The hopes and fears of secular Syrians

As religious fundamentalists become ever more prominent in the battle against the Assad regime, outsiders may not realize that Syria is an unlikely candidate to become an Islamic state.

I was reminded of that reality when I spoke with Michel Kilo, the legendary pro-democracy Syrian oppositionist, and central author of the 2005 Damascus Declaration that called for “peaceful, gradual” political reform. Kilo, a Christian, who was jailed in the 1980s and again for three years in the mid-2000s, finally sought exile in Paris, where I met him last month at the La Rotonde cafe.

Michel Kilo at La Rotonde.

Kilo passionately described to me the poliglot Syria that did exist before Assad’s brutality tore open religious and ethnic fault lines. “The silent majority of Syrians are democratic,” he said. “If one day free elections come then the world will see. Minorities make up 35%, and they refuse an Islamic state, and 15% of Muslims at least are against an Islamic state, which means with a democratic election it would be impossible to have an Islamic state.”

He insisted that Syria did not have the mentality of Lebanon which waged a 15-year sectarian war in the 1970s and 1980s. “There, Islamists were mainstream,” he stated, firmly. “In Syria, they were isolated for thirty years after 1982.” His reference was to the fact that, despite the 1982 uprising of Muslim Brothers in Hama, during which Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez murdered 10,000-20,000 civilians, many Syrians blamed the Brotherhood for provoking the slaughter with its violent tactics. Indeed, the Brotherhood still has a highly negative image in Syria today.

Tragically, the peaceful, civic Syrian revolt that broke out two years ago, was met by the regime’s brutal force. Young people were radicalized and took up arms. Gulf states funneled money and cash to Islamists, who gained adherents because they had the wherewithal to fight back against the Syrian army.

Those, like Kilo, who sought peaceful change, were marginalized. Seculars and moderate Muslim rebels lacked resources or bullets, because the West was afraid to get involved. Yet Kilo remains convinced that his country will not become an Islamic state after Assad. He has crossed back into Syria to mediate between armed Syrian rebel sects, and is trying to organize “democratic forces” who still want a multi-sectarian country.

“Even today with a lot of aid going to the Islamists, even though they are receiving a lot of weapons, we don’t have this aggressive radical mentality,” Kilo insists. “I am not afraid of Islamists. I am afraid of chaos.”

To prevent chaos, Kilo urges the west to support Moaz al Khatib, the leader of a new opposition council, godfathered by Qatar and the USA. Khatib, says Kilo, is “a democrat, even though he is not secular.”

However, U.S. support for Khatib has been halting, and the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Gulf emirate of Qatar is trying to undermine Khatib with an alternative leader who is a member of that group. Down this path lies the chaos that Kilo fears.