‘Insights into Syria: Mobilisation of Society’


Dr Bassma Kodmani

Political Scientist and Former Member of the Executive Bureau & Head of Foreign Relations Bureau,
The Syrian National Council

1 – 2pm, Wednesday 17th October 2012

Committee Room 12, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA

To attend please RSVP to: Jennifer.falkenhorst@henryjacksonsociety.org

After more than a year and half, and upwards of 30,000 people killed, the Syrian crisis shows no signs of ending. The UN Security Council is deadlocked, with Russia and China blocking any resolution that would sanction or condemn the regime of Bashar al-Assad. What began as a peaceful protest movement demanding economic equality and an end to state corruption has become a fight for a nation’s survival. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition remains divided, with rival political and military groups vying for Western and Arab support. Yet lost in the daily stream of news about violence and bloodshed is the remarkable story of Syrian society, which has proved quite resilient in the face of barbarism. From setting up field hospitals to ad hoc media centres, Syrian activists and citizens across the country have asserted themselves, living as if they’re already free and masters of their own destinies.

By kind invitation of John Glen MP, The Henry Jackson Society is pleased to invite you to a discussion with Dr Bassma Kodmani, political scientist and former Member of the Executive Bureau & Head of the Foreign Relations Bureau of the Syrian National Council. Dr Kodmani, who has unique insight into the recent developments in Syria, will discuss the dynamic role played by civil society actors inside the country: who they are, what challenges they face under wartime adversity, and what they envisage for a post-Assad nation. She will also explain how Western powers can better advance the cause of self-determination in Syria.

TIME: 1 – 2pm

DATE: Wednesday 17th October 2012

VENUE: Committee Room 12, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA

To attend please RSVP to: Jennifer.falkenhorst@henryjacksonsociety.org


Dr Bassma Kodmani is a political scientist by training and a professor of International Relations at Paris University. She holds a PhD from Sciences Po Paris. Her main scholarly experience is the analysis of Arab societies, the strategic relations of the Middle East and regional conflicts. She has vast experience in policy analysis and policy advice through her time working in key international organizations, first within the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) and later with the Collège de France, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (CERI). She spent seven years in Cairo as head of the Governance and International Cooperation program of the Ford Foundation Middle East office from where her main activity was to support Arab research centres and civil society organizations. In 2005, she established the Arab Reform Initiative, a consortium of Arab policy research institutes on reform and democratic transition in the Arab world. In August 2011, Bassma Kodmani participated in the founding of the Syrian National Council and became a member of the Executive Bureau and Head of the Foreign Relations Bureau. She resigned from the Council in August 2012.


John Glen MP Salisbury Conservatives

Good afternoon, welcome everyone.

My name is John Glen, I’m the Member of Parliament for Salisbury and it’s my great privilege to chair this afternoon’s event. It’s my great pleasure to introduce to you Dr Bassma Kodmani, who is a political scientist and a former member of the Executive Bureau and Head of Foreign Relations Bureau of the Syrian National Council. The format for today’s meeting will be that Dr Kodmani will speak for 15-20 minutes and then I will invite to comments or questions. We will finish at 10 to 2. Unfortunately, we need to vacate this room properly at 10 to 2 – please bare that in mind when you’re making your questions and getting answers. Pass over to you, Dr Kodmani.

Dr Bassma Kodmani

Thank you very much. I’m glad to be here. I will be brief in order to allow the questions. I would like to say a few words about where the situation is today. A quick assessment will properly attract a number of questions, but I will still go over this quick assessment and probably communicate how the actual opposition facing the Syrian army and prospects for moving forward with the overall Syrian society can happen.

First, I think an assessment would be to say that today the Assad regime has lost control over some part of physical territory which is evaluated between 60 percentages and over. Some estimations are 90% at might and this means the military forces of the regime do not try to control anything at might as that can come back to haunt them. Therefore the population is free to move around to demonstrate and to attend to expose to vital means of course, but I come to say that it’s truly definite that the regime has lost control over society as such.

