By Antonio C. S Rosa* | IDN-InDepth NewsReport
An international peace mission visited Damascus from May 1 to 11 wading through a labyrinth of multi-layered domestic and foreign political, economic and religious interests constituting the backbone of persistent half-truths about a rather intricate situation in Syria whose worst victims are ordinary and peace-loving people. Following are excerpts from an extensive report by the editor of peace journalism website TRANSCEND Media Service (TMS).
PORTO (IDN) – It was disconcerting coming into the country for the first time knowing what I thought I knew and seeing a calm, positive demeanour in people, which could well be misconstrued as apathy, yet exhibiting expectant, concerned, awaiting eyes and facial expressions.
After some time I noticed a striking absence of anger or negative excitement in the air; people going about their daily business as if nothing was happening, as if life were normal. No cries for revenge against their many external aggressors, no fists in the air, no demonstrations against a dictator, no pleading or denouncing slips of paper passed to me surreptitiously by nervous, fearful hands.
Eye contacts revealed seriousness, curiosity, kindness, hope, hospitality, happiness in seeing strangers. No public laughs or smiles though. Heavy hearts do not allow for such frivolities. Syrian people are suffering, they are sad, stuck, against the wall, being victimized for which they bear no responsibility. They just don’t know why they are being threatened, attacked, killed, tortured, and humiliated so viciously from so many fronts. The concept of proxy war is alien to them even though they are at its core. Fear of violence can be more psychologically and emotionally damaging than the real thing. Understandably, they are afraid of talking in public and being later identified and targeted by jihadists.
But then again, that is always the case, isn’t? Who cares about unimportant people when so many more pressing factors are in play? Like the obscene profits made by the oil multinationals, the 7 sisters cartel, and the preservation of wasteful lifestyles of peoples from richer, more powerful nations that need – and will take by any means necessary – the oil that Syrians at this juncture unfortunately have underneath their feet?
Disconcerting as well was to find a country bursting with activity and life, children in playgrounds or walking to school in their uniforms, open air markets filled with people, heavy traffic, buses running, life happening in and around Damascus. Disconcerting because I had psyched myself to find a country in ruins, people fleeing for their lives from bombs, tanks on the streets, a police state massacring its own citizens, large scale suffering, buildings demolished, people resisting the government by force, and so on.
Yet, I saw none of the above; quite the opposite. But you will forgive my ignorance, for I am a Westerner and that is what we hear, watch and read in our corporate media, which without a pinch of shame, honesty or humanity tell us half-truths, innuendoes, straight lies, and party-line talking-points uttered by talking heads about what is happening on this part of the world.
And I stand guilty of believing them like a fool. Nonetheless, the country has been as if divided by checkpoints in every strategic entrance and exit. To give an idea, our Damascus hotel was surrounded by six different checkpoints strategically located around it. Armed personnel and soldiers on the streets is a common sight that adds to a sense of security.
Mairead and Mother Agnès-Maryam Soeur (our leaders) met privately with Syrian armed fighters and we were introduced to some persons victimized by their atrocities. Audiences included: Syrian Prime Minister Mr. Wael Al Halki, Deputy PM and Minister of Economic Affairs Mr. Qadri Jameel (opposition), Minister of Health Dr. Saed Anayef, Minister of Social Affairs Ms. Kinda Al-Shammat (a pleasant and intelligent young lady), Minister of Justice Dr. Najem Hamad Al-Ahmad, Minister of Information Mr. Omran Ahed Al-Zouabi, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Walid Muallem, the Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Mr. Ali Abd Karim Ali, the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, and General Michael Aoun, an influential Lebanese party leader (who is rumored to discriminate against Palestinian refugees).
We visited the People’s Council of Syria (parliament), hospitals, refugee camps, were briefed by senior field coordinator Maeve Murphy at the UNHCR intake center in Zahleh-Lebanon, and met with a representative of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and with ambulance drivers and health workers. We were also welcomed by some ten leaders from various religions, sects and faiths, were greeted in churches and mosques, and I talked with common folks every time an opportunity presented in shops and in the streets.
I talked with an active member of the political opposition to the present regime. He was in prison for 24 years, released 11 years ago, and wants changes – but without outside interference as he told me textually. The 71 year-old kind and intelligent gentleman who declined to give his name also told me he did not marry and have children because he was in prison, and he was ashamed of that.
Behind the conflict
A deeper contextual assessment and analysis within a peace studies/conflict resolution paradigm would require more time and research into the complexities of the conflicts (in the plural) vis-à-vis the newest perceptions, facts and evidences acquired herein; the majority of actors are not evident whereas the main, deadliest ones are shielded by ‘deniability.’
