War in Syria: The threads of a blood drained carpet

Originalbericht von L.Gabriel, E.Pissias, W.Langthaler, F.Romero-Forsthuber. Wenn alles glatt geht, gibts in der Druckausgabe einen bündigeren Text auf Deutsch.

The war in Syria
The threads of a blood drained carpet

Report of a fact-finding mission in support of a political solution of the conflict

We, the undersigned persons who have been actively engaged in political projects on the side of the oppressed peoples of Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Palestine during a considerable part of our lives, undertook a two week long journey to Beirut and Damascus which lasted from August 29th to September 12th, 2012. From the very beginning we considered our work as a first fact-finding-mission prior to a bigger and more important endeavour which will consist of a peace-finding-mission in Syria of high ranking personalities of the international civil society to be realized in one or two months.
During this fact-finding-mission we had the opportunity to talk to representatives of nearly all political forces involved in the Syrian conflict who reject openly any foreign military intervention and are principally disposed to put an end to the violence and repression which has led in most parts of the country to a scenario of an undeclared civil war. Thus the analysis we are presenting in this report will try to be as objective as possible in the sense that it will reflect the opinions of the great variety of people we interviewed and not so much, for diverse as we are, our own viewpoints on the situation. For security reasons we will also not mention names, but indicate the sources according to the political milieu they belong to. If there are contradictions between the different statements we will present them as such, leaving the task of evaluation to the readers rather than ourselves.
Since on the other hand we cannot pretend to be neither complete nor exhaustive, we consider this report only as a preliminary effort which hopefully will by followed up by others who take the same risks to come to the region in order to observe the dramatic scenarios of one of the most complex conflicts in the history of our times.

History and structure of the regime

According to Dr. Fayez Fawas a very respected leader of the opposition (one of the founding fathers of the Syrian Communist Party) who has spent 12 years in prison during the regime of Hafez Assad, the father of president Bashar al Assad, the Syrian regime has been based, from its very beginning in 1970 on the army and the security forces on the one hand and the Baath party with more that one million affiliates on the other:
„The army – if we like it or not – is the State; if it is destroyed Syria will not exist as a sovereign country anymore“, one of the opposition leaders said. In the times of the cold war Hafez created a so called National Front to exercise his absolute control over the political life, forbidding trade unions as well as leftist parties and the Muslim Brothers. „All orders came from above“, he said and the people generally tolerated this order since he distributed large amounts of land and exercised a politics of full employment. On the other hand the many rivalling security forces (according to sources there are actually 16 in the country) exercised their power up to the degree that they had to give their permission even for single marriages, according to one interview partner.
The problems started when larger movements emerged, like it happened in 1976 against the invasion of Lebanon, in 1979 with a movement of lawyers who defended already at that time the Muslim Brothers and asked for a democratisation of society; and finally in 1982 when the whole city of Hama was destroyed completely with a massacre of thousands of people. At the difference of his father Bashar al Assad never could handle this pyramidal structure which he was chosen to lead in 2000, as a substitute for his brother who had suddenly died in a car accident. „He is not a real politician, but conducts the State, together with his wife, like a public relations officer,“ said said Fayez Fawas. During his mandate however he opened the door to neoliberal privatizations and encouraged – or tolerated- the informal speculative activities of an emerging neo-oligarchy close to his environment, a fact which according to Salim Kheirbek, another opposition leader who has spent more than 10 years in prison, increased enormously the gap between the rich and the poor, especially on the countryside, which amount to more than 30 percent. As a consequence of this more than one million people emigrated, principally to Lebanon, Jordan, the Gulf States and Greece.

