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 8 + Conclusion
31 August – 7 September 2016
Meeting with the President
The furore that has followed our meeting with the President has (perhaps naively?) surprised us. This was not a meeting that we advertised. It was a private 2 hour meeting, and the photographs that have been shown on the media were picked out from the Syrian media. We did not publicise the meeting ourselves. The pictures have clearly been used by TV networks and newspapers to discredit us, and in the case of the BBC, its broadcast was not only a deliberate attempt to discredit us even before we had a chance to respond, but caused added risk to our safety in Syria and was therefore highly irresponsible.
The Syrian media were only in the room for about 3 minutes, and we allowed it. Why? Because frankly we did not feel that any meaningful ‘propaganda’ could be made of a few silent images of meetings .
Our meeting with the President was a courteous, frank, open debate. He made it absolutely clear that we could ask anything we liked, and we confronted him with all the main issues of which he is accused. His answers were clear, helpful, and challenging. He did not just dismiss things but acknowledged mistakes. And he was also very clear on his vision for a plural, peaceful, diverse Syria; the importance of the fight against terrorism; and the importance of political reform which could only come when there is peace.
I am not going to share his responses here. For they will probably be misquoted, dismissed, or used out of context, and used as ‘propaganda’ against me and against our visit. What I will say is that the President is an articulate leader who whether we like it or not, enjoys the support of a huge percentage of his people, and to deny this fact is to bury one’s head in the sand. No-one is innocent in this conflict, and it is unconscionable that the international community refuse to talk to the secular leader of a nation, whatever one thinks of him, whilst sitting down with and supporting leaders of terrorist groups, guilty of heinous crimes, who have no claim to representing the people of the country.
Moreover, is it not utter hypocrisy, that we who happily ally with brutal dictators and war criminals, (including supporters and funders of Daesh) when it suits our ‘national’ or ‘economic’ interests; who have been complicit in the destruction of numerous countries; and whose weapons have killed, and are killing, millions of innocent people around the world; dare to demonise one man, whilst supporting terrorists?
We wanted to witness to the fact that we believe that western governments are making a huge mistake in refusing to talk to the President of Syria. It has been written that no conflict has ever been resolved by refusing to speak to key parties within it, and that to engage with those key and relevant parties is essential if an effective and lasting peace is to be achieved. Jesus was criticised for mingling with ‘tax gatherers and sinners’, but rebuked those who criticised him. I therefore make no apology to anyone for having met with the President, and it was a privilege to do so.
What are our main findings?
1. The resilience and perseverance of the Syrian people enduring sustained and intense suffering.
2. The widespread existence of many initiatives by Government and local communities to address problems of war and poverty (e.g. Government and churches’ initiatives to support IDPs and the provision of free health care).
3. Many Reconciliation initiatives at local and Government levels with that have positive outcomes for whole communities – for example, in enabling cease fires. The Minister for Reconciliation told us that there are Reconciliation initiatives in 70 cities, towns and villages involving 4.5 million citizens.
4. The devastating impact for all Syrian people of sanctions and the massive destruction and theft of the industrial infrastructure by armed groups.
5. The group has heard the consistent cry of Christians and Muslims for their places of worship to be respected and preserved and for a sympathetic response and engagement from their counterparts in the West.
6. The consistently positive working relations between Christians and Muslims in Government controlled areas in Syria.
7. Important and significant people with genuine voices of peace and reform are being prevented from visiting the UK and engaging with the British government and people.
8. The coverage by some media of the situation in Syria is not an accurate representation of many of the realities we have observed. ((For example, see the post on the Doctors Council in Aleppo).
9. The acute polarisation inherent in protracted war has all but destroyed the existing movement to implement greater democracy within the country. The majority of the city’s population are profoundly impacted by the refusal of the international community to engage with Government-held areas of the city.
10. Many media narratives in the UK are refuted and disputed by the vast majority of people whom we have met.
11. Many people whom we met believe that the partisanship of many Western media narratives with the exclusion of most moderate voices will lead to the destruction of civil society and its replacement by violence, terrorism and another failed State as well as increased terrorism in other countries, including the UK.
12. Widespread concern was strongly conveyed over the UK’s military support for Opposition forces which we are repeatedly told are not ‘ Moderate’ but virtually indistinguishable from those fighting for the ideologies of ISIS and Al Nusra.
13. People are deeply concerned that the fundamental principle of End User Accountability is not being applied to all military support by the UK with disastrous results.
14. Without exception, every person we met believes that current UK and international policies of commitment to ‘Regime Change’ will destroy the pluralistic and diverse society which has existed for hundreds of years. They also passionately believe that Syrians should have the right to determine their own future and elect their own leadership.
15. While almost all media coverage in the West focuses on the devastating effects of military offensives by Government forces, in just one day during our visit (September 5th) the following attacks by the armed Opposition inflicting indiscriminate death and injury included:
Four car bombs at Homs with 12 killed and 30 injured; in Tartus 45 killed and 100 wounded; in the Damascus countryside, 3 killed and 12 wounded; in Hasaka, 6 killed and 20 wounded.
This is only a part of the daily toll of death and injury inflicted by Opposition forces on civilians, such as the shelling of the University in Aleppo by 4 missiles on the day we were there.
Already, we have been accused of spouting ‘government propaganda’. No. We travelled to Syria to listen to the voices of Syrian people and we have met hundreds from across the respective communities in the country. Personally, this is my fifth visit to the country since April 2014, and the messages remain consistent and widespread. What we are sharing is not ‘government propaganda’ at all, but the voices of ordinary Syrians. Nor am I claiming innocence for any party. All parties in this conflict are guilty of violence. If these reflections appear to lack ‘balance’, then they are necessary corrective to the extremely one-sided and biased narratives in the mainstream media.
I would repeat the cry of most Syrians we have met. Come and visit us and see the reality for yourselves. I have seriously wondered whether the enormous pressure put upon us by both government and Church figures NOT to visit Syria, is precisely because they do not want us to see and hear the truth, simply because it does not ally with the deliberate misrepresentation the international community is conveying in order to achieve their agendas.
I hope and pray that any ceasefire leads to a true and lasting peace. I also hope and pray that the international community will adjust their policies to consider the real needs and wishes of the Syrian people, and that we do not use the ‘provision of aid’ as a means of rearming militant factions to further prolong the war. The goal of everyone should be the restoration of peace; the rebuilding of the country; the respect of plurality and development of reform; and the reconciliation and healing of souls, which will be the most difficult task. Enough of fuelling war. Let us end the policy of violence, and truly seek the path of peace, and listen first to the voices of the people themselves.