However, they are all known – and very active. Of one thing you may rest assured: Bashar al-Assad is not the sole culprit, THE bad guy in this saga. He is a well-liked leader all over, which is evident in different cities, in talks with differing kinds of persons, and by their attitudes and actions.
Body languages, eye contacts, non-verbal messages work wonders in bringing hidden messages to the surface. Billboards with his picture are spread throughout the land and they are clean, well preserved. One does not see graffiti over them, obscenities or anything like that. Syrians in general show pride in having a handsome leader, an eye doctor who is not a sanguinary dictator like Saddam Hussein was. I would assume that in the present context even those who oppose him are on his side to defend Syria’s integrity as a functioning society.
Quoting Johan Galtung: “An image of the goals of some outside parties:
– Israel wants Syria divided in smaller parts, detached from Iran, status quo for Golan Heights, and a new map for the Middle East;
– USA wants what Israel wants and control over oil, gas, pipelines;
– UK wants what USA wants;
– France co-responsible with the UK for post-Ottoman colonization in the area, wants confirmed friendship France-Syria;
– Russia wants a naval base in the Mediterranean, and an “ally”;
– China wants what Russia wants;
– EU wants both what Israel-USA want and what France wants;
– Iran wants Shia power;
– Iraq majority Shia, wants what Iran wants;
– Lebanon wants to know what it wants;
– Saudi Arabia wants Sunni power;
– Egypt wants to emerge as the conflict-manager;
– Qatar wants the same as Saudi Arabia and Egypt;
– Gulf States want what USA-UK want;
– The Arab League wants no repetition of Libya, tries human rights;
– Turkey wants to assert itself relative to the (Israel-USA) successors to the (France-UK-Italy) successors to the Ottoman Empire, and a buffer zone in Syria.
– UN wants to emerge as the conflict manager.
Every single statement here can be challenged and challenged again. But let us for the sake of the mental experiment assume that this image, with 16 outside and five inside parties, is more right than wrong.”
The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Affairs, Mr. Kadri Jameel, is a Communist Kurd elected on the opposition party platform. He came to talk to the delegation at the 5-star hotel where we stayed in Damascus. He affirmed that his electoral victory represented a foot on the door for further changes, which envisioned a multiparty political system.
I talked with four members of his security detail. One of them, 26, showed me his wound: a bullet entered through his backside and exited through his neck, which had been broken as he was attacked by foreign fighters coming from Turkey at a Palestinian refugee camp in Latakia on August 2011 when he was still in the army. Although army officers, they guard the leader of the opposition. I was told by them that these armed gangs of trouble makers target especially the minorities (Druze, Christians, Shia) in hopes that they turn against the government.
“As the government moves to a multi-party system, a non-territorial federation with two chambers, one for provinces and the other for nations, with vetoes in matters of vital concern might be useful.”
In addition, as much as I tried, no one leader could or would answer my two basic questions: What is the source of this conflict? What are the solutions? Perhaps it was so because all our audiences, meetings, visits, and so forth were made in groups: our delegation, composed of 16 invitees from eight countries, our hosts, the press (which at times stole the whole show all for themselves), plus the heavily armed security around us everywhere around the clock, sometimes annoyingly so.
Thus no conversations or even follow-up questions were ever entertained. But I got a generalized reply based and around a single theme: “The violence must stop!” Moreover, few of the leaders spoke English. Thus a lot of our ‘conversations’ was lost or truncated in the interpreting process. What stands out is that almost all of the various leaders and people in general seem to agree that the major, perhaps only problem facing the country is the (contained) violence and threat thereof. Nothing could be farther from the truth, though. So I will stay more at the surface in this overview of our visit.
Galtung’s bird’s eye view of the situation (in Syria, TMS 29 Apr 2013): “Over this looms a dark cloud: Syria is in the zone between Israel-USA-NATO and Shanghai Cooperation Organization-SCO [Russia-China], both expanding.
“Then, an image of the goals of some inside parties:
– Alawis (15%): want to remain in power, “for the best of all” (Assad’s power base);
– Shias in general: want the same;
– Sunnis: want majority rule, their rule, democracy;
– Jews, Christians, minorities: want security, fearing Sunni rule;
– Kurds: want high level autonomy, some community with other Kurds.”
The Syrian state and its population are being indirectly attacked by US/EU/NATO/UN; and directly by Israel, HERE and also HERE, by the autocratic dictatorships of the GCC-Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, UAE (mostly Sunni Muslims) in partnership with Turkey (secular), and by Al Qaeda plus a diversity of mercenary jihadists (by definition terrorist groups), each with its own agenda, recruited from 29 countries and paid by GCC/CIA. Syrians are also assailed by UN sanctions and an embargo, and by a foreign press bent on demonizing, lying, destabilizing the country (not merely the regime).
