Syrian Opposition Figure Bassma Kodmani Dies at 64

A tribute to a distinguished Syrian thinker and exiled opposition leader

Syrian Opposition Figure Bassma Kodmani Dies at 64
Bassma Kodmani, 1958-2023. (Denis Balibouse/AFP via Getty Images)

On March 2, 2023, the long-suffering people of Syria had to endure yet another disaster: the passing of Bassma Kodmani in Paris after a long battle with breast cancer. She was a patriot who personified what Syria could become with decent, competent and legitimate political leadership.

We were blessed to have known this remarkable person. One of us enjoyed her friendship since the 1980s and was her colleague for the past few years at the Institut Montaigne. One of us had the privilege of co-authoring with her a study on how best to arm and train a Syrian national resistance to the Assad regime. Both of us worked closely with her in her capacity as a senior leader of the Syrian opposition.

When the peaceful national uprising against the Assad regime began almost exactly 12 years ago, Kodmani quickly set aside a productive and distinguished career devoted to academic research to become a leading figure in the expatriate opposition to the regime. As her views were already highly respected by the government of France, she began in 2011 to meet with American officials (including, on multiple occasions, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) in what would be a long and difficult attempt to acquaint the Obama administration with the international security implications of a Syrian regime addicted to mass murder.

The daughter of a Syrian diplomat and the grandniece of a Syrian prime minister, Kodmani received her primary education in Damascus, Beirut and London (a city she cherished all her life) and then moved to Paris to pursue her higher education at Sciences Po. She took a Ph.D. under the direction of the well-known Franco-Lebanese scholar Ghassan Salame. She described herself as “an Arab woman with a Western intellectual formation . . . raised according to the ethics of Islam.”

Kodmani brought to the Syrian opposition a model of Syrian nationalism uncorrupted by sectarianism. Proud of her orthodox Muslim heritage, she nevertheless saw Syria’s future very much in terms of citizenship. Indeed, her secular approach to governance and her adamant refusal to entertain notions of sectarianism of any kind put her at odds from the beginning of Syria’s revolution with some members of the opposition already inclined to marginalize her because of her gender.

It was, however, her nationalism and patriotism that enabled her, over the years, to reach out to Syria’s Alawites, a community feeling trapped by the sectarian lawlessness of Syria’s ruling family and its entourage. Kodmani was driven by the conviction that Syria’s salvation required the participation of all Syrians, irrespective of sect. Among her deep regrets over time was the decision of some regional actors to arm and support sectarian Syrian extremists, a policy that played into the hands of a regime falsely asserting that it alone could combat terrorism in Syria.

Indeed, Kodmani’s focus in terms of creating an armed opposition to the Assad regime was very much on Syrian officers and soldiers who chose to defend Syria by deserting military units commanded by members of the regime’s entourage. She was able, through multiple quiet visits to Syria over the years, to establish relationships of trust and confidence with military professionals eager to support her vision of a Syria governed by citizenship and rule of law.

Russia was also an important focal point of Kodmani’s efforts to mitigate the multiple abominations being inflicted on Syrians. She often received positive and sympathetic hearings from Russian officials well-acquainted with the realities of Syria. Sadly, however, whatever was reported by those officials to the Kremlin never produced anything on the ground reflecting civilized behavior. This was, for her, a great source of frustration and disappointment.

Kodmani was also a strong supporter of the efforts of the United Nations to implement Security Council Resolution 2254, which called for a ceasefire and a political resolution to the crisis in Syria. Even during times of failing health, she participated in constitutional talks held under U.N. auspices in Geneva. Hers was always a voice of creativity, flexibility, compromise and unity. She found common ground with members of Syria’s official delegation willing to speak with her. But the appetite for accommodation in Damascus was no stronger than that of Moscow.

Finally, and very importantly, she spared no effort to provide European Union institutions in Brussels with action guidelines for Syria at all levels, political and humanitarian. Her influence within EU circles was immense. Indeed, all her interlocutors over the years — whether they agreed with her views or not — regarded her as the genuine article; a person whose authenticity in representing the best of Syria could never be doubted.

The Bassma Kodmani we knew was a person of impeccable manners, personal warmth and openness to the ideas and points of view of others. But she was also a person of impressive — sometimes imposing — intelligence, with a very limited tolerance for fools. Anyone engaged in negotiating with her encountered a polite, professional toughness impossible to overcome. It was difficult to emerge from a discussion with her not knowing where she stood.

Our strong sense is that, were it not for her gender, Kodmani would have emerged as the leader of the Syrian opposition soon after the creation of the Syrian National Council, which she helped form in 2011. Yes, a male version of Kodmani would have been opposed by the sectarian elements of the opposition, just as she was. But that version — just as the real thing — would have been in a class of its own in terms of leadership, intelligence and patriotism. That male version of Kodmani could have provided decisive support to Syrians rising against criminal rule while persuading the West that the global implications of regime lawlessness were dire. Indeed, that version might have persuaded an American administration that inaction in the face of civilian mass homicide — especially when accompanied by “red line” warnings and soaring rhetoric — could have serious negative implications for global stability well beyond Syria.

Our thoughts are very much with Kodmani’s three sons and her siblings. We extend our condolences to them for a loss of incalculable sadness. We also extend our condolences to the people of Syria. They should know that the person we mourn was, nearly to the end, working on their behalf despite great physical pain and suffering.

We believe that someday Syria will realize the vision Kodmani had for it: a unified state of citizens enjoying equal protection and full dignity under justice and law; a government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed. Kodmani did not live long enough to see this vision come about. Neither, most likely, will the authors of this article. But when the people of Syria reach the promised land of decent, humane, legitimate and competent governance, they should remember Kodmani as a person who devoted the closing chapter of a successful, eventful and meaningful life to making it happen.

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