From conflict to war

On this background we could understand why the country came to a crisis which manifested itself first in a broad, unarticulated social discontent among the lower classes and here especially among the Sunni population who amount to about 55 percent of the total population. Unlike the other religions like the Alewites, Shiites and different Christian denominations (mainly Russian and Syrian-orthodox as well as Roman-catholic) the Syrian Sunnites had found a sort of an political reference point in the Muslim Brothers who – according to a Palestinian leader – have always been more dogmatic than their Egyptian, Tunisian or Turkish counterparts. With all these analyses one should not forget that nearly all Syrians are used to live in a nationalist tradition without particular preference for any religion. Therefore when the protests suddenly irrupted in Daraa on March 18th, 2011 the local conflict, according to an eyewitness, was rather influenced by the general discontent with the local authorities, the mayor of the town and the security forces, than by any ideological vision. The so called „Arab Spring“ heavily induced by Al Jazeera supplied the spark. What then followed in Homs, Hama, Idlib and other places was a truly popular movement first claiming democratic reforms and later, as these demands did not yield any results, the fall of the Assad regime by non armed protesters. „It is true that the security forces intervened,“ Dr. Bouthaina Shabaan, the very renown special advisor to the president told us in Damascus, „but we have said from the very beginning that there were arms involved. They are killing our best people and now they are attacking airports like the Israelis.“
This discussion „who threw the first stone“ and „who shot the first bullet“, as awkward as it may seem in a conflict which according to UN figures has cost more than 20 000 lives, has become the corner stone of a whole political architecture on both sides of the conflict. On the one hand the government justifies with it its enormous increase in the level of repression of the popular movement; the other side it represents for many to call for outside intervention like in Iraq and in Libya.
„I have never seen a foreigner in my East Damascus neighbourhood, but I have seen many death squads running around after the explosion of bombs“, tells one of the participants of a popular movement in the outskirts of Damascus, which is only one of the many battle grounds of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Other testimonies say that the persecution of victims and the practice of mass executions seem to be a common trait of this unequal confrontation between the paramilitary groups of the opposition and the Shabiha (milicias) who work in close coordination with the security forces and the army. It is very difficult to evaluate the relation of the militarized forces. The insurgents we have talked to said there are aprox. 40 000 armed people on their side whilst the Syrian army is generally calculated by a number of 160 000 and is one the best equipped in the whole region. There have been individual defectors from the army, but it never happened that an entire company has switched sides, according to AVAAZ, a source which is generally well informed. For reasons of internal control the army by far has not used its entire power. „It is always the 4th and the 10th Battalion, the so called Special Forces and the 52nd Brigade which is operating – they must be tired by now,“ these sources said.
In the interreligious conflicts which have increased during the conflict the army as such was not much implicated. This is at least what the director of a non governmental newspaper said when we asked him in Damascus: „. because within the army there are also members of different religious denominations.“ Others declared that there were also the security forces as well as militias who participated in this sectarian confrontations. However – the soldiers are not protecting the civilian population, quite on the contrary. They generally use their firepower from distant ranges to destroy from the air or on the ground the entire areas where the battles take place. In this way e.g. more than the half of Homs has been completely devastated.
If one of our interview-partners said, that „inside Syria the only power which exists is the gun“ and if the coordinator of a squatter in Damascus means that there cannot be any „liberated zones in Syria as long as they can be reached by rockets and aircraft“, there can be only one conclusion: there is a high intensity internal war which many qualify as a „civil war“ going on in Syria which neither of both sides is able to win militarily. The rest is kept by the silence of the graveyards and immense quantity of people who are on the move.
The figures of 1,2 Million internal refugees and 250 000 in the neighbouring countries seem to be conservative. The director of CARITAS-Lebanon for example contradicts the official version that there are only 60 000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon: „There must be at least 150 000,“ he says. Talking to these refugees reveals the basic sentiment of the great majority of the Syrian population which can be characterized by only one word: FEAR. Fear of the bombings, fear of getting into a cross-fire, fear of getting the throat cut by inhuman extremists and fear of not being able to make it to the border. It cannot be said that the majority of the people stands on one side or the other, because there are many, especially within the middle classes who oppose definitely the regime of Basher al Assad, but who are even more afraid of the „time after“. And there are many who (often without knowing it) got involved with the armed resistance and who are as much afraid of there military incompetence as they are of the bombs from the airplanes.
All these elements have to be taken into consideration when asking the question: who is winning the war? The answer is: NOBODY!

