Report back on the US Peace Council Fact Finding Delegation to Syria

By Judy Bello

We had a lot of interesting meetings in Damascus with members of the government and with representatives of civil society.  We met with the Chairman of the Lawyers Guild, Members of the Board of the Chamber of Industry, the Orthodox Bishop of Damascus and the Grand Mufti of Syria, as well as people working with and participating in human resource development programs of the Syria Development Trust.  In every meeting, we introduced ourselves and Henry Lowendorf explained that we were there to hear their stories and see with our own eyes the situation they were confronting.  SANA News followed us everywhere and reported on our meetings daily.   The show of solidarity means a lot to the Syrian people.  

Many of those we interviewed had close relatives targeted by the jihadi militants who have flooded the country over the last 5 years.   Ali Haidar, Syria’s Minister of Reconciliation, the Mufti, a member of Parliament and one of the Board members of the Chamber of Industry told us their civilian sons were murdered by the extremists.   A man from the area north of Aleppo on the Turkish border described how his son was abducted by terrorists, then later returned after being repeatedly raped and brutally beaten. He has never recovered from the incident.  Others we met told of us narrow escapes from terrorists, seeing their neighbors brutally murdered and of seeing women attacked and humiliated in the street.

One of the strongest concerns of everyone we met in Syria is the International Sanctions. Members of the Chamber of Industry gave us numerous examples of how the sanctions impede Syria’s economy and impoverish ordinary people.   On the one hand, factories are closed due to bombings and threats, and workers are murdered or terrorized into leaving their jobs.  On the other hand, the sanctions make it impossible to obtain the basic requirements of manufacturing and the necessary cash flow for commerce. 

International sanctions mean that payments in Syrian pounds cannot be processed through the global banking system.   Machines bought in Europe during better times cannot be repaired or replaced and even annual adjustments require payment to the western corporations that made them.   Raw materials needed for manufacturing cannot be purchased through the global banking system.   Finished products cannot be exported as except where complex payment are made.  When factories close, workers become unemployed and Syria loses the ability to supply its people with basic necessities.

There are specific sanctions on medical supplies and oil infrastructure as well as the general sanctions that have make international bank transactions impossible and have severely depreciated the value of the Syrian pound.  Syrians are barred from obtaining certain medicines, including chemotherapy drugs, and modern high tech medical equipment.   Syrian hospitals cannot get filters for kidney dialysis.   There is a shortage of basic hospital supplies including drugs and antiseptics that are normally obtained from Syrian based factories that cannot operate under sanctions.  

The Syrian Lawyers Syndicate has been expelled from the International Bar Association and other international legal forums.    They cannot raise Syrian concerns in international courts because they have no standing in the international context and they are no longer able to attend periodic conferences with European Lawyers where they previously exchanged information and ideas about the law.  

Members of the staff and faculty of Damascus University told us that student and faculty exchanges with western Universities have been disallowed by visa restrictions.   Syrian students and faculty cannot participate in joint research projects or attend international conferences.  The University of Damascus has absorbed many students from the Universities in Aleppo and Raqqa which have been closed due to the ongoing violence.  

We met with members of the National Union of Syrian Students who discussed their affiliation with various political parties and facilitating social change within the newly reformed government.   In 2012, Bashar Assad and his staff met with anyone from various dissident parties who were willing to talk to the government at that time.   The constitution was then rewritten to reflect the interests of those who engaged in these talks.  The new constitution was then presented to the public and a referendum held which resulted in its adoption.   

The new constitution opened up the government to members of parties other than the Ba’ath party for the first time since the Ba’ath party came to power 70 years ago.   We talked to ministers and members of parliament.

At the Syrian Development Trust, we first visited a facility where women from ‘women-led households’ were learning job skills while they and their children also received counseling and literacy classes.   We saw about 50-75 women in sewing classes, social skills development and literacy classes.  They have to apply for the program, and acceptance is based on their personal situation.  No questions are asked about where their husband went, but many of them had joined the extremists and either died or just never returned. The women were happy to be in a program that will make it possible for them to build a better future for their families.  These women, of course, are the lucky few. 

There are millions of refugees inside Syria living in schools and jammed in with relatives who live in safe zones.   When we met with the President, he said that he insisted that not one refugee be forced to live in a tent.   All are housed in permanent structures, mostly schools, refurbished for habitation.  No questions are asked with regard to how a family became displaced.   They are all victims of a war planned, instigated and fueled by the United States and US allies, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel.

We later visited a different office of the Syria Development Trust where we spoke with a couple of intense young men whose job is to communicate with the civilians and bring in aid to areas occupied by militants.   It is dangerous and difficult work that involves building relationships with people who are under great stress.   These young men are part of a reconciliation plan the government has been developing since 2012 when Ali Haidar, Chairman of the SSNP, a dissident party, accepted the role of Minister of Reconciliation within the government.

We met with Minister Haidar twice, once in his office and the second time over dinner.   He talked about the reconciliation plan that he has been developing, and also provided a history from his perspective, of the events leading up to outbreak of war in Syria in 2011.  Not only is the entire government structure engaged, at some level, in the reconciliation plan, but everyone we talked to, inside or outside the government is familiar with its basic outlines.  

Reconciliation, not revenge, is the mantra we heard.   Only through unity and solidarity can the Syrian people survive the terrible crisis that has overcome their country.   Along with amnesty for Syrian opposition fighters willing to lay down their arms,  and the provision of resources to occupied areas like Raqqa, East Aleppo and Foua and Kafaya in Idlib Province, There is a complex initiative to make connections with the local people and through them with the fighters so that a negotiation can begin. Minister Haidar said that whenever the plan begins to succeed, the area is flooded with cash, but even so they have had some significant successes.

We met the Orthodox Bishop in Damascus and the Grand Mufti, a regionally respected Sunni scholar.  Both were wonderfully generous and charming, and both claimed the entire 23,000,000 population of Syria as their constituency.   Their teachings rest on love and tolerance.   They would like to do a speaking tour in the west to introduce people to Syria and the Syrian people as they know them, but the Mufti has been denied a visa and the Bishop won’t go without him.

The Syrian government continues to provide public utilities in occupied territories though the militants who govern there don't pay them for them.    This is a service to the citizens of Syria.  Everyone we met agreed that there is only a political solution to the war but it must be an internal political solution.   The objective of the government reconciliation plan is to expel the foreign terrorists and reconcile with those Syrian nationals who are currently disaffected and fighting their country.   The United States could assist in this process by ceasing to arm and provide resources to the mercenaries engaged in the war, and restrain their allies to the same policy.

The message from Minister Haidar is that the state is not monolithic; nor is it perfect.   There are internal disagreements.   But, the state is functioning and providing the services a state is responsible to provide to its citizens to the extent possible.   Food, water, power, education and medical care continue to be provided to all by the state despite serious obstacles.   This is the reason Syria, unlike other recent targets of western aggression and regional destabilization, remains a state.