For European officials working on Syria, Mouaffaq Nyrabia will be a familiar name, as it will be for many who followed the struggles of Syria’s pre-2011 opposition.
A well-known dissident once jailed by Syria’s Baathist authorities because of his membership in an illegal socialist group, Mouaffaq Nyrabia embraced the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wholeheartedly when it erupted in 2011. He remained in his homeland for as long as he was able, dodging the security services, but was finally forced to flee the country.
He now serves as the Brussels representative of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an umbrella organization that is recognized by many Western and Arab countries as the sole official representative of the Syrian opposition.
Nyrabia has been kind enough to speak with Syria in Crisis to explain the views of the National Coalition and its relations with the European Union, and to offer a taste of his decades-long personal struggle for change in Syria.
Mr. Nyrabia, could you tell us a few words about yourself?
I was born in Hama in 1949 and spent most of my life between my hometown and Damascus. I studied engineering at university and later went on to work for a textiles company and opened my own office specialized in engineering.
Like many of my generation, I was involved in politics from an early age. Soon after the Six-Day War of 1967 and the youth revolutions of 1968, I subscribed to a leftist ideology, although I was opposed to Soviet domination. As my ideological leanings developed, I started to focus on the path toward democracy. I was imprisoned for four years and tortured in the 1970s for protesting Hafez al-Assad’s illegal seizure of power. After Bashar al-Assad’s succession in 2000, I was involved with the democratic movements of the time, including the Damascus Declaration, which launched a call for peaceful reform and multiparty democracy in 2005. I also worked on transforming my old political party, led by Riad al-Turk, from a communist organization into a social-democratic organization.
Immediately after we held elections to create a national council for the Damascus Declaration in late 2007, most of the effective leaders were arrested. I myself became a “wanted” figure and fled from Homs to Damascus where I worked, in secret, as the head of the Damascus Declaration’s media office. In the last two years before the revolution, I worked to try and revive the movement of democratic intellectuals together with some friends, like the late Omar Amiralay, Michel Kilo, and Osama Mohammed.
And then came the Arab Spring. How did you respond to this?
The loud and glorious voices of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions gave us new hope, and we began to prepare ourselves politically. By then I had become a member in the General Secretariat of the Damascus Declaration. However, the 2011 revolution was primarily led by a younger generation, many of whom had not even been born in the era of Hafez al-Assad and weren’t members of traditional opposition bodies.
Together with Riad Seif and other leaders of the Damascus Declaration and the opposition, I began working on uniting the opposition and the revolutionary forces. I was involved in the establishment of the Syrian National Council in 2011 and later the National Coalition in 2012.
Given the regime’s brutal crackdown, however, political work became almost impossible as colleagues and friends began to “disappear.” I remain in touch with many from the original movements that sprang up in 2011, primarily in the areas of Homs, Damascus, and Eastern Ghouta, but the sad reality is that among those who remained in Syria, very few have survived the assault on opposition groups from the regime and extremists alike.
When did you leave Syria?
I fled Syria in 2013 out of fear for my safety. I must say that I’m obliged to the German government, which helped me in getting out of Syria and provided me with refuge, as it has done with tens of thousands of Syrians.
Soon after arriving, I established a representative office in Berlin, but we then decided that Brussels was the most important location in Europe for us to be heard. Many Syrians look to Europe as a future model and a source of support in rebuilding Syria. So approximately eighteen months ago, I was asked by the National Coalition to set up a representative office in Brussels and serve as the representative to the EU and the Benelux countries. We faced many obstacles, mainly financial, so in truth the office has only been fully functional since September 2014. But my team and I in Brussels are now actively engaging with EU partners, though there is of course more for us to do.
In addition to representing the National Coalition in Brussels, I am a member of its political committee, where I represent the secular-democratic Citizenship Movement. I have also run twice for the National Coalition’s presidency on a platform of reform and unity.
What is the EU’s position on the National Coalition?
The EU has formally recognized the National Coalition as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people and has been very supportive of our cause—in particular those countries that are also members of the Friends of Syria group. However, more needs to be done.
France and the United Kingdom are often seen as the two most forward-leaning states in support of the Syrian opposition. Would you agree, and are there other governments that stand out in some way?
Absolutely. The UK and France have been among the most proactive and progressive EU member states in their approach to the Syrian crisis. Both have been clear about the fact that Assad’s war crimes and his brutal repression of the Syrian people have left him with no legitimacy. They both recognize the importance of supporting Syria’s moderates as a means of stemming the tide of extremism that Assad’s brutality has helped foster in Syria and as a means of supporting a political transition toward a genuinely democratic Syria.