Diversity of oppositions

It is not an easy task to characterize the nature of the Syrian opposition. As it has been said already there is a strong social ingredient to it, especially in the lower strata of the population, in the suburban areas and on the countryside. But this is not everything. There are those (a politicised and educated minority) who are struggling for democracy in a politically articulated way.
Amongst them there are many intellectuals who spent years in the prisons of Hafez al Assad for their participation in movements and leftist parties they helped to create, like the ones we had a chance to talk to in Damascus. Others are living now abroad, many of them in Paris. Like Haytham Manna, the vice-president of the opposition coalition called „National Coordination Body for Democratic Change“ and Michel Kilo, a university professor at the Sorbonne who can count on many supporters and a certain organisational infrastructure inside the country.
For all of these leftist and left-liberal democrats the uprisings in March 2011 were considered as an opportunity to realize the democratic change they have been struggling for throughout all their lives. Two of them, Dr. Fayez Fawas and Salim Kheirbek, wrote a letter to the president one week after the first unrests in Daraa in this sense, but they did not receive any immediate response. Only months later an army general showed up to ask them further explanations.
They were not the only ones to press for democracy on a high level reflecting the will of the Syrian people in the streets. Also some high representatives of the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas said to us that Bashar al Assad has been visited and urged personally to realize, as quickly as possible, democratic reforms. According to them even the vice-president of Syria and some of his ministers were in favour of a political solution of the conflict, a perspective to which the president formally agreed.
But it took the president nearly one year and the Syrian population more than 10 000 lives till he issued the so called „democratic Reforms“ in February 2012. According to two Syrian parliamentarians, Maria Saadeh and Kina Alshammat, we spoke to, these constitutional reforms consisted of mainly three points:
Cut out the dispositions in the old constitution that the only party in Syria is the Baath Party. This reform had the consequence that in the upcoming elections of the parliament the Baath party could „only“ unite 67 percent of the votes, whilst 25 percent of the parliamentarians were so called „independent“ candidates.
Renew and extend the civil liberties, the e.g. the right to demonstrate and create independent media. This reform was in sharp contrast with the extreme violence and systematic killings the protesters suffered every day. Respect of cultural differences. This disposition was aimed to maintain the ban of the Muslim Brothers, the Salafists and other Islamic organizations who are considered of wanting to establish a religious rule by introducing the Sharia.
It was clear to all our interview-partners with exception of the Syrian government that these „reforms“ were not only extremely weak in their institutional form (they were written without consultations by the government himself) and content (e.g. ruling out the Muslim Brothers as a political option for democratic participation), but they also came in a moment of peak in the military confrontations.
On the other hand this fact indicates that there must have been some tensions within the government or between an „inner circle“ which pressed for a military solution by exterminating the opposition on the ground at any (political and humanitarian) cost and an „outer circle“ of the regime which up until now had to submit to the geopolitical considerations of some of the stakeholders from the outside.
On the side of the opposition this division between those who believe in a political solution based on the aim of democratic change and the principle of national sovereignty without foreign interference and those who called for an armed revolution with a strong support or even an open intervention from other countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France and the United States of America, is even bigger. Also here the first had to succumb to the second due to the extreme polarisation of the conflict and also because the „militarists“ are being instigated by the Salafists and at least a number of leaders of the Muslim Brothers, disconnected from internal reality who integrate the Syrian National Council (SNC) and spend most of their time in Turkey or in the Gulf States.
However according to the interviews we had with the people from the ground, the real impact of the latter should not be overestimated, in spite of the considerable amount of weapons they managed to introduce among their rank and files. „The Salafists in Homs started out with 11 affiliates and now there are perhaps 500,“ an activist said who has lost seven members of his family.
In reality we got the impression that there is very little coordination among the different political and military groups inside Syria. This is to a very large extent due to the roadblocks of the army and its capacity to control many of the cities even when they cannot control the countryside. But it is also due to the fact that the Free Syrian Army has not been able till now to create a General Command for reasons we only may presume „The Free Syrian Army is not an organisation but a brand which every fighter takes on,“ said one of our interview-partners and told us the story that when he came to Idlib he found two units of the FSF who were fighting each other: „one was from a tribe and the other belonged to a group of drug smugglers.“
Even if there are big efforts being made to create a coordination at least on the regional level the popular movement is still quite far away to dispose of a real coherent structure. This represents on the one hand a problem for the army and security forces in its intent to wipe out the rebels, because there is no visible or invisible head of them they can chop off, but makes it also very difficult for the movement and the fighters to articulate themselves politically. The absence of a Front and/or a general military command like it existed and exists in many other armed conflicts in the world presents therefore a very significant factor that has to be analysed in order to proceed to a more comprehensive understanding of that part of the Syrian opposition. In parallel, that absence results on a serious handicap for the perspective of a sustainable political solution in Syria – because there is nobody politically and socialy legitimated to talk to on a higher level of coordination.

