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“Truth is the first casualty of war.”
The well-worn aphorism could have served as a refrain for the Mussalaha International Peace Delegation to Syria, May 2-10, 2013. We were reminded constantly of the very different interpretations of events that were being portrayed in our home countries and Syria.
The team gathered in Lebanon with eighteen delegates from six nations, headed by Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland, but a delay in the visas resulted in only sixteen traveling to Syria. Our host was Mussalaha (“Reconciliation”), a Syrian group dedicated to reconciling local conflicts throughout the country regardless of political, religious or ethnic affiliation.
The architect of the invitation was Mother Agnes-Mariam of the Cross, superior of the Melkite Greek Catholic monastery of St. James the Mutilated in Qara, near Homs. Mother Agnes is a tough, charismatic nun and one of the leaders of Mussalaha, which has a strong Christian presence but includes nearly all Syrian faiths and ethnicities.
Mussalaha is ostensibly non-political, but there is no such thing in Syria today. Everyone is compelled to take sides, like it or not. The virtue of Mussalaha is to be on speaking terms with, and trusted by, a very wide spectrum of factions, which is a remarkable accomplishment. Nevertheless, it exists with the approval of the Assad regime, which means that there are inherent limits to its range of activity.
Most of the Peace Delegation had no illusions. Our visit required visas from the Syrian government, so we assumed – correctly – that within Syria we would not get much chance to meet with insurgents or even nonviolent “Syrian spring” groups, the repression of whose demonstrations marked the beginning of the violence in March, 2011.
Nevertheless, several of us participated only on condition that there would be no government funding of our trip nor hosting by groups that explicitly support the regime. Mussalaha is possibly the only group that fit that description.
The trip nevertheless permitted us to hear a narrative that is largely absent in the West, to gauge regime support, to speak to Syrians directly affected by the conflict and to demonstrate our solidarity with the Syrian people. Our message of support for the Syrian people and for the right of Syrians to determine their own future without foreign interference was consistently articulated by Mairead Maguire and other members of the delegation in meetings with public officials and in media interviews during our visit.
The delay in our visas also afforded us an extended opportunity to visit religious leaders and refugee camps in Lebanon. Tiny Lebanon has attracted more Syrian refugees – up to one million – than any other country, partly because Shiites and Christians tend to gravitate toward their co-religionists there. Lebanon is also the only border country where a substantial portion of the population is sympathetic to the Assad regime.
The result is that even though we were beyond the borders of Syria, many of the refugees were supportive of the regime, as was the case with the displaced persons that we met in Damascus. If we had visited camps in Turkey we would no doubt have heard a very different narrative.
The narrative that we heard, however, is one that is largely absent in the West. To read the Western press, there are no regime supporters, but only subjects cowering in fear of Assad goons.
This is nonsense. A very substantial proportion of the population clearly supports the regime, which would not likely have survived for two years otherwise. In fact, one of the chief complaints was that the regime had abandoned many of its supporters and failed to restore order in their communities, thus forcing them to become refugees when armed rebels and “foreigners” drove them out.
Refugees from Qusayr, on the Lebanese border, for example, said that the military had made no attempt to prevent a takeover by armed elements until most of the population had been driven out. Only in the last few months had the army engaged the rebels in battle and begun to retake the town. Similarly, a family from Idlib and a woman from Raqqa said that the military had been unable to control those cities or push back the rebels until recently. This is not surprising, because both are near the Turkish border, where Patriot batteries prevent Syrian aircraft from interdicting cross-border incursions.
This is not to say that Syrians are in love with the Assad regime. Even regime supporters candidly admit that the regime is autocratic and abuses human rights. Nevertheless, many believe that anything replacement will be worse.
According to this view, Syria is in danger of being overtaken by terrorists from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Libya, and other sources, and that they will tear the country apart. Whatever the faults of the Assad regime, therefore, it is the only thing preventing the utter destruction of Syria.
And who is sponsoring the foreign terrorists and their arms? Western governments sell most of the arms to countries that then transfer them to the insurgents. If the U.S. and other governments want to prevent such transfers, it would be a simple matter to do so through conditional end user agreements. The Western countries themselves are therefore perpetuating the carnage.
Many also doubt that the West wants or would permit a democracy. Certainly, the U.S. record is not encouraging. There are many examples, but one of the most iconic is Nicaragua in the 1980s, where the US co-opted the open and free elections with its money and threats. In other places and at other times, the U.S. simply overthrew the elected regime or prevented an election from occurring.
Sometimes the only choice is between an autocratic regime that is pro-Western and one that pursues an independent course. The U.S. will attempt to coerce or overthrow any independent-minded government, but an autocratic regime has a better chance of resisting because its repressive apparatus will crush dissidence before it has a chance to breathe.
If there are Syrians that despair of anything better than the Assad regime and who fear an extreme Islamist state and want to preserve certain qualities that they like (such as an egalitarian treatment of women and a secular state), their view – however cynical or fatalistic – deserves as much say in the future of Syria as there are Syrians who hold it or who defend the regime for other reasons, which might be idiosyncratic, geography-dependent or strategic.
This may be a depressing point of view. Syrians are obviously entitled to struggle for something better, and they deserve our support for their right to do so. Unfortunately, the U.S. will pursue what it perceives as its own interests, which are typically the interests of a roomful of powerful individuals and corporations that make vast profits from war and the projection of power.
However, they are not the only players. The people of the U.S. and other Western societies have at times succeeded in promoting an antiwar, anti-militaristic agenda. This is a difficult but not totally unrealistic goal. Without exception, the message of every person to whom the Peace Delegation spoke in Lebanon and Syria was:
1) stop foreign intervention,
2) stop the fighting and
3) facilitate a national dialog of all Syrians to decide the future of Syria.
We in the West can begin with the first step by ending all aid to combatants and letting Syrians settle their differences amongst themselves. Syrians do not need and mostly do not want Western interference in their affairs.
Paul Larudee is a writer and human rights advocate, and one of the co-founders of the movement to break the siege of Gaza by sea.