It has ceased to provide services, most of you know we have seen the growth of local organisation of daily life for Syrians not only in liberated areas and we call them liberated areas. Although they are not entirely safe as you know and they are definitely not safe. They are on the ground without any presence from the regime. This local life has grown into an increasingly more organised structure and the word structure is a loose one here. We cannot yet say that there is administration. The capability varies here from one region to another, from one city to another. But all in all, it is, as the revolution started in March of 2011, at the local level, was organised at the local level – demonstrations, people’s life, everything – was organised at the local level. It seems what is resisting best is that local organisation and we see that the movement on the ground which grew into a federated, into a different federated group has not survived as well as the local organisation. With this local organisation there is, as you know, attempts now from outside to support these local councils which combine most of the time, we have to be very realistic about how this local organisation happens. They combine civil and military organisation. Civil security, local security, but also military in terms of confronting the regime’s forces, or depending on the area air forces, sometimes it is tanks, depending on where we are.

The local organisation has now really developed across Syria including the Damascus neighbourhood. Everywhere, we do have those local councils which attend to people’s needs. The state is therefore, the state meaning the institutions of the state does not provide really much service to the society, no communication, no transportation, no medical care and no education. There is almost no education in most of the areas, in the liberated areas as they are called or the areas that are not controlled, no education, still some schooling in areas where the regime is still present.

I think what we have obviously all seen and observed is the militarisation of the situation after the revolution and I want to really stress here how that process of militarisation which was what the regime was hoping for, because that is where it has the upper hand was to drag the revolt onto the military, into the military field and confronts inexperienced young people with light arms facing heavy weaponry by the regime. Now, this process of militarisation was nobody’s decision. It happened spontaneously with people picking up arms to defend themselves and then organising into groups more and more. With the need to confront heavy weaponry from the regime, it has been desperately looking for ways to confront the regime. What has happened with this process of spontaneous and gradual militarisation has drawn money, a lot of money, and arms mainly from Islamic countries and networks. When I say countries, I don’t say governments; I say a combination on local transnational networks as well as government’s money and offices and a lot of private funding, most of it.

This situation which we characterise as an Islamic funded revolution – but certainly not an Islamic revolution – and we hear constantly that there are more and more Islamic groups on the ground; there are Salafi groups or Jihadi groups. These are today, people who have no religious affiliation for a large majority and are desperately looking for some support whether it is for basic relief or acquiring military capability. This leaves us with the need to look carefully at why that has happened and how that can be addressed as a revolution that started with clear demands. This is one Syria, one population asking, aspiring, to the same hopes of freedom, dignity and that this now has now an Islamic colouring to be attributed to where the sources are funded from. I think on this, I will come back when we speak of the opposition in a minute.

I would say that what we see today is that, through this process that has been described as the Islamisation of the revolution, I can say that the contacts we have and very specific examples of people saying: Are you not able to provide us with other sources of funding? We do not want to give our loyalty to any of the Islamic groups that are asking us to, but we do not find any alternative sources. And this message, I think is one, is one of that needs to be reflected upon. Definitely some groups on the ground were increasingly frightened by the militarisation. Some groups, some people, some sectors of society maybe were turned off and probably among the most educated. Those who remained are the ones that had no hope of a future and those who started the revolution and had no intention of abandoning the revolution. But I say if there were groups that were frightened by the increasing militarisation and violence, some others some of these same groups, were, are now reaching out to the revolutionary movement and to the opposition. Whenever you hear that there is fear among minorities, fear among certain groups in society; these same groups who are living in fear, fear of the regime. First of all, because it is there under close scrutiny but fear also of chaos, fear of the collapse of the state. These same groups are either more entrenched or many of them are reaching out and that is also an important message.

Today we get increasing contact from Alawi community which is close to the regime, a lot of businessman, many from the Ba’ath Party, important people from the Ba’ath Party. The circle around the regime, these people are reaching out to the opposition because they know that to address their fears that is the best option.