On foreign intervention and sectarianism

All of our sources indicated that the conflict which already has all the characteristics of an open civil war has got out of hand because there are too many outside forces involved „It is world war on Syrian grounds,“ says one of the representatives of the civil opposition we have talked to. And in fact: if the conflict only would obey to the logics of national interests, it would have been solved the one way or the other since a long time – just because of economic reasons. „In 18 months Syria, which was one of the very few countries without foreign debt, has lost 150 Billion Dollars,“ the sources pointed out, „it will take more than 30 years to recover from this war.“
Since the outbreak of the conflict nearly all major powers of the world have discovered their geopolitical interests in Syria which they consider as a key stone in the political architecture of the Middle East. Since the time of the cold war Hafez Assads Syria had become one of the closest allies of the former Soviet Union and until now Russia maintains its most important military base in the region.
On the other side, according to a leader of the Communist Party of Lebanon, there has developed an alliance of the United States of America with what president Obama calls the „moderate Islam“ in Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia (in spite of the Wahabit-fundamentalism there), who are supporting in Syria the Muslim Brothers militarily. A Palestinian leader in Damascus even said: „Obama has become the main political guidance for the Muslim Brothers“, and adds: „If this revolution is to end corruption I want to be part of it, but if king Abdallah pretends to lead it, we cannot believe in it.“ „Qatar and Turkey are pretending to undermine the regime of Bashar al Assad, but in reality they want to destroy Syria,“ says a high ranking leader of the Arab National Congress And asked for the reason why this is the case an outstanding member of the Lebanese Hezbollah analyses the situation in the following way:
„After the withdrawal of the US-troops from Iraq, there has opened up a strategic corridor from Teheran to Bagdad to Beirut and to Damascus. A new strategic alliance is being formed where only Cairo remains outside. What in Syria is at steak is not democracy, but the strategic equilibrium in the whole Middle East.We cannot allow that the main front against Zionism and imperialism would be diverted.“
This is also the reason why the conflict got a religious dimension, especially for the Muslim Brothers and the Salafits who are participating in the war. Nearly all of our interview-partners coincided that although the conflict is not a religious one as such, the controversies between Sunnites and Shiites including the Alewites, but also between Muslims and Christians are being used on the side of the rebels as a tool for their political ambitions filling an ideological void which exists in the entire resistance movement. At the same time the same confessionalist approach is being reported from the governmental side based on the Alawi sect which provides the pro-regime militias called Shabiha.
Proposals for peace through political dialogue
All of these factors make it tremendously difficult not only to analyse the situation, but also to think of a way out of this avalanche of bombs and bloodsheds which continue to override every day and every night the immense majority of the Syrian people. Throughout our fact-finding mission it has become clear that in spite of the complexity of the conflict and in spite of the diversity of the different approaches, in spite of the extreme polarisation there is one claim on which the overwhelming part of the population agrees, together with the most profiled and articulated political leaders , be they from the government or the opposition side, from the refugees inside and outside the country and this claim is: WE MUST STOP THE VIOLENCE!
But how can we do that? This is the big question we also asked ourselves during this trip. What can we recommend being just ordinary members of civil society from different countries of Europe who became every day more anxious to inform the world opinion about what is happening in Syria? We are not official mediators, therefore cannot pretend to influence the big players to change their basic attitude towards a conflict of geopolitical interests of such enormous dimensions.
But what we can do is to start from scratch to convince our Syrian interlocutors as well as the civil societies, wherever they are that there is an urgent need for a dialogue in order to transform the military conflict into a political one. In many, in most of our interviews we have detected the will to such an immediate dialogue in Syria- even if they say that the other side does not want it.
In order not to give any excuses we have come to the conclusion that this dialogue must initiate without any preconditions. That implies that neither the immediate fall of the regime´s leadership – namely B. Assad resignation- nor the immediate disarmament of the opposition forces, let alone the withdrawal of the army can be the condition for such a dialogue. In this dialogue every real and socio-politically rooted force can participate who is really willing to engage in it. What is necessary is the emergence of a new kind of political actors who show in front of the world that peace is not only necessary, but also possible – an actor which has to grow every day in the poor neighbourhoods and in the residential areas, in the governmental sectors and within the opposition forces, at the military roadblocks and at the roadblocks of the resistance forces.
In such a dialogue which consists of many dialogues on the local and regional level the priority should be given to the immediate needs of the population: health care, food, shelter and security. The latter should be provided by unarmed Human Rights committees who should be in permanent negotiations with the armed forces on both sides of the conflict. At the same time that this happens a National Dialogue should be opened which can take place in Syria or in some other country. This National Dialogue establishes the conditions for a permanent cease fire as well as the rules of the political game for a democratic transition. Both sides, the government as well as the opposition forces should provide the representatives in the National Dialogue, as an autonomous entity with a mandate to organize a process leading towards free elections of a constituent assembly.
All of these efforts do not preclude the mediation efforts which are presently being made on the level of the governments who are presently exercising their influence on Syria. On the contrary one does not go without the other. Only one thing should be clear from the very beginning: THERE MUST BE A SYRIAN SOLUTION OR THERE WILL NOT BE ANY SOLUTION OF THE CONFLICT AT ALL!

Vienna, September 25th 2012

-Leo Gabriel (Austria)
-Evangelos Pissias (Greece)
-Wilhelm Langthaler (Austria)
-Fernando Romero-Forsthuber (Spain)

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