The mercenaries fight among themselves to grab the moneys channelled from the CIA and other American institutions via GCC and/or Turkey. Weapons enter Syria hidden in Turkish ambulances posing as such. US cash provides weapons and logistics, fund mercenaries, pay for jihadists. Bands of jihadists armed to the teeth invade Syria through Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon (Tripoli).
Turkey opened its Syrian borders to them and, through terror, they displace the populations forcing them to take refuge back in Turkey in an effort to destabilize Syria. Turkey, in fact, invites Syrian refugees into the country. It is documented that Syrian refugees in Turkey are mistreated, have their organs removed (stolen), children sold for forced marriage or else.
There are an estimated 50,000 foreign jihadist fighters terrorizing Syria’s countryside: snipers, bombers, agitators. They torture and kill men who refuse to join them. In their religious fundamentalism they believe that any Muslim they kill will automatically and immediately achieve paradise; they are actually doing them a favour (!). There is a score of young Europeans on their ranks as well (Germans, Dutch, British, and Australians).
We visited and talked with a chief of family, refugee in Lebanon and saw twenty people living in a space roughly 6×6 without ventilation, a room inside a warehouse, for which they pay the equivalent of 400 dollar/month. One filthy kitchen, one bathroom. And that is that. They are on their own to find work and everything else. Some resort to stealing and committing petty crimes to survive.
This is typical, not an exception. And he explained that in his native Homs jihadists take over their houses, rape their women, and kill young males who refuse to join their ranks. Chechens, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Lebanese, Jordanians, Turkish, Europeans compose these gangs armed, fed and maintained by the above mentioned foreign governments. He said they attach suicide vests around peoples’ bodies and threaten to explode them if they don’t do what they are told. Underneath a rather dignified posture, he was scared, terrorized. Yet we kept hearing the same mantra over and over: “I want to go back home, I don’t belong here.” It was truly heartbreaking, and I felt helpless in the face of it. Bearing witness we were.
In one of the refugee camps we visited in Lebanon (more aptly called a concentration camp) we talked with a couple from Homs – he being a pharmacist and engineer – who had their house and business blown up due to terrorist activities. Now they live by charity in the Bekaa Valley-Lebanon, under a tent and with nothing but the clothes over their bodies. They are not allowed to work, own property, have a dignified life. There is no sanitation and there are check points with armed soldiers at the gates. Multiply this by about 1.5 million and you will have an approximate dimension of the human tragedy.
We visited the Sabra Palestinian refugee camp as well, of the infamous Sabra-Shatila massacre by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in September 1982, on the outskirts of Beirut. In addition we toured the UN High Commission for Refugees intake centre in Zahleh, Lebanon, next to Bekaa valley and were briefed by Maeve Murphy, UNHCR senior field coordinator. She said that there is a staff of 50 workers to deal with an influx of 1,500 refugees a day.
This is how it works, according to Prime Minister Wael Al Halki himself, with whom we spent 2.5 hours and with him doing most of the talk to explain in detail and with statistics and evidences what is really happening for the last two years. Jihadists take a village by assault, kill public officials, take over private houses in which to hide, burn plantations, spread terror and devastation.
Their aim is simple: to render the country as ungovernable as they possibly can, disrupt normal life, destroy institutions, livestock, people. They occupy hospitals forcing medical personnel to look only after foreign fighters, not allowing wounded locals or government soldiers to be treated. This has created a wave of refugees from a total population of 21.9 million. Internal displacement is calculated at 1.5 million people.
And 600,000 external refugees according to the Minister of Social Affairs, Ms Kinda Al-Shammat (estimate). But the UNHCR provides an official estimate of 1.5 million refugees spread over the different neighboring countries as follows: Jordan: 471.677; Lebanon: 469.217; Turkey: 347.157; Iraq: 146.951; Egypt: 66.922.
Syrian authorities on the other hand reacted to the rampant and aggressive terrorism through a policy they call ‘iron hand.’ Tanks, artillery and infantry descend in force on the places that foreign fighters keep under siege and blow up the buildings where they hide, keep armaments and snipers.
However, before striking the buildings fliers are thrown from helicopters advising residents to leave the area, what is not always possible because the terrorists use them as human shields, keeping them under captivity inside their own residences. Collateral damage is high, it is a policy many consider unacceptable. But given the odds he said it is the best alternative.
And this method, as brutal as it is, is bearing fruits as the terrorists are being decimated or otherwise driven farther and farther from populated areas. The minister of justice said textually: “Those who invade us to kill and destroy our country will not leave Syria alive.”
But the jihadists still occupy and keep under siege many localities. If compared to the US retaliation to the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center, killing millions, invading other countries, and lingering still 12 years later through drone attacks and selective assassinations, such ‘iron hand’ policies are mild (without condoning the violence, that is). Those are, therefore, the demolished buildings shown ad nauseam and out of context, over and over on CNN, BBC, FOX and the rest of them. [. . .]