Germany has been very supportive, too. It shares many of our goals on the way forward in Syria and has shown great leadership over the issue of Syrian refugees.
Some of the Scandinavian and Benelux nations have been very supportive of the National Coalition as well. Belgium, Holland, Denmark, and Luxembourg are a few examples of those that have supported us in raising our profile in the EU, for instance.
However, in spite of the largely supportive engagement from most EU states, we have seen some hostility from a few camps.
First, there are those who have quite publicly adopted Russia’s pro-Assad outlook on the conflict. Indeed, many, such as the Czech Republic, still have a diplomatic presence inside regime strongholds in Syria.
Second, we have received reports that some EU members have argued formally for reengagement with Assad as he is “part of the reality.” This creates a false choice between Assad and the Islamic State. It is an affront to the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have lost their lives in the quest for freedom, democracy, and rule of law.
Third, there are those such as Hungary whose response to the refugee crisis has been deeply troubling. Rather than stepping up to its shared responsibilities as part of a coordinated EU response, Hungary has closed internal borders and in some cases forcibly moved refugees, many of whom are Syrians, to camps.
Of course, we still seek to engage with these nations and explain why the current approach will neither address the immediate refugee crisis nor the wider conflict in Syria.
So what are your priorities when talking to European officials? What do you think should be done?
First and foremost, our core objective remains a political solution. However, this will remain a distant prospect until the international community takes seriously the need for practical steps to protect civilians from the regime’s aerial bombardments. The number of Syrian and non-Syrian voices calling for a no-fly zone is increasing daily. The reality is that a no-fly zone is now the only viable means of preventing large numbers of civilians from being killed every day by aerial bombardments, creating the momentum needed for a political solution, reducing the refugee exodus from Syria, and helping to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.
Secondly, both inside and outside of Syria, more effective and focused support is still needed for moderate political opposition and civil society groups. Particularly inside Syria, our Interim Government operates with severely limited financial resources. More support is needed to offer Syrians basic provisions that the state is no longer willing or able to, for political and military reasons. This kind of support is key to counter the rise of extremists.
Finally, we are still pushing for more targeted sanctions on Assad’s core backers, such as Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. The reality is that implementing sanctions against Assad’s main financial and military supporters has been contested by some EU member states, particularly in relation to Russia. Of course, the lifting of sanctions against Iran is also deeply troubling for Syrians. Since the signing of the Iran deal, we have been calling on the European Union to seriously consider the implications of lifting sanctions against Iranian figures and companies that fuel the conflict in Syria.
Only around 3 percent of Syrian refugees have made it into the EU, but many countries are trying to choke off access further. What is your view of the refugee issue?
We are grateful to those, such as Germany and Sweden, that have hosted a large share of those fleeing the conflict, as well as others, such as the UK, that have provided millions in humanitarian aid for refugees. However, the EU as a whole simply hasn’t done enough in terms of accommodating refugees, and my sense is that this is due to domestic political considerations. As I mentioned earlier, there are also those whose response to this large-scale refugee crisis has lacked basic compassion and has borne no resemblance to the kind of values and ideas upon which the European Union was founded.
We continue to urge the EU to fulfill its responsibilities and take steps to ensure all member states share the burden of this international crisis.
The wider reality, however, is that accommodating more refugees would only address one of the symptoms of the conflict in Syria. As long as indiscriminate weaponry, such as barrel bombs, continues to fall on Syrian towns and cities and humanitarian aid is used as a weapon of war, the refugee crisis will continue to worsen. Only by addressing the root cause, namely the Assad regime, can we hope to have a sustainable solution to the refugee crisis. We strongly believe a no-fly zone can play a significant role in drastically reducing the daily death toll and facilitating unrestricted humanitarian access inside Syria.
The National Coalition recently participated in talks in Paris and then Brussels with the National Coordination Body, another opposition group. What was the outcome?
The meeting in Brussels took place in July and was a great success. A joint draft document putting forward a road map for a political solution was agreed without issue.
The success of this meeting was due to opposition groups being allowed to meet and discuss a common platform without the pressure of outside interests. We are grateful to the EU for this approach. It simply facilitated the meeting without attempting to influence the discussion or its outcomes. We had our own draft in the National Coalition, and the National Coordination Body had its draft. Combining the two was not difficult at all.
After Paris and Brussels, the situation between the National Coordination Body and all of the opposition outside has greatly improved.
Correction: This post originally stated that the “EU has formally recognized the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” This was corrected on September 18, 2015.