I will say a few words of the opposition as it has attracted so much attention to say what it is currently seeking to do. As you know the Syrian National Council came to about a year ago and was the largest coalition. Only, this coalition did not manage to reach the point of recognition as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people for a variety of reasons  – of which I don’t have time to address in these few words – but just to say that today the efforts are directed towards building a coherent relationship between the opposition and the people on the ground, whether they are civil or military, and the project is to build a new broader opposition authority, political authority that can represent all of the groups inside and outside Syria. Traditional opposition of the people on the ground and the Free Syrian army and the effort is to basically take the existing coalition to a higher and broader level of representation by building a new party, a new political party. To succeed in doing so, certainly Syrians have a lot to do in coordinating groups on the ground, but it has to be very clear on how that can be succeeded. Groups on the ground, I said are desperate for humanitarian assistance, relief and equipment. Any political authority to gain credibility will need to be able to provide for those needs. Otherwise the population will see no reason to recognise it and to follow its direction and this is where the support from the key outside countries needs to really happen and that is so far not happening. What we need to see today is a commitment that this political authority, if it comes about and when it comes about  – comes into being – will have all resources channelled through it and that is the only way to put an end to partisan loyalties and religiously affiliated groups on the ground who are having depend on specific parties and specific groups. It is under a national authority that we can see the Free Syrian army, the local council, the local groups on the ground come together under one authority but if that happens again, that is very realistic, a very realistic account.

It is not about values only, it is not about ideas, it is not where we belong. The one common objective is this population is fighting the regime – what the means are, what will be the means made available to fight this regime will determine the support for a political authority and I think this is an important point to understand what Syrians can do and where they need that vital support from countries that can provide aid to a nationality authority and not to specific groups. I think, I leave it at that because I think it is questions that [inaudible]


John Glen MP

Great so we have about half an hour for questions. Gentleman on the right

Question 1

Did you say something about how you interpret Syrian across the Turkish border. Is this to confuse [inaudible]

John Glen MP

—– [inaudible?] for once could you just say who you are and who you represent?

Question 1 continued

I represent myself and I am … [inaudible]

Dr Bassma Kodmani

It is, I think… what is happening is that the regime is trying to fight certain groups and has to make, and makes those provocations against Turkey. That is what most of has, had, due to, it’s trying to follow some groups but I think there is also more to it.

There are some, I think it’s quite indicative of differences and in coherence and the level of the security apparatus that some people are seeking within the security apparatus to push that provocation and are seeking to divert attention towards Turkey. Bringing in Turkey into the fight from their perspective is causing it to come in the fighting of the Kurdish issue in having to deal with a larger flow of refugees. I think there is no clear consensus on the need to provoke Turkey.  And I think that is an indication that we do have differences within the security apparatus. Some are seeking that while others are saying this is too dangerous to save the regime we need to keep away from Turkey. There is a fine line between provoking Turkey to intimidate and to deter Turkey from viewing to provide arms and to channel all kinds of aid as well as training on its territory we don’t know exactly how much is happening on Turkish territory. We definitely know a lot is coming through Turkey. This is the vital, the main gateway for the aid and so it’s to deter turkey to deter turkey to provide aid to cause divisions in the Turkish elite because we know that this is a sensitive topic with the opposition and the underground government. Others are clearly saying this is too dangerous might attract the NATO backed operation and Turkey could respond. This is not a very well controlled provocation, I think, and could well slip and can become more what the regime would like it to.

John Glen MP

Thank you

Question 2

How would the opposition if Turkey, with the support of NATO partners, decide it’s had enough of what you describe as a provocation and it also wishes to not have hundreds of thousands of refugees in addition to what it already got. It feels there is a need to create some kind of buffer zone. What would be the response? Will that be welcomed or will that be resisted by some of the more radical groups?

Dr Bassma Kodmani

If you mean the opposition group, I think the opposition has been longing for such a move by Turkey for a year and a half now. There is among military groups, civilian and the ordinary population that is in need of relief, medical assistance and emergency support. All of these categories see a protective zone, a no fly zone, a safe area as the best thing that can happen. Both as this would allow for an area where they can take refuge because there is a strong belief that if this happens it is a real show of determination on of behalf, on the side of Turkey and his allies. Clearly, Turkey has moved from putting itself in the front, in the forefront of confronting the Syrian regime to measuring the limited capacity it has to face it on its own because if it cannot. This is not confronting Syria, the Syrian regime, this is confronting a regionally, an internationally backed regime. So, for Turkey if anything is to happen it has to happen with NATO. I think Turkey is longing for this to happen. I think Turkey seems to be left on its own. There is a lot of frustration and anger in Turkey and the one thing that toward the Syrian population and a large part the Turkish political elite see and expect is to hope for and NATO to sign and peer … [inaudible]

John Glen MP

Thank you

Question 3

Lord Risby

Syrian society does not… [inaudible]

It is now more than two years since this horror descended on Syria and yet it is the military capacity that continues to exist in Syria. I mean they seem to … there is money, foreign reserve but clearly they’re getting money from somewhere. There is money, where is it coming from? Do you think it is Iran? Because it is extraordinary that despite the horror and pressures that they seem to … Some stability … it is exactly what is happening now and other things is … and yet Russia continues its position … I just wondered if at this stage it is possible to further our understanding what needs to be done.

