US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is ‘disgusted’ at the stance taken by Russia and China against foreign military intervention in Syria. But clearly ‘Madame Clinton‘, as many Syrians enjoy calling her, has not made time to read the report by the Head of the Arab League (AL) Observer Mission that was deployed throughout Syria‘s provinces from December 24, 2011 to January 18, 2012.
It seems our media have not read it either, even though it was publicly released in English over two weeks ago.
Russia and China‘s conviction that a mediated domestic political process and cessation of violence by all perpetrators in Syria is a far more sustainable course of action and is completely affirmed by the AL Report.
I have just returned from Syria. Like so many who care about what happens there, I went because I wanted to see, listen, ask questions, overhear conversations, watch dedicated 24-hour television propaganda channels (both for and against the government), read graffiti, and experience what sort of realities Syrians are now creating for themselves. There are daily flights out of the UAE. My flight was full.
I also went to Syria specifically to dig out all the details of my adoptive nephew’s kidnapping by opposition ‘forces’ a couple of weeks earlier.
The 18-year-old is in the first months of his obligatory military service and was returning back to his military posting after a short leave pass home, riding a civilian bus between a provincial town near his home and Damascus. The bus was stopped outside Homs by what appeared to be a security roadblock. Eight heavily armed men in military uniform boarded the bus and demanded that those serving in the military raise their hands. My nephew did so, along with a few others. They were taken off the bus, blindfolded, put in cars and driven away.
Two days later the kidnappers called the young man’s family, using his mobile phone, and berated them for letting their son ‘fight for Assad’ instead of fighting against the government and doing his Muslim duty. The family begged for mercy. The phone hung up. An excruciating six days later another call came advising that for a 500,000 Syrian Pound ransom (currently about $8,000), they could collect him.
The heavily armed kidnappers had kept 18 captives in one room and provided food and bedding. Each day of his nine-day confinement, an imam had spoken to the detainees about religious duty. Ultimately my nephew, a Sunni Muslim, had been given four choices – fight with his captors against the government and kill as many police, soldiers, security agents, and non-Muslims (i.e. non-Sunnis) as possible; take ammunition supplied by them to destroy key infrastructure and wreak havoc; pay a substantial ransom; or be killed on the spot.
The young man’s family were able to gather the ransom payment from each household of their tribe and next morning two of his uncles set off to collect him – one unashamed to say he was sick with fear, the other well known for fearing God alone. On their way they advised the local police and security forces of their mission, who in turn advised that if they succeeded in getting the young man back alive, they should take him home for a few days to rest before surrendering him to the military police.
After his jubilant but short homecoming, the military security took him and detained him for interrogation. Almost three weeks later he was released back to his military posting. Out of the fire into the frying pan.
It is a freezing cold winter in Syria. While scrupulously rationed by the government, heating fuel is in short supply because opportunists are hoarding it to sell on the black market. Electricity is cut off several hours a day and night due to sabotage of power stations. Fuel for vehicles is in chronic short supply due to criminal destruction of oil pipelines and the bombing of diesel-carrying vehicles. The AL Observer Mission report details this, and more.
Local Syrian TV stations broadcast propaganda for government (‘Suria Baladna’) and for ‘opposition’ (‘Suria AlSha’ab’). The AL report is critical of both but singles out the innumerable fabrications and exaggerations of the opposition for particular comment (for a summary of both see here).
Meanwhile the prejudicial language and aggressive stances of the US, Britain, France, Australia, and Qatar raises questions for Syrians as to what the end game might be, and why Syrians are paying for an international desire to isolate Iran (see Aisling Byrne’s comment).
Syria‘s National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change readily joined other political and human rights activists in cooperating with the AL Observer Mission, but they reject any contact with the expatriate Syrian National Council or the Syrian Free Army of alleged defectors from the Syrian security forces that is fed with arms via Lebanon and given refuge in Turkey.
Massive reform of the political process is non-controversial in Syrians’ conversation, but I could not find any Syrian with anything positive to say about these two entities touted by the Western world as the best instruments for political reform in Syria.
‘Why would any country invite expatriates to form government?’ Syrians kept asking me with exasperation. ‘Why would any civilian population put their faith in defected fighters with no discernible political platform?’
I spoke to Sunnis, Shias, and Christians, to Kurds, Arabs, Circassians, Assyrians and Armenians. While many pointedly complimented the apparent good character of the president (referred to at such times as ‘Dr Bashar Al Assad’) all readily expressed in detail their disgust at poor governance for too long. In the street, in shared taxi vans, in cafes, markets, and private homes the Syrians are not afraid to talk politics any more. Indeed they seemed particularly anxious to do so. But their mood is pessimistic. ‘Whatever revolution there was is now destroyed by armed criminals and their masters,’ sighed a Sunni man wearily.
‘What are your so-called Christian leaders in Australia thinking?’ shrieked a Christian woman in a candlelit Aleppo home. ‘Don’t they realise our freedoms in Syria are the envy of other Arab countries – and impossible in Qatar?! If Bashar (Al Assad) goes, we will be lambs to the slaughter.’
‘Would Mme Clinton be so sure of herself if her nephew was kidnapped like this?’ asked another Christian in Damascus. ‘Because, you know, he would not get those four choices.’
Fiona Hill (PhD Anthropology) runs her own independent consultancy assisting Australians’ interaction with the Arab region. View her full profile here.