The Doves Of Damascus
By Jess HillMarch 7, 2012
As Syria slides into civil war, moderate voices inside the country want to know: Why isn’t anyone listening to us?
Fresh from his gladhanding tour of the Middle East, United States Senator John McCain returned to the Senate this week and made the call for war. "Time is running out. Assad's forces are on the march. Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives," he implored from the Senate floor.
The solution? 'The United States should lead an international effort to protect key population centres in Syria," said McCain. "To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defences in at least part of the country."
In other words: Bomb Syria.
Asked to respond to the Senator's speech, the White House remained unmoved. "The administration is focused on diplomatic and political approaches rather than a military intervention," said its spokesman.
But it may not be the White House and its allies that end up leading the response to Syria. The rulers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait each have called for the arming of the opposition militia, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). On March 5, in an astonishing display of hypocrisy, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said, "Is there something greater than the right to defend oneself and to defend human rights?" The Saudi agenda in Syria is no secret. The hardline Sunni monarchy is battling Iran's Shia clerics for hegemony in the region, and Syria is Iran's last significant ally. For the Saudis, Syria is a prize too valuable to be left to the Syrians.
As the Gulf states plot their next move, however, the dialogue continues - outside Syria, at least. At the recent Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis, delegates from 60 countries recognised Syria's opposition-in-exile, the Syrian National Council (SNC), as the legitimate representative for the Syrian people.
But what about the people working for change inside Syria?
The Global Mail tracked down three moderate voices living in Damascus: an activist wanted by the regime, a politician pushing for dialogue, and a lawyer working for an influential nongovernmental organisation. They each say that while conferences are being held outside the country to decide Syria's fate, nobody - not the international community, the Syrian regime, nor the world's media - is listening to them.
OSAMA, 33, HAS BEEN living in hiding for months. He and his wife are both activists, and both are wanted by the authorities. A few months ago, they moved from Darya, a Damascus suburb, into the city, because it's "safer".
"Many activists are moving to Damascus, because there aren't as many checkpoints," he says. "It's easier to move around." There may be less security visible on the street, but Osama and his wife still have to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid being arrested. Each time somebody close to them is captured, they have to move. Each time they do, they also have to find somewhere that can accommodate their six-month-old daughter. In the past week, they've moved three times.
Osama is one of a diminishing number in the Syrian opposition who still believes the regime can be toppled peacefully, using civil disobedience tactics such as general strikes. "If people who are against the regime stopped following its orders, we think something could change," he says.
But the strategy of nonviolence is becoming more marginalised by the day. "Many of the calm, reasonable activists are either in jail or were killed in the early days of the uprising," he says, "and many more are leaving the country."
Ghimar, a lawyer who works with an influential NGO on political reform in Damascus, agrees. "The moderates have partially left, because they don't want to live the sad moment in this country," he says. "And the problem is, these people will not be coming back anytime soon. The crisis in Syria will not stop before two or three years from now."
"Consequently," says Osama, "the activism is being done by many young, inexperienced people. I think this is one of the main reasons you hear much more talking about weapons and battling with the regime.
"You know, maybe it's out of desperation," he concedes, "but it's not a patriotic attitude to ask foreign forces to ruin your country and get rid of your regime." Osama's contempt is not just directed at activists inside the country - he's also pointing at the opposition-in-exile, the Syrian National Council, which has been coordinating with the Free Syrian Army since late last year.
Recently, the SNC announced a new military office that would oversee the FSA, and control the supply of foreign weapons to its fighters. Hours later, however, the FSA's chief, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, said he hadn't been consulted, and accused the SNC of "intervening". A spokesperson for the SNC, Ausama Monajed, shot back at al-Asaad, telling Al-Akhbar,"Colonel Asaad does not control the Free Syrian Army or the armed resistance inside - maximum five per cent."
Ghimar says that many Syrians trust neither the SNC nor the FSA. The SNC, he says, has "virtually no support inside Syria".
"Everybody, from the internal opposition to the pro-regime, hates those who are externally located and supported by the West," he says. "And the FSA is just a body without a head. It does not have a brain. Those people are randomly shooting, randomly spreading in villages," he says.
Osama says that although he is ideologically nonviolent, his opposition to the FSA is pragmatic. "Can they end the regime with their numbers and their weapons now? The answer is no - definitely not," he says. "And if the Saudis back the Free Syrian Army, this will be very dangerous. We know that the rulers of Saudi Arabia are not concerned about human rights. Their only concern is their interests. So what will happen is a kind of civil war - Syrian against Syrian."
