Dispatch #2 from the Mussalaha delegation to Syria
by Paul Larudee
As I begin to compose this, I hear what sounds like artillery and rocket fire in the distance, mixed with occasional small arms and possible explosions. Most of their targets must be far away, because I don’t hear them hit. The explosions may or may not be something else.
I guess that after two years of fighting it is not surprising that the Syrians take it in stride, and life is surprisingly normal, if hard, for the slightly more than half of Syrians that have not been killed or displaced. It’s a terrible statistic, equal to almost 10 million out of a total population of 23 millionThe delegation has been disrupted several times by changes of plan. Our visas were delayed, so our time was lengthened in Lebanon and shortened in Syria, with additional days added at the end. Then, on our first day in Syria, our appointment with Dr. Kinda Shammat, Minister of Social Affairs, was canceled by a cabinet meeting called by President Assad, leaving us with only an improvised outing to an affected neighborhood, which I missed because of a faulty telephone in my hotel room.
That evening was a large meeting of Mussalaha members from all over Syria talking about their war experiences and the intervention of Mussalaha to turn tragedy into reconciliation. One of them was the celebrated case of a nine-year-old Christian boy named Sari Saoud, killed by rebels in Homs. His body was taken by the rebels, but his mother, Georgina al-Jammal caught up with them, and her embrace of her dead son was captured on video by the rebels, who then falsified the account to make it appear that the boy had been killed by government forces.
I talked with Georgina, who supports the government, but blames it for leaving the area without protection. She told me that she recognized some of the rebels from the neighborhood, but that others were strangers. Part of the story can be found here, by Syrian Arab Television. It has a strong dose of propaganda but the important parts are factual and sincere. Another account is available here. It is cruder and more amateurish, and only party subtitled, but it includes some of the footage shot by the rebels and their clumsy attempt to disguise the killing. It is also quite graphic and captures the terrible moment of the Georgina’s attempt to revive her dead son.
I also met a woman by the name of Shaikha Asya al-Mashi, part of a prominent Muslim family in Raqqa. Her brother-in-law was offered an enormous sum of money to leave and turn over his properties to the rebels. When he refused, he was killed outside his home, where the family listened to him die. I offered to suppress her name and photo, but she defiantly insisted that I publish them.
I do not wish to dwell on these stories, but several things impressed me about them and the Mussalaha gathering:
- The witnesses and attendees represented a wide range of communities, both geographically and in terms of confession. Mussalaha is a diverse and accessible organization that reaches many Syrians.
- There are varying degrees of support for the regime itself, but there are clearly many Syrians that support the regime’s attempt to restore order.
- Part of the evening’s program consisted of an open mike where anyone who wanted could tell their story and ask for Mussalaha’s intervention in their community.
- Much of the evening was lost on the delegates because it was all in Arabic and interpretation was inconsistent and hard to hear. My Arabic was of some help, but I missed a lot.
- We did not hear from the other side.
To elaborate on point number 5, there are Lebanese allies of the armed opposition and opposition fighters in Lebanon. I don’t think it is impossible to meet them, but I’m not sure it is possible for Mussalaha to make such arrangements. Mussalaha has contacts with such parties for the purpose of prisoner exchanges and reconciliation. However, offering us the chance to confer with such parties could possibly put them in jeopardy with the regime. Mussalaha tries to develop trust with everyone, but I suspect that there is a line that they dare not cross for fear of losing their mandate to operate.
Having said that, my experience with the nonviolent opposition is that they, too, are intolerant of the point of view of Syrians that support the regime in any way, and do not want this rather large segment of Syrian society to have a voice in Syria’s future, because that voice is necessarily the regime’s. As long as some Syrians refuse to respect the views of other Syrians, I fear for Syria’s future.
Early the next morning I began to feel the effects of stomach poisoning, so I spent the day in bed until we met briefly as a delegation. We then received a visit from Dr. Jihad Lahham, President of the Parliament. He made a point of the fact that he is from the opposition, but the “loyal” opposition, saying that he would like very much for Assad to find himself in the opposition for a few years. I left later that evening, still on an empty stomach.
Altogether, we had too many meetings with too many dignitaries, all of whom had essentially the same message. After one interview upon arrival, I stopped giving them for fear that I would appear to be part of a propaganda machine. Mairead and most of the others were careful to speak of our solidarity with the Syrian people, not the regime or any other party, but Syrian News kept filming us with dignitaries of the same general stripe.
Perhaps it was too much to expect anything different. For security reasons we were housed at the Dama Rose Hotel, the most secure hotel in Damascus, because there is no doubt that we were a potential rebel target and an opportunity to embarrass the government. However, the reason it is the most secure is that it is also the plushest and most expensive hotel, and therefore the hangout of all sorts of government VIPs. Even hosted by Mussalaha, which has built trust with a wide spectrum of elements in Syria, it is exceedingly difficult to get as full a picture as we wanted and needed.
Nevertheless, we learned a lot, and I had to leave before the end of the visit, because the schedule had migrated beyond my original departure date, which I could not change because of personal obligations. I am eager to know what happened after my departure, and may yet have some more hopeful news in a later report. I also helped to draft two declarations for the delegation and want to share them with you, but only after they have been approved by the group, with amendments. I may also have further news about initiatives that were developed as a result of the visit.
Thank you for continuing to support peace.
Paul Larudee for the FPM Team