, although the picture remained unclear. Much of the tension seemed to focus on a meeting of opposition groups in Cairo in January 2015, which brought together NCB delegates with other moderate leftists and former Syrian officials now in self-imposed exile. The Cairo meeting, overshadowed by Russia’s failed bid to organize peace negotiations in Moscow the same month, ended by calling a second conference for late April 2015.
Now, with the Cairo conference approaching, Manna and some of his allies from the earlier Cairo meeting and the NCB have just announced the creation of a new group: the Qamh Movement. The word qamh literally means “wheat” in Arabic, but it also serves as an acronym for qiyyam, muwatana, huqouq, or “values, citizenship, rights.”
What is this new group and what is Haytham Manna’s current take on the Syrian conflict? He has kindly agreed to talk to Syria in Crisis.
Mr. Manna, please tell us about the Qamh Movement.
Its creation has been under discussion for more than two years. The leadership will be announced in due time—and no, my own role will perhaps be that of theoretician or inspirator, but I will not be the president or leader. We are a truly democratic movement and we have many important names behind us: people with links to the government, people in the NCB, and people in the National Coalition. Among them, you’ll find independent academics, including a group of diplomats, or rather ex-diplomats, who are dissidents now. They also include independents that do not like being classified as “opposition.” We are for Syrian unity, they say, and we must try to win every citizen, not just people who are already part of the opposition.
The reason for this is that the social conditions in Syria are very bad and people now support Assad for nonobjective reasons. Many have drawn close to the regime simply because they are afraid of terrorism and extremism and fear for their own community. Like Christians, Ismailis, Druze, and Alawites—none of these groups are active in the opposition because they are afraid of the alternative to the regime. But in our discourse, they’ll find that we are the true friends of all minorities and of democracy. We never accepted any compromise with extremist groups, Salafis, al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, or the so-called Islamic State. Our position was always clear.
But how is this different from what you were doing in the NCB?
You know, we were the first to attack the Nusra Front and say it should be listed as a terrorist group. At the time, the National Coalition protested. Also at that time, some people in the NCB—fortunately a minority—said that our conflict is with the regime and not with the Nusra Front.
The NCB is constructed in such a way that everyone keeps their own political program. And unfortunately, in the NCB there is what we may call a tendency that has accepted many compromises in order to keep their own organization—like the Nasserites, for example.
For us, political programs are not enough. We have a cultural approach. For tomorrow’s Syria, we must profoundly discuss the questions of citizenship and how our society relates to secularism and the state. These are questions that the political parties don’t like to talk about openly, because they’re afraid of the sectarian culture in society and want to keep their popularity. It’s like how Lebanese parties fear a discussion about civil marriages across religious lines. Same in Syria.
So you have left the NCB?
I handed in my resignation three months ago, but until now they have refused to accept it. They still consider me their deputy general coordinator even though I disapprove of many decisions by the current Executive Committee. I’m not in a direct conflict with them, and it’s not a personal conflict, but their politics lack transparency and clarity.
For four years, I’ve been the advocate for the youth on the NCB Executive Committee, that’s what they call me. They refused to give Syrian youth their place. You know, the median age in the NCB’s Executive Committee is above sixty years old. They cannot understand the youth. One of the last times I took part in a meeting, I said to them: imagine that in ten years, more than half of us will be in paradise—or, I suppose, in hell. Either way, we won’t be here, so where are the young people who will take our place?
In any case, the NCB Executive Committee said today that they welcome our initiative. They cannot attack us. They know we are popular inside Syria.
Isn’t this just another case of a Syrian opposition group splitting because of internal disputes?
No! We work with the NCB and all democratic forces to create a new structure for the opposition before the end of April. Everything in due time. We will probably announce our own leadership after the Cairo conference, which we are involved in preparing. It will begin around April 24 or 25, and after April, things will not be like before, and I think many political parties will work in a different way.
Will the National Coalition be represented at the Cairo conference?
I think its leader Khaled Khoja has the choice between either deciding to participate officially, or he’ll be looking at more than 40 members of his coalition going by themselves. He must take into consideration that a large part of the democratic tendency within the National Coalition will participate.
All right, but regardless of what happens at the Cairo conference, the Syrian conflict is now a civil war. There are mostly religious rebel groups on the ground in Syria today and on the other side, there’s the Assad regime.
This is true! But at the same time—I will give you one example of something completely different, which is the so-called social contract of the Kurdish groups in the north of Syria. This is a secular contract, supportive of a democratic state in Syria. They take a clear position. And they are popular, not only in the Kurdish area!
Our problem is, and I’ve said this from the beginning: militarization means Islamization. Ordinary young people want to live; they don’t want to die. They don’t want to bet on a paradise that is not, how shall I say, a certainty for them. For that, you need people who will fight to become martyrs. In the end, it will be only the extremists.
Now, rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front have brought in foreigners to fight for them while every day, our own youth are leaving the country to ask for asylum in Germany or France, even Australia. The boats of death on the Mediterranean kill our young people every day. Why are they leaving Syria? Because they do not accept the choice between dictatorship and extremism.
But how are you planning to change this equation? It’s a war and you do not have strong allies and you have no armed wing.
It is precisely because this has become a question of arms that things are now out of our hands. The Syrian army is supported by Iranians and the Lebanese of Hezbollah and the Iraqis of the Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade. The extremist rebel groups are supported by foreigners too. But at some point there will be a political solution because the international community cannot tolerate this indefinitely. We have already seen the creation of the coalition against the Islamic State. It’s not for our sake, it is because they see a grave danger to their own allies, like Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Both the regime and the armed opposition still think they can win the war, but for us, that’s an illusion. We said that from the very beginning to those elements of the government that tried to contact us and also to the armed opposition: there will be no military victory for anyone.
Do you think Bashar al-Assad’s government is ready for a political solution?
The problem with Assad is like the problem with the National Coalition: Assad is not independent. If Khoja is a figure of the Turkish government, then Assad is now under the control of the Iranians and Hezbollah. Once the international negotiations about Iran’s nuclear question are over, the first question for the Iranians will be about Syria and Iraq. They must decide.
With the oil price falling, you now have economic crises in all three countries: Syria, Iran, and Russia. I spoke to the Russians last week and said to them, you cannot keep supporting the regime like this economically and militarily—perhaps you can give some old arms to Assad to help strengthen him, but you alone cannot help him rebuild Syria. To rebuild Syria we need an international Marshall Plan.
So is it correct to say that you’re organizing for the future while waiting for an internationally arranged end to the war?
The point is not to simply wait for a solution. I met with the U.N. envoy, Staffan de Mistura, today. I discussed with him how to expand his idea about a freeze of hostilities in Aleppo to more than three or four cities. By giving it a national dimension, you can protect his initiative. We also discussed the possibility of going back to organizing a Geneva III conference.
We are waiting for a solution based on the Geneva Communiqué of 2012. With the accelerating violence there is no room for any civilian politics. We must try to stop this acceleration and then try to bring politics back to Syria. For four years we have assassinated every political initiative in Syria. We need to go back to a normal political life. We need to stop this dirty war.