Many attempts to negotiate with the Syrian regime have failed, I counter. Perhaps this is why some Syrians believe they have no option but to fight Assad?
"I see it the other way," Osama replies. "Assad could only win this if it's a military conflict. It's the only court that he outperforms us in. Besides, nobody will help us for free."
And even if Assad does agree to leave, says Ghimar, who would Syrians elect in his place? "Find me one person who has a plan," he says emphatically. "I am ready to follow them today. But I cannot see a single person who can show me how a transition will happen.
"Reasonable voices in Syria are not heard - either by the international media or the international community, or by the regime itself. This is the dilemma."
ELIA SAMAAN IS A MEMBER of the nonaligned faction of the Syrian Social National Party, one of the largest opposition parties operating in Syria. His party is campaigning for a national reconciliation, what he says is "the only way out".
"Nobody can ignore that the regime has supporters, and they are a considerable part of the Syrian population," he says. "They are not being highlighted by the media, but in fact they exist. And we just cannot eliminate them by violence."
Samaan says the SSNP talks to both the regime and the opposition. "We try to get people to the table to negotiate." But operating as an opposition party in Syria is precarious. "We have threats from the rebels, because they don't like our calls for negotiation. We get accused by the opposition-in-exile (the SNC) of being the regime's puppets. And the regime is making it so hard for us to have any type of activities," he says. "Very few government media (stations) will let us go on air, because the regime doesn't want to broadcast anyone who doesn't support it."
If the SSNP is being threatened by both sides, and censored by the regime, how can it hope to broker any kind of peace? "It's so difficult, it's so complicated, but it is achievable," Samaan insists.
He may sound like a deluded idealist, but Samaan says the alternative to dialogue is too horrible to contemplate. "It's either a complete national reconciliation, or it's civil war."
But can the country reconcile after so many people have been killed? Take the recent atrocities committed in Baba Amr.
"What happened in Baba Amr is totally depressing, regardless of what side you're on," he says. "With every person who dies, and every drop of blood that is shed, this window (for negotiation) is narrowing. Time is ticking - it's against the Syrians on both sides."
Samaan says the media has contributed greatly to polarising views in and out of Syria. "We can divide the media into two kinds: pro and against," he says. "We're in the middle of crazy violence - from both the regime and the militias - but nobody is covering both sides properly."
THE LAST TIME I SPOKE TO Osama, he'd just found out that a close friend of his, Nabil Churbajie, had been arrested. "I'm quite afraid for his life," he stammered. "He's one of the most known activists - every single activist in Damascus knows him. They've wanted to catch him for months."
He went quiet for a moment. "We have to change our place, because he knows our location. So, we're just going to collect some stuff, and leave. For me, I have an alternative place, but some of my friends… they will spend the night just in any place, and tomorrow night we will find a suitable place for them.
"I'm quite afraid. I'm confused.... I'm sorry. I just wanted to let you know."
On March 10, the former United Nations chief and new UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, will make his first trip to Damascus. "Kofi Annan is one of the moderate people who can convince the opposition groups to talk to Bashar al-Assad," Gharim says. "Once you send Kofi Annan in person, it means the Syrian government is no longer in complete isolation. This is a good thing."
It's reassuring to think there are still people in Damascus who believe there may be an alternative to civil war in Syria. However, talking to all three moderates, it was hard to shake the feeling that their viewpoints were contingent on maintaining a kind of denial about just how bad the situation is outside Damascus. The shelling of the Baba Amr district of Homs, described by Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy as "an indiscriminate massacre of men, women and children", felt a world away from our conversations.
The belief that Assad may be willing to negotiate seems largely unfounded, too. Assad doesn't look like a man about to compromise - in fact, he looks as strong as ever. On March 6, as Assad reiterated his commitment to "fight foreign-backed terrorism", a new phase of heavy shelling was reported in Deraa, where the uprising began last March. As Gharim emphasises, "Bashar is the strongman on the ground right now. Nobody is comprehending this fact."
For all Senator McCain's tough talk, a viable intervention from the international community remains a long way off, if ever. Assad has reminded the world that when a dictator decides to crush his own people, its "responsibility to protect" is conditional on that country's geostrategic significance.
But even if Assad clings to power to the very last man, the conflict in Syria will end. And when it does, the moderate voices of Damascus will be vital for creating a new system of governance for the country.
That is, if there are any moderate voices left.