On one occasion an IED-Improvised Explosive Device exploded about 10 minutes after our delegation had left the Patriarchate of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church (our hosts throughout), where we had attended an ecumenical prayer for peace.
I was shown photos immediately after, sent by cell phone, of blood on the floor from people killed and injured from the attack. Such is life in Damascus to which, after a short 10-day visit, we were getting somewhat used to. Understanding drives away outrage and harsh judgmental assumptions and conclusions. Mairead Maguire, who talked in private with four Syrian armed combatants, said they told her they took up arms against the government because they were unemployed; one of them with five children. Al Qaida offered them money. They took the offer and started killing fellow Syrians. Moreover, three shots were fired against the car of the leader/organizer of the peace mission, Mother Agnès-Mariam Soeur, a Melkite nun, on May 11, 2013 as she travelled to her native Homs, the hotspot city where her monastery was destroyed by terrorist activities. [. . .]
A positive note: we were gifted with a VIP visit to the famous Umayyad Mosque in the old city of Damascus, fourth holiest place after Mecca, where is located the tomb and shrine of St John the Baptist right at the center of the huge 4,000 year-old construction that had previously been a temple of Jupiter in Roman times and the Basilica of Saint John the Baptist.
This mosque is at the end of the famous Road to Damascus, of St Paul’s conversion, which we walked by foot seeing the exact spot of the event. Upon exiting the mosque complex one could see another building erected by Saladin (1174–1193), also buried in Umayyad. This was just one of many fascinating experiences afforded us by our hosts being demonized and targeted for invasion and occupation by the West.
They are understandably worried that invading marines wouldn’t have what it takes to appreciate such a wealth of history, art, religious traditions, faiths, civilization, and would most probably raze it to the ground as they have done elsewhere in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan. Right they are. We were hosted by the head of Umayyad, the Grand Mufti of the Syrian Arab republic, Dr. Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun and by the Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Laham, who organized and hosted our whole trip along with Mussalaha.
We arrived in Lebanon during the holy week of the Eastern Orthodox Churches and spent their Easter Sunday (May 5) as guests of one of the many Christianities of the Middle East, where it all began. An added treat.
The Mussalaha International Peace Delegation to Syria issued a Concluding Declaration. Being from varying backgrounds, delegates did not agree on everything and one of them did not sign it. Therefore: no groupthink and no possibility of collective brainwashing of our group by Syrian authorities. And Mairead Maguire’s messages to the media, as the Nobel Peace laureate head of the delegation, remained impeccable and on point. She started all interviews with affirmations to the effect that,
“It is for the Syrian people to decide about their own problems, their own destiny, their own politics, their own leadership and form of government. No one has de right to interfere in their internal affairs and all foreign forces must withdraw and stay away. The flow of arms and armed fighters must be stopped, sanctions must be lifted, and if the arms embargo should remain in place, it ought to all parties involved, not just to the Syrian government that has a right to defend itself from foreign aggression. Are the foreign bands of invaders that are killing and terrorizing the population. All parties must follow the rules of international law.”
I find it disgraceful that our Western governments, led by US-EU-Israel and their client states, be full and willing partners in such atrocities perpetrated in name of “human rights,” “democracy,” “rule of law,” “freedom,” “liberty,” and other such meaningless, trivialized euphemisms.
The present political and economic structures, embedded in the machinery of predatory militarism and capitalism, present us with only one choice, the lesser evil; but that is an artificial construct. Gandhi, Mandela, Luther King, Lula and many others are proof that changes and transformation are envisioned, given form and arise from below, from the ranks of the oppressed and minorities, from a non-co-opted periphery, and not from within the belly of an empire of banks and bases seeking unlimited profits and hegemonic powers – for their own sake. Policies must again be made to endeavour the wellbeing of human beings, of life, not the perpetuation of structures and cultures that by necessity have to go.
At other times in history piracy, slavery and absolute monarchy, for instance, also represented the status quo, the law; but they are no more. Nonviolent resistance and actions throughout the cultural-structural apparatus are the means to turn this tide, which is taking our planet and all its life to the abyss. We must choose life and peace by peaceful means, resist we must; and we will!
*The writer is editor of Peace Journalism website TRANSCEND Media Service (TMS), which is both a service to other media and a medium in its own right. He participated in the Mussalaha International Peace Delegation to Lebanon-Syria from May 1- to 11, 2013 alongside fellow TRANSCEND member Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire, from Ireland, and 15 others from eight countries. This article is excerpted from an extensive report that can be accessed on http://www.transcend.org/tms/2013/05/on-de-road-to-damascus. [IDN-InDepthNews – May 22, 2013]
Picture: Peace delegation at the People’s Council of Syria (Parliament) | Credit: Transcend Media Service