Dr Bassma Kodmani

I think the regime is receiving regular financial support from Iran. It still is able to sell its oil for lower prices than the usual. It has …

Sanctions can never really suffocate the regime. There continues to be some revenues from some of its main activities but I think Iran is providing what is estimated to have been around 10 billion dollars which is quite a lot for a country like Iran under sanctions. The issue is therefore political and again sanctions were ever designed to be only financial suffocations. There are there to convince groups around the regime to cease to support it and to defect if we want to use the word defection though if it doesn’t apply to the business community, but it is really. I was saying earlier very quickly that these people are reaching out so the sanctions are having that effect, definitely.  Whoever is on the sanctions list looks desperately for ways to get off that list. Now what I think we lack is a real well-thought policy by the European Union and the sanctions group which is under the Friends of Syria which is that we can, how can sanctions be used now to negotiate a number of, to get a few message through very clearly and have a policy of when you lift sanctions; how you lift sanctions and how best to gain the political results that we wanted from sanctions in the first place. Again with money, it’s when Iran will cease to support Syria for political consideration for its own good. Therefore, the financial is not enough. We tend to measure it and analyse it only in terms of financial means. So, I think the financial aid as well as the sanctions are to be measured in terms of political effect rather than only money.

For Russia, I think the Russian have been, remained with a position that is not… there is no political sophisticated political analysis of the situation in Syria. It is this civil reaction to the fear of Islamic crowds. I would say wherever it happens, it brings people to the Russian government and Putin system obviously aborts. We have not seen any interesting analysis or position explained by Russia other than Assad cannot, the opposition cannot ask for Assad to go, Assad cannot be removed at the beginning of a process. All we get is, a Yemen like plan and the Yemen type plan could work but if you look beyond that, you don’t find too much thinking that you can really deal with. So, I think we lacked creative thinking actually both of the Russian side as well as the rest of the world, even among the Friends of Syria.

To remain stuck with the issue of whether and when Assad goes and not be able to look at the rest is what has created the situation. There is no possible dialogue because it always comes down to whether Assad goes now or goes later. The real conversation we should be having with the Russians is: What is it that you fear in Syria? As Syrians, now obviously there is much more that the world, other powers can address that are of concern to Russia, that the Syrians cannot address. It goes well beyond the Syrians to reassure the Russians about Syria because it is not only about Syria as you well know. There is an issue with the United States and issues with the West in general and that’s not what the Syrians can address, but what they can address is definitely what are the fears about chaos in Syria: who are the groups; how can we build the future; what are Russian interest and how they can be preserved, etc. None of that has ever been addressed because we always get stuck with the issue of Assad goes, doesn’t go or when he goes. They only say we are not wedded to the Assad family, yet they don’t really propose something other.

John Glen MP

Ok, let’s have some more questions.

Question 4 – Frank

All the performances defected towards … the major bombing carried out in Syria were really being carried out … suicide bombing … carried out by the regime … Is that credible. Although … arms and government targets…where she says look half way from Serbian side… [inaudible]

Dr Bassma Kodmani

To me, it is very difficult (as I am need to have…). On these types of operations, sometimes twenty years later, you still don’t have the right answer, the final answer who really did it. But if you ask whether the regime is capable of that, definitely and the regime has actually said, earlier on, very earlier on, people from the security apparatus, leading figures, have said we infiltrate systematically, every group on the ground and the model is, what the Algerian regime did back in the 90s which is that you create , that you infiltrate so much that the regime itself carries out some of these operations to the point where you do not know which side is actually doing these operations. I think we’ve seen a lot of these attacks where you cannot really tell who has done it. Whether it has damaged the regime, I think, it has weakened the regime but that does not mean they did not do it themselves because within the large, the big battle against society. There are all the small battles inside society getting rid of so and so as so and so might appear as an alternative or might be plotting or seeking to defect is certainly somewhat the small circle around the Assad family is also calculating and doing consequently. I would not exclude it at all to be the case but there is no possibility to confirm.

