A week ago Monday, the U.S. government said it was not seeking regime change in war-torn Syria. But the very next day – as news emerged of a chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town in Idlib province – the tone from U.S leadership was starkly different.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley vowed that President Bashar Assad had to step down, and for the first time in Syria’s six-year war, the U.S. launched a direct attack on a Syrian army base.
So where does this leave the peace process? Hadi al-Bahra, current member of the Syrian opposition movement and former president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, gave Fox News some insights this week on his group’s vision for the country and what actions they’d like to see from the U.S.
Fox News: What are your thoughts on the U.S. launching strikes for the first time against the Syrian army?
Albahra: The Assad regime claimed that it has handed over all its chemical materials and weapons stockpiles, in compliance with U.N.S.C. resolution 2118 (2013). But from that time, it was proven that Assad continued using chemical weapons and targeting civilians. Chlorine gas attacks have become almost routine in northern Syria.
Yet no action was taken by the previous American administration nor by the international community, which gave Assad the wrong signals, escalating his attacks on civilians, including his latest attack using nerve agents and other banned poisons. This time, the U.S. administration took the lead in denouncing the attack, and in taking a very limited military action by targeting the military airbase that it was responsible for carrying that chemical attack. We highly appreciate this action, which sent a clear message to Assad and his backers, "No more free rides, no more use of chemical weapons.” But this action alone will not be enough.
Assad will stay defiant. He will increase the use of conventional weapons and other prohibited bombs, and the killing will continue. What we seek in Syria is to put an end to all killings by all types of weapons, not only by chemical weapons.
Fox News: What actions would you like to see the U.S. take now?
Albahra: The U.S. should follow its military action by taking more steps on the legal, political and diplomatic fronts. The only way to stop war crimes in Syria is to put an end to the Assad's killing machine, and push for a genuine political transition.
The U.S. should impose sanctions on supporters of the Assad regime, encourage negotiations to end ongoing atrocities, support prosecution of war criminals and declare the Assad regime and his government as illegitimate in all aspects, diplomatic, political and legal.
Fox News: What is your vision for the future of Syria and how should the transition be handled?
Albahra: First of all, to stop the ongoing bloodshed and slaughter, we seek the help of the international community to hold Assad accountable for his war crimes to bring Assad and all other war criminals to justice. We want to move forward with the full support of the international community, through a political negotiation process to achieve a genuine organized political transition. One that will unite the Syrian people under a new constitution and laws that provide equal rights and duties, for all citizens, guarantying the freedom of religion, speech and the press, the rights of assembly and petition. We want a democratic, multi-party political system.
Reaching towards these goals will enable the Syrian people to carry on their fight against ISIS and other terrorist organizations. Syrians are the only force that will be able to uproot terrorism from Syria. We are the beneficiaries, we are the real stakeholders, and we want to achieve security, stability and peace for all Syrians without discrimination.
Fox News: Who and what exactly is the “opposition?”
Albahra: The term “opposition” is used by the international community for describing the two sides of struggle in Syria in the wrong way. In Syria, under the Assad rule, we never had a democracy, we never had a ruling party and opposition parties. What we have in Syria is a dictatorship. [Hafez] Assad, the father, was a dictator who did not permit any freedoms nor any opposition forces to develop, and after his death his son and family orchestrated an amendment on the constitution in a 15-minute session of the (supposedly freely elected people assembly), permitting Assad the son to become the new president. He continued governing the country by … fear.
So what we have in Syria is the people rising up and revolting against a dictator who deprives them from their human and constitutional rights. We are the Syrian people, doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, farmers, factory workers, students, men and women, the citizens of Syria, against a dictator. So if the international community labels us an “opposition” in only a political term, it's the wrong label.
Fox News: Where do current peace negotiations stand between Syria’s government and the opposition – as mediated by Staffan de Mistura, U.N. special envoy to Syria – in the quest to stop the bloodshed?
Albahra: I do not think that there are currently any negotiations. What we have so far are talks and consultations with the U.N. special representative, no direct talks. The regime – since the latest round of direct negations in 2014 – has showed no interest in a real political resolution to the crises, so how can one negotiate if there is no second party to negotiate with? The regime and its backers still believe in a military solution, which they will not be able to achieve.
Fox News: Does Russia really insist that Assad must stay or do you think they simply want any leader who will protect their interests?
Albahra: Russia at the end has to look for its own national interests in Syria. There is a time, very soon, for the Russians to understand that assisting Assad to hang onto power means a complete loss of their interests, and I do not think they would risk that.
Fox News: What is the biggest mistake the opposition has made since the revolution began?
Albahra: The Syrian people believed that the free world would never stand idle, watching a dictator killing his own people and destroying his own country. We believed that the free world would stand for its values and ethics. We believed that the free world would deliver on its promises of support, aid and assistance. We underestimated the brutality and tyranny of the Assad regime, and we permitted the armed groups to go on a separate track without full coordination with the political track. The politicians should've stayed inside Syria wherever it was possible, and we should have made better use of the dissident army officers and soldiers.
On the media front, we should have done a much better job in addressing the regime loyalists, and should have been more aggressive on our messaging against the extremists.
Fox News: Given the recent attacks in Idlib province, is it possible that the Syrian army loaded chemicals into the weapons in 2013 before declaring all "stockpiles" were gone?
Albahra: Yes, it is highly possible. I think they did exactly that. They knew they would be using them soon. We need the investigation process to be re-activated.
Fox News: What role do you think Syrian allies Russia and Iran played in the chemical attacks this week? How much did they know or enable it?
Albahra: I expect that Iran had a full knowledge of the attack. I even would think it pushed for it, while Russia bares a major responsibility, being the responsible party for guarantying the full compliance of the regime on the chemical weapons deal, under UNSC resolution 2118. That is why we need a full investigation to know the facts about the role of each party in this latest war crime.
Fox News: Assad appeared to be on a winning track, why launch a chemical attack last week?
Albahra: The lack of international reactions against Assad's continued and repeated use of chemical weapons, and the U.S. stating that they would no longer seek regime change. All of this gave the wrong signals to Assad, who wants to bring Syrian people to submission through tyranny, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Assad wanted to widen the divide among Syrian people and to change the current struggle permanently into a sectarian war by targeting the Sunnis, while spreading the word that the pilot who carried the chemical attack was an Alawite (an offshoot of Shiite).
He wanted to let the Syrians believe that the Western world really does not care about whatever crimes he commits against them. He wanted to kill our resolve of continuing our quest to freedom and democracy.
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay