An Anglican colleague of one of our friends, Rev. Andrew Ashdown, recently returned from a visit to Syria. Rev. Ashdown led the first British Christian delegation to Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011 and which saw numerous meetings with local political and religious leaders and Christian communities.
He has written a fascinating account of the visit.
REFLECTIONS ON A VISIT TO SYRIA – Part 2
31 August – 7 September 2016
The journey into Syria is always one of mixed emotions…excitement and anticipation at meeting friends and being a witness to profound, complex and painful realities; and a realistic unease that nowhere is completely safe. That concern was particularly heightened on this occasion knowing that we would be travelling to Aleppo. Though that journey is literally life-threatening, not going was not an option. We had been invited by the Armenian Church and by the Chaldaean Catholic Bishop, and we felt it vital to make a Pastoral visit to the city and to be a witness to what we saw and heard. The journey from Beirut is quite magnificent over the Chouf mountains into the Bekaa Valley. Pictured here, we are at the border official waiting room where we were met by my dear friend and guide Qusay, who arranged everything and stayed with us throughout, and by my friend Revd Harout Selimien, President of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Aleppo, one of those who invited us. The journey continues into Damascus through numerous checkpoints, with views over the city, both of the devastated rebel-controlled areas, and the cosmopolitan and bustling city centre which is under government control.
So what is Damascus like in the midst of the conflict?
It is a divided city. The outer areas of the city have been under the control of extremist fighters, and have been heavily bombarded by the government. Most of the residents of these areas fled early on in the fighting from the ‘rebels’ either to join refugees outside Syria, or to the comparative safety of government- controlled areas. (Remember that there are more internally displaced refugees from rebel-held areas being cared for in government-controlled areas than all the external refugees in the region and Europe combined.) Two years ago, I visited some of the refugees on the outskirts of Yarmouk and heard the horrific stories of the brutality of the rebel groups against the citizens, and of the harsh conditions under the ensuing siege. Speaking to other internally displaced people from rebel-held areas, (and we also spoke with others on this visit) they consistently report that supplies that do get through are withheld by the fighters or sold at exorbitant prices to the residents in order to promote the kind of starvation that will evoke international sympathy and condemnation.
Then there is the common misrepresentation of facts. A few weeks ago, the government siege of Darraya was lifted. The UN had told the Syrian government that there were 10000 civilians in the suburb and that they should provide food for 10,000 people. The government consistently argued that there were less than 10,000 people there but nevertheless provided what was asked. When the reconciliation was reached with the help of the local reconciliation committee, the total number of people who left Darraya was 1826 people, of whom 1200 were fighters. (Despite reports of ‘eating grass’, they did not appear to have reached that level of starvation) The remaining civilians (though many are families of the fighters) are now being housed by the Syrian government and Syrian Red Crescent. The fighters are given an option: to be bussed safely to other rebel-held areas; or to receive amnesty, lay down their arms, be reintegrated into the community or join the Syrian army and police. Many have chosen the latter, but of course this is never reported. Consider by contrast what happens when Syrian soldiers are captured by our ‘moderate’ friends anywhere in the country. They are in almost all cases summarily executed, very often by brutal and inhumane means.
Arriving in the centre of Damascus, a city at war, is strange. Security throughout the city is necessarily tight with numerous checkpoints. Citizens are generally accepting of these, as the risks of car bomb and terrorist attacks are high. But on the surface everything appears normal. The streets are busy. People go about their daily lives. Striking too is the evident diversity of the city for which Syria has always been renowned. Dress ranges from modern western to conservative Islamic. People are free to dress and move as they wish. Churches and mosques stand side by side and the Call to Prayer often mingles with the sound of Church bells. Christians, Sunni, Shi’a, Druze, Alawite, Kurds, mix freely on the streets and in the restaurants and markets. It remains a beautiful city. But beneath the surface lie other realities.
This was my fifth visit to Syria since April 2014 and I have seen the changes. The city is certainly quieter since two years ago, when the Old City and the city centre were under continuous ‘rebel’ bombardment, and received regular car- bomb attacks that randomly killed hundreds of people and injured thousands more. And the sound of government bombing of rebel-held suburbs was also frequent. Today such attacks have reduced as government advances and reconciliation initiatives in the Damascus countryside have reduced the threat. There is a renewed sense of hope that the (western-backed) terrorists may not prevail. However the cost on society has been huge, and sanctions are affecting everyone, especially the vulnerable. With the collapse of the Syrian pound, everything is expensive, and the value of incomes has plummeted. There are widespread shortages of essential goods. Electricity cuts are frequent and sometimes electricity is available only 2 hours a day. We were told that some of the power stations that serve the capital are under ‘rebel’ control, and therefore the government are forced to liaise with ‘rebel’ factions and come to financial arrangements in order to ensure the provision of power to the city.
Meanwhile, throughout Syria, including areas under the control of different factions (including IS), government employees are paid in full, and healthcare and education provision continues to be provided free of charge as has always been the case.
However, with the huge strain of millions of internally-displaced flocking from ‘rebel’- held areas to the comparative safety of the government – controlled territories, one sees many people on the streets. Some pavements are filled with clothes either being given away or sold cheaply because many cannot afford to buy in normal shops. Yet, life goes on. There is a perseverance and dignity in the people that is admirable. A common phrase is: ‘Syria will survive: continuing to work and live is our resistance to terrorism. ‘
We must not forget the place of women in society. Women in Syria have enjoyed more freedom of rights in Syria for many years, than almost in any other Arab country. One woman we met whilst walking freely in the streets spoke for many:
“You’ve walked the streets and seen the women. We have total freedom to dress the way we want, to eat what we want and to get appropriate education and medical care. We choose our own way of life. The situation for women in Syria is perfectly good and was before the crisis. Now in areas controlled by Daesh and other groups, women are really suffering: they are not allowed to get education or practice their rights under the control of the extremist mentality. If the regime changed in Syria and these extremists took control of everything, just imagine how miserable life would be for us women. We won’t even be able to walk in the street without a male accompanying us. Females will be forced to stay at home. We can’t imagine that.”
Most Damascenes (indeed most Syrians we spoke with) have no wish to see regime change because the alternative is likely to be too awful to contemplate. They do wish to see reform though and yearn for the international community to stop supporting extremist people of violence and to work with the Government to defeat terrorism, and bring about peace and reform. Damascus was and is one of the most beautiful, diverse and tolerant cities in the Middle East. It is also the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. The people deserve for their voices to be heard. It is unconscionable that those of us who seek to listen and to enable those voices to be heard, are criticised for doing so. This surely raises serious questions about the agendas behind Western policies towards the conflict and the suffering people of Syria.