John Glen MP

Gentleman in the front here

Question 5

You spoke earlier on of efforts being made to replace the failed Syrian national council by a broader coalition encompassing internal and external elements and I think you said we at some point and who is we? How far are these efforts coordinated?

You said that some of the Alawi and Ba’ath’s elements are reaching out to the opposition. Could you say a bit more about that community element including whether that regime has some plan to fall back on … North West and will it be feasible?

Dr Bassma Kodmani

Your first point on whether Alawites and Ba’ath’s party those that are close to the regime or the power base of the regime. I think, what we have… there is probably a… too much of a sectarian level that we employ to Syria, these are Alawites so they support the regime. Even though we all know there is an attempt to control the community to hijack the community to ensure that is serves as a shield for the community. All of this is true, yet Syria is not only about Christians and Alawites. We have a political history and a lot of the people who support the , continue to , remain around the regime and don’t defect are not Christians and Alawi, they are Christians and Alawite but they are Ba’athists as well and they consider themselves Ba’athist ,not Alawite and Christian or Jews or whoever . The Ba’ath Party consisted of a lot of minorities before it was confiscated by largely the Alawite community and then by the Assad family within the community.

So, we need to look at that political map of Syria as well and say many of these Alawites who now stand aside and disapprove completely of Assad, the Assad’s family monopolisation of power, the abuses of it. These people are trying to reach out. They need to know that they have a future as political figures not necessarily in a leading position but where do they go that is there whole life. They believe clearly that the Ba’ath values were about modern, progressive, building modern society, sectarian, secularism, etc. and all of these values were completely of course perverted by the Assad family. Nevertheless these people exist and they are there and they reach out. Now, we cannot throw away everybody and say here is the pure revolutionary forces that will built Syria tomorrow. We need to reach out to these people and there are sending signals and we should be very attentive to these signals because I think again a natural balance in Syria is to bring the groups who one way or another thought of Syria in different terms than Islamist terminology and religious ways of political affiliation. That is my answer to the issue of Alawis and Ba’athist. Again the business community is the same. What do you do with big businessman? There is corruption of course. They were corrupt of course but where is the realism about where we go now. Do we deal with these people or do we decide that again we are pre-revolutionary un-corrupted ever and not deal with these people. Justice will deal with these people in the future. (Eloit Agna….) I think there may be an attempt to do so but there is probably a more dangerous scenario that if the Assad family retreats into the Alawite region they might do it to reconquer the country, rebuild their forces and I think that is an even nastier scenario than there.

John Glen MP

Gentleman in the middle there

Question 6

Chris Doyle, from the Council of Arab-British Understanding. Thank you for your presentation. I wanted to come back to the issue of aid that you mentioned that in that you envisage to go through one single national authority. As somebody who has certainly pushed for a hard getaway in Syria and its political dispute and what its regime has done. I am slightly concerned that aid agency in the international department and the so-called donor anonymity as such will be somewhere reluctant to see a significant demands going to Syria being someway criticised and therefore their contributed on a track that is not under control of one party which is obviously very difficult for the regime in place. But do you feel that is a concern to be addressed?

Dr Bassma Kodmani

First, I should have answered the question of ‘we’. When I say ‘we’, it is the opposition. It is the opposition; it is 90% of the opposition is signed on to documents in Cairo which are really founding documents for the opposition. Some groups remain outside this consensus but there is a large consensus on those documents and there are very clear on what they advocate. So, when I say we I consider that I am part of this large consensus not institutionally we but just on the political position.

Now bidding an authority is, it is not a partisan authority the point is that such an authority and I should say and I can’t go more into detail but it will appoint a government, a provisional government. The idea is that this is a political authority with all groups that will be represented but the government will be a government of technocrats who will be who will have the executive capacity, the ability to really provide the services that are needed. Now, such an authority if it really has support on the ground Free Syrian army, local councils, all groups on the ground, can aspire to become the sole legitimate representative in which case it will ask for replacing the regime it actually will be if it is recognised by the Friends of Syria to start with, a larger group and then maybe the UN General Assembly is to create a new dynamic inside or diplomatically and  politically and internationally in support of such an authority which will become the alternative representative to the Syrian people replacing the regime and not  a…, this is not an opposition front anymore it’s a replacement of the regime in terms of representation.

