Blindness On The Road To Damascus By Fiona Hill

17 February 2012New Matilda

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As the calls for President Assad to step down get louder, including from Australia, evidence on the ground suggests that Syrians want elections, not international intervention, writes Fiona Hill

The Syrian Embassy in Canberra was attacked and ransacked earlier this month by a gang of 40 men who stole property and intimidated staff. We still await Canberra’s denouncement of the crime and a statement about failing public security.

Australia has refused diplomatic relations with Syria since well before the current Syrian unrest — much against the best advice of several former Australian diplomats who served there (See “Restore Listening Posts” letter to the editor.) 

Kevin Rudd continues to demand that President Bashar Al Assad stand down. Yet a recent poll commissioned out of Qatar finds, despite its best attempts to obfuscate the fact, that a majority of Syrian citizens actually might want the President to stay.

What has caused Australia’s estrangement of the city that our 4th Light Horse was first to liberate in WWI? Why does Australia shun the opportunity to again be at the forefront of effective and sustainable political change in Syria?

Two weeks ago I was in Syria for the second time since the unrest began last March, except this time I stayed in the north of the country. Friends in Syria were adamant that to travel south to Damascus through central Syria — the only practicable way to get there when domestic flights are full, as they now routinely are — was to court danger, even death from the fallout of attacks and counter-attacks launched by militant gangs and government forces. Several Syrians I met on the flight into Aleppo agreed — apart from one woman returning to Idlib who told me “Idlib is entirely normal”. She would not be drawn on this remarkable assessment.

Armed rebels in Homs and Idlib have destroyed power stations, gas and oil pipelines, government buildings, trains, bridges, and any property that lies between them and their Syrian government targets, and have bombed civilian and police buses. All Syrians appear to know this, but the report by the Head of the Arab League Observer Mission deployed throughout Syria’s provinces from 24 December 2011 to 18 January 2012available in English since 27 January 2012 — affirms it. The report was discussed by Joseph Wakim in New Matilda this week.

The Arab League report states also that the militia of Homs reported explosions and deaths by government forces that were found to be false, that the French journalist killed in Homs was the victim of an opposition mortar shell, and that “food was in short supply owing to the blockade imposed by armed groups, which were believed to include some 3000 individuals”. The report states that, according to the Governor of Homs, all attempts by religious figures and city notables to calm the situation have failed.

I questioned young men who had served with the military in Ma’aret Numan, Homs, and Idlib — some of the hottest spots of the conflict. Their military service is over now and I assured them anonymity. They told me that their units had been under strict instructions to hold fire at all times. Some of their fellow soldiers had been killed and several others wounded, yet they had to await direct orders before they returned fire, even when fired upon. I suggested to them that this cannot be true in all cases, but they just shrugged. The Arab League report also cites evidence of this approach by the government.

I interviewed Sunni, Shia, and Christian Syrians face-to-face in the north and by phone around the country, expecting bitterness towards the government. To a person they were enraged and despondent by turns — unsurprising in a bitter cold winter where heating fuel, electricity, and benzene are scarce, thanks to the activities of the armed opposition. I found less anger with the government — although there is plenty of that — as with the anarchy and fear being spread in Homs, Idlib, Zabadani and Damascus countryside.

My survey is skewed because I could not find any opposition to interview. But it is known that the Syrian National Council (SNC) and Free Syria Army (FSA) reject outright anything other than regime change on their terms. For them, dialogue with the Syrian government to negotiate a transition of power is impossible.

The Syrians with whom I spoke say they believe that the SNC and the FSA, and their ideological and material supporters from outside Syria, have derailed the political reform that would otherwise be well progressed.

Newly formed political parties are now officially licensed. Last week a multifaith and multidisciplinary committee of male and female experts presented a revised Draft Constitution to the Syrian Cabinet. This Draft Constitution can now go to Referendum, after which general elections can be called.

Such a measured and sustainable political reform process is precisely what Syrians believe the Qatar-Saudi-US-Israel-Australia alliance wish to avoid as they build a case for international intervention.

While the opposition fighters in rebel towns and villages fail to propose a coherent political message beyond revenge and wresting power, the capital Damascus, the provincial towns of Aleppo and Raqqa, the Mediterranean coastal towns, and the major Arab and Kurdish tribes — in other words, the greater part of the country — appear to remain unconvinced by the SNC and FSA.

The Arab League report states that democracy protests are unhindered by government forces, but can the SNC and FSA and their material and ideological supporters outside Syria give citizens confidence to engage in the political reform process without fear of intimidation or even, as has been reported from Damascus lately, assassination by unknown killers?

Popular Sunni leaders, Imam Qaradawi (Qatar) and Imam Arour (Saudi Arabia), and now Al Qaeda leader, Sheikh Ayman Al Zawahiri, openly promote a “jihad” that demands killing of non-Sunnis in Syria.

The FSA is responsible for a series of bombings of civic buildings and key infrastructure that have caused civilian deaths and injury, including the recent bombing in Aleppo, the northern provincial city famously, and to many irritatingly, loyal to the government.

Yet Canberra continues to back the unpopular SNC and FSA and the Australian media provides airtime to the multinational “Syrian” opposition in whose rhetoric revenge and hatred are foremost. If there is a political alternative of any description being discussed, Syrians are telling me they cannot hear it.

Four weeks ago, a young Syrian whom I consider my “nephew” was kidnapped outside Homs while traveling on an ordinary civilian bus. He was held for nine days in a room with 18 other captives and given four options: join the rebel army to kill government and non-Sunni Syrians, blow up utilities and other civic properties, pay a ransom to be released, or be killed on the spot.

Are these the best choices the SNC and FSA offer Syrians?

Australians were once heroes to Syria. Many wonder what has caused chronic blindness this time on our road to Damascus.

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Posted 18th February 2012 by InI in category Syria

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