Tributes are pouring in from activists and academics for a key figure of Syria’s exiled opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Bassma Kodmani, who carried the fight for a free and democratic Syria from abroad, died in Paris on Thursday at the age of 64 after a long illness. She passed away just a few days before the 12th anniversary of the 2011 popular uprising that she desperately wanted to see succeed.
Born in Damascus in 1958, Kodmani studied at the Franciscan School, a French-Christian school in the Syrian capital.
Her father, Nazem Kodmani, who served as the Syrian ambassador in Paris and later as a diplomat in the Foreign Ministry, was arrested shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967 for expressing opinions opposed to the minister.
He was imprisoned for six months. After his release, took his family to Lebanon for three years before moving to London, thenParis.
“When I left Syria at the age of ten, I did not realize that I was part of a family of Syrian refugees,” Bassma Kodmani confided to British media outlet Alliance Magazine in March 2016.
“It was my father who faced ‘political problems’ in Syria, as we used to say. Every respectable family had some member who had political problems. My father was jailed, then fired from his work. It was clear that we had no future in Syria, so we left,” she added.
After graduating from the Institute of Political Studies in Paris with a doctorate in political science, Kodmani co-founded the Middle East program at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in the early 1980s.
She then worked for several years in Egypt at the Ford Foundation. In 2005, she was one of the co-founders of the Arab Reform Initiative, an independent thinktank focused on promoting democratic change in Arab countries. Kodmani served as executive director of the organization until 2019.
Ziad Majed, a political analyst, professor at the American University of Paris and friend of Kodmani, said he believes her experience enabled her to observe, explore, analyze and build networks of researchers in the region for many years.
“She has been addressing political, societal, and economic issues related to democracy and reform long before the revolutions and before the democratic question became a central issue in debates and discussions among Arab intellectuals and researchers working on the region,” Majed said.
In March 2011, the Syrian revolution broke out in the wake of the Arab Spring, but the Assad regime responded with brutal repression.
Various opposition groups attempted to organize themselves into a unified structure.
After nearly six months of the uprising, the Syrian National Council (SNC), a coalition of opposition groups seeking a democratic transition in Syria, was launched in Istanbul, with Kodmani among its founders.
She did not hesitate to pause her career as a political scientist and assume the role of head of external relations and spokesperson for SNC.
However, due to internal divisions, she resigned from her position in August 2012.
The body was torn between secularists and Islamists — reflecting power struggles between its various sponsors — and faced criticisms that it was not a faithful representation of the Syrian people.
Citing her departure as a “personal decision,” Kodmani said: “The Council has not gained the necessary credibility and has not preserved the trust that was given to it by the people when it was formed.”
“It has deviated from the path we wanted for it when we founded it.”
Despite this setback, she did not give up her aspirations, and joined the democratic opposition delegation to the Geneva peace talks on Syria four years later.
A figure of unwavering integrity
Kodmani remained committed to denouncing the crimes of the Assad regime, advocating for the voice of its opponents, until her last breath.
Her personal struggle for Syria was evident when she returned to Damascus in the 1980s to visit her family, only to be met with constant surveillance from the regime’s intelligence services.
“The feeling that it was an unbearable and unacceptable situation has always been there,” she confided to Le Monde. “We were able to live with it, but everyone knew the price of protest. For these reasons, I never thought of moving to Damascus.”
Kodmani's detractors attempted to discredit her by referencing her past work with the Ford Foundation and suggesting that she had allegiances to the United States and Israel.Meanwhile, her admirers hailed her as a remarkable woman and a committed activist.
“Basma was a political figure who, since the popular uprising in Syria in 2011, has played a crucial role in representing Syrian women and men in their pursuit of freedom and justice,” Majed said.
“But beyond her political accomplishments, there is a human side to Bassma. She was a delicate, intelligent, cultured, and generous woman who has always had the ability to understand the dynamics around her and make syntheses that have enriched her personal growth throughout the years,” he added.
This view is shared by many others who have known her.
“Bassma never buckled under pressure, and her integrity was legendary, but above all, she was an extremely empathetic person with a wonderful sense of humor,” said Lina Khatib, who worked with Kodmani at the Arab Reform Initiative.
“She inspired me with her support for the next generation of brilliant minds, her political intelligence, resilience, and humanity.”
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.
Tributes are pouring in from activists and academics for a key figure of Syria’s exiled opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.Bassma Kodmani, who carried the fight for a free and democratic Syria from abroad, died in Paris on Thursday at the age of 64 after a long illness. She passed away just a few days before the 12th anniversary of the 2011 popular uprising that she desperately wanted...