Reflections on a Visit to Syria – Part 7

Syria Asma al-Assad lights at a candle at Christian shrine

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.


31 August – 7 September 2016

Meeting with Dr. Maria Saadeh, and

Opposition Leader, Dr. Elian Mous’ad

Back in Damascus, we had further meetings. It is always inspiring to meet with Dr. Maria Saadeh, a Christian, and former MP, she is working tirelessly to promote the development, involvement and training of local civil society groups involving people of all ages and all communities. She said that generally Syrians do not have the political awareness or experience they need (this has been a weakness of the political system in the past, but the capacity to develop it has also been all but destroyed by the conflict). This potential can only be developed in the context of peace. Dr. Saadeh is also very involved in working for the restoration of archaeological Syria.

We also met with the Leader of the International Opposition at the talks in Geneva: Dr. Elian Mous’ad. Dr. Mous’ad is a medical specialist in internal diseases, and joined the National Congress for a secular Syria. He stressed the fact that the internal opposition were happy to sit down with all parties in the conflict. He said that although Syria may be regarded by some as a dictatorship, what the USA and other countries are promoting and supporting would lead to a far worse dictatorship for the people of Syria. If certain nations do not stop arming ISIS and the militant groups, the war will not end. Rather than end the war, he believes the international community is wanting to maintain areas of influence in the interests of USA, Turkey and Saudi Arabia,

Like all the other internal opposition leaders in Syria that I have met, Dr. Mous’ad is bitter about what he describes as a ‘media blackout’ against the internal (unarmed and peaceful) opposition by the BBC, CNN and other media networks. (I too have heard them utterly dismissed in Parliamentary meetings in London). Rather, he says, the international media only quote the external opposition who are supporters of terrorist groups and who he says, do not represent the Syrian people.

The Ministry of Reconciliation

Of all the efforts in Syria being made to bring peace, the work of Reconciliation is one of the most significant and important. I have seen the work of the Reconciliation committee in Homs, and met with its members, all volunteers, who are led by the local Christian and Muslim faith leaders. These are people who are dedicated to ending violence, striving for the laying down of arms, and reconciliation between different factions in local communities. It can also be dangerous work.

Two years ago, I spent a morning with a Sheikh who two weeks later was shot dead when he went to talk to representatives of one of the ‘moderate’ groups to try and negotiate a cease-fire. This work, which is carried out in towns and villages all over Syria; has achieved 70 ceasefires; and we are told there are 4.5 milliion volunteers from all sectarian and faith groups within Syria. Yet, it is ignored by the western media, and dismissed by political and Church leaders outside Syria.

It has been my pleasure and privilege to meet the Minister for Reconciliation, Dr. Ali Haider on several occasions in the past few years. He has been a political activist since 1972, and he is the Leader of the Syrian Social National Party (SSNP). (He helpfully points out that there are two parties with this name in Syria; one which is fighting against the Government, and the other which supports the Syrian Army!) He stresses that he represents the latter!

As an Opposition leader, Dr. Haider’s party was invited in 2012 to join the Government. As one who believes passionately in reconciliation, Dr. Haider was only willing to do so, if he could head up a ‘Ministry of Reconciliation’ – a request that was granted. He said it was the only post in Government that he would accept. For Dr. Haider, reconciliation is not an easy process. His own son was assassinated a few years ago by a terrorist group, simply for being his son.

The process of reconciliation he described as follows. It has two foci… Local reconciliation, and National Reconciliation:

1. We choose an area and initiate direct contact with fighting groups. If they refuse, we find local religious or other leaders to mediate.

2. The goal is to achieve a situation where the area is free of weapons and armed militias, and where local factions can start to dialogue and understand their differences.

3. Where there are foreign fighters we have to address this situation. If there are foreigners, the first step is to get them out of the area, because they are anti-
reconciliation. (All Syrians we spoke to say that foreign fighters have no right to any say in the future of the country.)

4. Locals are given the choice to continue fighting with foreign fighters or to leave fighting and to join the Syrian Army or authorities such as the police. Many have chosen the former and lost their lives. Many others have chosen the latter. (But this is not reported).