John Glen MP

Ok. I have seen three of four more hands. The lady at the front.

Question 7

Thank you very much. That’s … impressing presentation.

In the context of trying to create new institutions as such and not just an opposition to replace the state, do you think that the Rahimi mission has any role in potentially helping out … you mentioned negotiations earlier … is it relevant or … maybe there is someone who …The EU has presence of few international … masses itself … sense of frustration of what they can do. I am just trying to figure out what you as the opposition and… can do together in … the opposition needs more institutionalised money or organised source. If that all make that happen. What kind of process do you see … What is the subvention?

John Glen MP

Before you answer. It might be sensible to collect a few more questions than you can take all the once you can deal with. Otherwise we don’t have time.

The Gentleman right in the back.

Question 8

Henry … former British ambassador in Syria. I wanted to ask actually something against the background of fiscal questions and as certainly set against the appalling cost of human life may seems second degree but for somebody who has lived in Syria for three years and who is still involved with an organisation that sponsors when possible … archaeology and research in Syria and the region. It’s frankly very, very distressing experience to see pictures of … and to hear about the  of … These as I said might seem as secondary issues but I wondered whether there is any prospect in your … opposition side for any sort of … restraint of… I mean they are world heritage side and … visit…

John Glen MP

Thank you. One more question from Paul…

Question 9

It is a very simple question. I believe a yes or no answer. When the opposition has succeeded in bringing all this to end this new government. Syria is a chemical weapon state. I am concerned about chemical weapons and nuclear proliferation will there be a policy to disable your weapons of mass destruction and we will things take away by international court?

Dr Bassma Kodmani

What Mr Rahimi can do. I think is to look to develop some plans for the long perspective and develop plans for stabilising Syria after Assad. I think this is where he has the best contribution to make. I think he has heard very clearly from opposition groups that dialogue is just not something he can really get any result from but if he is able to negotiate with the regime a ceasefire again an implementation of item one on the Annan Plan which is not quite item One but was in the spirit of the Annan plan item one which is to get a ceasefire and then a peace plan then there is hope for a peaceful transition but this is about transition it is not about reforming this system, clearly not. Point Two on the European Union and the institutionalisation of that recognition of that political authority let’s talk about humanitarian aid, only humanitarian aid if that can come through a building of a fund, a public fund for Syria which will come under the authority of this public authority. The public authority, we are told by all, all sectors really whether it’s humanitarian, whether it is economic reconstruction or relief in need. Every kind of project is longing for, is really begging for political authority to deal with. There is a need for a credible partner. So, developing a fund for example under whose authority can we put it today, nobody. This is why we absolutely need such an authority.

On the heritage, the Souk of Aleppo…, this was told to us two days ago by people who were in the Souk of …because they have shops there, the shops and the whole Souk was burned by luting groups who looted who were just from the regular army and militia and they burned the Souk. It didn’t come from Shalin? Because the Free Syrian army was helping. Because the people in Aleppo blamed the people from the Free Syrian army for hiding in that place, the Souk and therefore bringing destruction upon the Souk. For the other monuments, we need to also realise this is a visa-rural people coming into the city. They have lost somebody in their family, they have lost their homes, they have lost everything. It is so difficult to tell these people this is not their heritage, it is their heritage of course but they don’t care for it the way the bourgeoisie cared for it and we have a social issue there that we need to take into account. Obviously the barbarian behaviour of the regime brings responses that are not very civilised. Now what the political authority can do is say yes you have to respect those places but at the moment the answer is so stones are more important to you than lives and it’s very difficult to fancy that.

On chemical weapons, I think the answer is very clear. Any new government in Syria will immediately commence to dismantle the chemical weapons arsenal or will ask the international community to do so.

John Glen MP

Excellent. Well, I think in interest of being prompt in doing as we were told, I like to thank you very much for the insightful and informative remarks this afternoon and I like to thank the Henry Jackson Society for hosting today and I hope you found it a useful session. Thank you very much for coming.


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