More support for the opposition and more humanitarian aid for civil war victims are among the demands of Syria’s interim government, which has been campaigning for understanding and help in Berlin.
“Syrians want freedom,” said Ahmad Touma, head of the Syrian exile government that is recognized by numerous countries. The Syrian opposition, he said during a visit in Berlin, never intended to see the country experience so much destruction and suffering. Rather, since President Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000 it had sought a cautious opening of the country and gradual democratization.
“We are a moderate opposition,” said Touma. But he was quick to add that the regime in Damascus has rejected the opposition's moderate demands and responded to the peaceful revolution with force.
The dentist from the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour has been at the helm of the Syrian interim government since last September. The government is recognized as a “legitimate representative of the Syrian people” by a number of countries, including Germany, France and the United States.
Plan for democratic change
Touma made a name for himself in Syria as an outspoken government critic. In 2005, he was one of the authors of the so-called Damascus Declaration. The document, which united most of the opposition forces in the country, delivered a plan for democratic change.
Touma, who collaborated with representatives of both the liberal and Islamic opposition, was repeatedly imprisoned, most recently in 2012. Following his election by the National Coalition of the Syrian revolution and opposition forces, he formed an interim government in exile, which comprises 13 ministers.
In Berlin, Touma met with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Christoph Heusgen, who is Chancellor Angela Merkel's foreign policy advisor, among others. The talks were open and earnest, according to Touma. The focus was on finding a “creative solution” for the Syrian crisis.
“I still believe in a negotiated solution,” Touma said. But he emphasized that, for that to happen, more pressure needs to be put on the Assad regime. The Syrian opposition had, he said, shown courage in taking part in the negotiations in Geneva with the goal of forming a stable government.
Touma stressed that people with “blood on their hands” cannot be part of such an interim government. That, he said, applied to both Assad and opposition representatives.
Standing up for freedom
“We have shown that we're interested in a solution,” Touma said. “The regime has shown that it wants to stay in power.”
Touma insisted that the civil war in Syria is not a proxy war between Shiites and Sunnis. Rather, he said,“it is a war between the regime and the people.” Syrians had stood up for freedom, he explained, while the regime intended to keep people in slavish dependence.
Touma pointed out that the government in Tehran has long supported Assad, while Riyadh - “our brothers in Saudi-Arabia” - has supported the Syrian people from the beginning of the protests.
Observers have been talking for some time about a proxy war in Syria. While Tehran and Moscow are on Assad's side, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supporting the opposition with money and weapons.
Numerous Islamic fighters from abroad have also now joined the civil war. Many of them are from Iraq, and some from Libya and countries in the Middle East and Africa. Most, however, come across the border from Turkey. And some Islamic fighters are even from Germany.
Bombing civilian neighborhoods
According to Touma, radical Islamic groups such as the Al-Nusra Front, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), have even been strengthened by Assad himself. After the outbreak of the revolution, the president released extremists from prison, who then allied with radical forces from abroad and armed themselves. The regime in Damascus does not fight these forces, he said, nor do they attack the government.
Touma also condemned the use of barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods. In the 21st century, a regime led by a dictator shouldn't be allowed to use such weapons against its own people, he said. He saw this as Assad's way of trying to force the opposition to break off the talks in Geneva.
As for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, the Syrian prime-minister-in-exile warned that the regime is pursuing delaying tactics. Damascus, he said, has only agreed under threat of action to dismantle its chemical weapons. And those threats, he added, must continue.
Taghrid Al-Hajli, the culture minister in the shadow cabinet of the opposition in exile, has appealed to the West to help protect Syrian antiquities from destruction - especially the Aleppo citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site.