Robert Fisk: Exile dreams of a bloodless return after a life spent opposing Assad regime

Opposition leader Khaled Khoja tells our writer in Istanbul why revenge is not on the table

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"If Bashar al-Assad is caught in Damascus, he will not be treated like Gaddafi. But what if he was caught in Homs? We don't want Mr Bashar al-Assad to face this end. But, as Mr Erdogan says, he has to think what happened to Gaddafi and to Saddam Hussein. The youth now are crazy. All revolutions are created by crazy men, not by wise men."

Khaled Khoja sits back – we are in one of Istanbul's ancient hotels, the 15th-century Malatya Tower looming over us in the city that has been Khoja's home-in-exile these past 29 years – and he watches me, I think, to see if I admire his grasp of English.

Khaled Khoja, a family doctor in his forties, is one of the most senior representatives of the exiled Syrian National Council, recognised only by Libya as the representative of Syria, constantly urged by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – and most recently by William Hague – to end its feuds with other Syrian opposition groups, an institution that is a danger and a pest to President Assad's regime. Like all exiles, Khoja basks in a strange mixture of fantasy and reality.

"We don't have another chance," Khoja says. "Otherwise it will be a sectarian conflict. If the civilians arm themselves, it will be a disaster. Al-Assad? I give him six months to a year."

The chaos in the central city of Homs is already a sectarian conflict, a miniature civil war. Civilians have clearly already armed themselves. Yet Khoja's prediction of the President's political life – six months to a year – is infinitely more realistic than the nonsense peddled by the Gulf Arabs and the The Wall Street Journal, who suggest Assad will be gone in weeks, if not days.

Khaled Khoja has the kind of CV every Syrian opposition leader craves. For his refusal to countenance Bashar's father, Hafez, Khoja's father was imprisoned for 14 years, his mother sentenced to five years, the 15-year-old Khaled for two years – one in the cells of the intelligence headquarters in Damascus. Of his three uncles, one was hanged; two, according to Khoja, were shot in the street.

Khoja admits he met the armed insurgents of Syria in the Turkish city of Antakya. "They said they were organising themselves and that the rebellion started in Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib. They trained the youth there. They are getting guns from Lebanon – and somehow guns from Iraq. [A] 'buffer zone'... will be the next step if Bashar al-Assad continues killing people. Most refugees will try to evacuate to a buffer zone. A no-fly zone would help the Free Syrian Army to organise themselves in the buffer zone without any military intervention."

So there you have it. A Turkish army buffer zone – three miles into Syria, if the Turks are to be believed – would give the armed rebels territory inside Syria (just as the Libyan rebels possessed in Tobruk and Benghazi). Khoja, a member of the SNC's "foreign affairs committee", was urged by fellow exiles from the US, Canada and the Gulf to visit Tripoli; he arrived the day after Gaddafi was murdered. But the SNC's ambitions do not end with mere political support.

"Co-ordinating with King Abdullah of Jordan, there could be another buffer zone in Deraa [in southern Syria] so that the Syrian regime will be stuck like Saddam Hussein in 1990 – with buffer zones in north and south. But there could be a solution without any military intervention. The Syrian army can reorganise itself.

"In the early days of the Syrian uprising, the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates visited Syria – just as he visited Saddam Hussein before the 2003 invasion and visited Hosni Mubarak before he was overthrown. And when the UAE is involved, it means there is an offer to the Assad family ... and I think that if allowed to flee Syria with a guarantee, the Assad family could go to Saudi Arabia, the Emirates or to Malta – the safest area – and it would be a good solution. We don't want to take revenge on the Assad family, especially if this will help avoid a civil war."

Khoja has no illusions about Russia's support for Syria. "The Russians talk to us," he says. "They are trying to convince us to have a compromise with Bashar al-Assad and give him a chance. This will not change – they will support Bashar to the end. The Russian regime is no different from the Syrian regime. The Russian military have interests in [the Syrian naval port] Tartous. But the most benefit the Russians get from the Syrian crisis is that the Russian economy is enjoying an extra cash flow by selling energy during Middle East crises. This works for the benefit of Russia."

I suggest that exile, especially after almost three decades, can lead Khoja into mythology rather than history. No, he says. "I can think very clearly, even in exile – but I'm not facing the tanks. I'm not facing the bullets of the regime."

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