Here is a brief update on the activities of the US Peace Council delegation in Syria.
We went to Ma’alula today and tomorrow most of us will fly home. I could spend many words and hours debunking every lie you have been told about Syria and Syrians in the last 5 years, a Sisyphean task in today’s environment. Instead I will share some of my perceptions of recent events based on my experiences in Damascus this week.
Yesterday was quite an interesting day. We met with President Assad in the morning and talked at some length. We began by exchanging introductions and then we asked him some very serious questions. We were not allowed to record the session but many of us took at least some notes. He told us that his strongest focus is on representing the Syrian people and holding the state together on their behalf. He described numerous programs the Syrian state has enacted to protect the people during this very difficult time. The government has converted schools and other buildings into refugee centers. They continue to provide, to the best of their ability, free education and medical care to everyone in the government held areas; they supply power, clean water and food even to areas that are occupied by militants where it is possible.
And he proudly told us that the Syrian Arab Army, an army of the people which is defending the country against a brutal attack, have finally closed the road from Aleppo to Turkey. This is very important because the militants in East Aleppo, and especially Al Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, have been receiving money and weapons from Turkey. He then told us that he had just issued the order to implement the humanitarian corridors and amnesty for Syrian nationals. He said that there are two ways to deplete the violence. The first is to fight to the bitter end. The other is to provide an incentive for people to stop fighting and give them a safe passage back to the lives they have left.
These are the first steps in the reconciliation plan which the Reconciliation Minister had talked about extensively, and which was cited by many others we spoke to as the best thinking to restore peace to Syria. We had already had two extended meetings with the Minister of Reconciliation, one in his office and the other over dinner at our hotel where he explained the methodology for reconciliation which they have been developing for some time. Amnesty and humanitarian aid are just the beginning. Evacuating as many civilians as possible is a temporary step to secure their welfare while negotiations are ongoing.
They used this process quite successfully in Homs last winter when they evacuated thousands of fighters and their families from neighborhoods they have long held hostage. Many were bused to Idlib where they may well resume fighting, but a densely populated areas of Homs is now secure and the civilians are able to live their lives in peace. The tens of thousands of citizens who remained were provided humanitarian relief and basic needs with reconstruction assistance on the horizon. You can see the video I posted on my blog at the time when they joyously welcomed the Syrian Arab Army. Minister Haidar admitted that Reconciliation plans are a work in progress and problems do occur. He also explained a complex process involving contact with and empowerment of the local people in the occupied areas that I can explain at some other time.
Each case is unique. East Aleppo has been very closely tied to a stream of foreign fighters who came in through Turkey. They are unlikely to walk away. Al Nusra/Al Qaeda is the primary organization there. And there may be a larger civilian population than in some of the other areas where the plan has succeeded. While the world is watching, it must be stated that the deep plan of working with local fighters and civilian councils will not unfold immediately. Ali Haidar, the Minister of Reconciliation and the long time leader of a dissident party prior to the current crisis in Syria (the war), is on his way to Aleppo to assess conditions and work on making the contacts necessary to begin the real process of reconciliation.
Of course, the first steps of this plan for reconciliation have been all over the news with varying judgements. The New York Times refers to reconciliation and restoration of the fighters’ citizenship as ‘surrender’, but that is not the way those vested in ‘reconciliation’ see it. People we spoke to told us that Syrians are tired of the war. Many initially joined the fight because they were being paid. They say that others joined out of confusion during the initial attacks on their villages and neighborhoods and that many men in occupied areas are given the choice to fight for the militants or be killed immediately. The president told us that he would prefer to heal the country rather than unleash a sea of rage and revenge. The only context in which this does not make sense is one where the sovereign Syrian State is not acknowledged.
Starvation might be less an issue in Aleppo than the fact that the fighters and their families will no longer have income. Last week it was reported, even by Western sources that the current situation was imminent and so an effort was made by the militants in East Aleppo to bring in several months worth of food and other necessities. In the last 24 hours, the Russians have air dropped more food and supplies into East Aleppo. And there are resources at the humanitarian corridors. The NY Times is reporting that people don’t want to leave East Aleppo. However, RT, however, is reporting that militants are firing on civilians who try to leave the area. Clearly there are problems that need to be addressed.
However, there are significant differences between the perspective presented by the Western press and that of the Syrians we met with this week. There is one I would like to point out, that was made very clear by everyone I met with during my stay here in Damascus. Syria is a sovereign country. It has a government which is doing its best to provide the services that governments provide including the provision of necessary resources and services to civilians including personal security which includes ethnic and religious tolerance and equality under the law. None of the forces at war with the government of Syria have demonstrated the capacity, or more importantly, the desire to provide these basic human and civil rights to the people of Syria.
President Bashar Assad, who was elected 2 years ago by the majority of Syrian citizens with a clear majority of votes, comes across as a well educated, progressive individual who is taking responsibility for providing for the people of his country who elected him by a significant majority, and leading a government which is attempting to respond to the issues that have caused civil unrest and discontent within that society while at the same time facing a vicious attack, funded, armed and manned by wealthy countries that have no civil rights and provide few social resources to their population. Not only is the government of Syria with their President doing their best to support the people of that country, but were he to leave, there would be no leadership in the fight against forces that oppose the values of the vast majority of Syrian people and are determined to tear the state apart.
Syrian is home to several ethnic groups and numerous sects of Christianity and Islam. They have lived together in peace for centuries if not longer. This week, the Grand Muftii and the Bishop of the Orthodox Church told us they are ‘cousins’. People tell me it is shameful to ask another person their religion or ethnic background as it is socially irrelevant. There is an awareness of the economic issues that are a source of suffering but the war has taken precedence. There is no doubt that the Syrian government has made mistakes and no one in Syria denies it. However, the US demand that Assad abandon his office and his responsibilities is unrealistic and out of sync with American values as well as with Syrian values. The US insistence on continuing to fuel this vicious war with money and weapons, through proxies and direct strikes, through propaganda and political manipulation, until he abdicates is criminal. It is a violation of international law, us law, and common morality.