5. The usual provision for civilians of free education, medical care and electricity (including to former fighters and their families) are restored. The presence of these is an indication of the success of the reconciliation.

6. We try to work on the much more difficult and painful issues of identifying the dead, the missing and the kidnapped. And we help the local Communications Committees to liaise with Government departments to help life to return to normal.

7. The ultimate target is to ease tensions and pave the way for national and international reconciliation.

The Minister said that some say that the reconciliation process can only begin once the fighting has ended. (An argument I have heard expressed in London). Dr. Haider points out though that there have been many successes, and that if we can save lives now through this process, then it is a positive development. He says: ‘We seek, and have achieved, islands of peace in Syria.” He also pointed out that the President is very supportive of this process. (This was confirmed by the President himself when we met with him.)

We asked the Minister about the Issues of Sieges. First of all, he pointed out that all sides are using siege as a means of warfare, but that the sieges by rebel factions are generally not reported. He also pointed out that many of the stories in parts of the western media have been proven to have been exaggerated. Again and again, as sieges have been lifted through the Reconciliation process, the numbers of people stated to have been under siege have been far fewer than reported. For example, the UN, ICRC and international media had claimed that there were 10.000 people besieged in Darraya. Despite denying this claim, the Government allowed in food for that many people. When the town was liberated, thanks largely to the reconciliation process, it was discovered that only 1826 people remained in the town, of which 1200 were fighters and most of the remaining were their family members. Not only that, but none of them appeared to have been starved to the point of ‘eating grass’. He pointed out that fighters are given the options of safe passage to other battle areas, or to lay down their weapons, and those that do are given temporary accommodation with their families. Sometimes, Dr. Haider admitted, the process does fail. This, he said, is often due to the intervention of foreign fighters who demand the citizens, who are keen to follow the process, to stop engaging in it. Consistently, citizens of towns that have been liberated from siege, have reported how when supplies were provided to the towns by the Government, UN and Syrian Red Crescent, these supplies have been controlled by the rebels, and either refused to the inhabitants in order to starve them and use them for international propaganda, or sold the supplies at exorbitant prices to the desperate inhabitants. He said: “I am not saying that everything is perfect. There is profound suffering. But the main cause is the armed groups who refuse to allow the UN and the ICRC to supervise distribution.”

We asked about the prevention of access for Aid Organisations. He replied: ‘In Aleppo, armed groups would only allow any distribution of aid if it comes directly to them. Also, they insist it comes from Turkey, and we know that many times aid has been mixed with weapons.” (This is a key concern in the current ceasefire where the Government is understandably demanding that they are allowed to check the ‘aid’ that Turkey is so keen to send to its fighters in the city.)

We asked the Minister about the ‘Moderate’ armed opposition, and if they were responsive to these efforts. His reply reflected that of almost all the Syrians we have spoken to, whatever community they belong to: “The only difference between armed Opposition groups is their method of killing. One slaughters by beheading; the other by shooting. There is no ‘moderate’ armed opposition in Syria. We can prove this. Fighters trained by the US and in Turkey and Jordan come with huge numbers of weapons who pass them on to Daesh and other groups. All anti-tank missiles given to ‘moderates’ are given to Daesh… so the west is supplying terrorists. All the groups in Aleppo are fighting together under one leadership: Jabhat al Nusra.” (This has been acknowledged In reporting in recent days). He continued: “Many of the atrocities committed by ‘moderates’ are as bad as those committed by Daesh, but the media does not cover these.”

A personal comment: Having seen the commitment, courage and sincerity of some of these reconciliation volunteers ‘on the ground’, it astonishes me that this non-violent process that is achieving significant peaceful outcomes, is ignored and even criticised by political and faith leaders in Britain. I would appeal particularly to Church leaders to ask what the Christian response to these efforts should be, and to reflect on whether we really are being wise in the people we are talking to, and those (including many Church leaders in Syria) with whom we are refusing to seriously engage.


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