Syria: Getting out of the abyss that Assad has created, before it is too late
Interview with Father Paolo Dall’Oglio by Antonella Vicini, 9 January 2013 from Reset – Dialogues on Civilizations (translated by Mary Rizzo)
A discourse that in fact reaffirms the status quo and sixty thousand deaths that since 15 March 2011 (to January 2013, tr. note) have plunged Syria into a bloodbath: Bashar al-Assad and the Organisation of the United Nations have indicated the salient points of the current situation in the country. The former, speaking from the House of Culture in Damascus in front of his supporters, proposed a three-stage plan that substantially eliminates the revolutionary forces, labelled as “Western puppets” and the latter, in recent days, has published a series of disturbing numbers. From July to now, in correspondence with the increase of the military offensive, the dead are calculated at about 5 thousand per month, mostly civilians (approximately 76 percent). But this is only partial data: right from the title of the report the word is in fact of Preliminary Statistical Analysis of Documentation of Killings in Syria. “This figure is far higher than we expected. And it’s really shocking,” said the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. Also higher than the 45 thousand victims counted so far by groups linked to the opposition.
Torture, attacks on protected sites, the use of banned weapons and in general the human rights violations are delineating – as can be read also in the last report dated 2012 of the Independent International Commission of Investigation on Syria led by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro – a conflict with an increasingly sectarian character that is now extended also to those minorities initially “inclined to be neutral and non-hostile” and that reveal the presence of foreign fighters “with their own agenda.” A conflict that brought “immeasurable destruction and human suffering to the civilian population” and that cannot foresee “any military victory.”
“The only way to achieve an immediate cessation of violence is a negotiated political solution that responds to the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.” Thus was the conclusion of the updating of the Syrian situation relative to September and December, 2012, probably simplifying the complexity of the current situation on the ground.
The person who knows the Syrian context, in its areas of light and shadow, is no doubt someone like Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who has lived in the country for over thirty years. Founder of the monastic community of Deir Mar Musa, in the desert north of Damascus, Father Paolo has always been engaged in interfaith dialogue with the Islamic world and until last June, before being forced to leave by the regime, has spoken about the tragedy that he has witnessed daily in first person accounts.
The new UN report has just been released where a denouncement is made of 60 thousand deaths since the beginning of the conflict.
I cannot make an assessment of the number of deaths on a technical basis because it’s not my task to do that, and I note that often revolutionary movements tend to drive up the numbers for propaganda purposes. But the UN, bringing together different reasonably credible sources has arrived at an even greater number (15 thousand more compared to the 45 thousand already reported, ed. note). This does not surprise me, but I am afraid that once the dust has settled, when you can make a more accurate count, the numbers will be even higher. You cannot perpetrate months and months of aerial bombardments on civilian populations imagining to get balances of victims that look like surgical operations, which are also more than questionable on moral grounds. In Syria there is no action to hit the Resistance leaders but to kill the Syrians, en masse. The moral code of the Assad regime is one is with Assad or there will be destruction of the country.
How do you explain the substantial absence and delay of the international community on Syria?
Once defined by the regime, and by its friends, the “Islamist threat” in Syria, the international community has self-legitimised its maintaining a position of stalling and waiting: there will be no democracy in Syria, then there is no reason to take steps to activate for democracy of the Syrians. We are faced with a paradox, this position of wait-and-see has created the conditions for the expansion of radical Islamism.
The revolution, as a whole, has condemned the first actions of these groups as conspiracy actions conducted by the Syrian state. I never succumbed to this temptation, but remote-controlled manipulation is nothing new in the Syrian panorama, and there have been regime manipulations of extremist cells. Without simplifying, I say that the activity of Islamic extremism was part of the regime’s postulate since the very beginning, where they claimed the revolution was terrorism paid for by foreigners, then when this area branched, complex and effective, it has been able to take the initiative and the head of the revolution in military terms, these groups have provoked in the international community a self-justification to refrain from action. There was an incredible miscalculation and these same groups have exploded in the hands of the regime.
In the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, it is said that, given the situation on the ground, a military solution to the conflict is now impossible, and that it is instead desirable to begin negotiations. But at this moment a negotiated solution seems impractical.
The regime wants negotiations to the extent that it needs more time to continue the systematic destruction of Syria and thus enter into the third phase and try to take the country back in its own hands. I was expecting that the regime in Damascus would work to divide the country on the line of the Orontes, once acknowledged the fact of not being able to maintain control over everything. Faced with a general revolution the only thing possible would be a Syrian Kosovo, hedging their bets on Alawite solidarity and other minorities living in that area, such as, in fact, the Christians; this is a solution accepted by Iran (Shiite, ed. note) as a lesser evil. This has not happened so far and in revolutionary circles it is said that it cannot happen because the rebels have so deeply penetrated even in that area that the regime would no longer be able to have such a division.
Why had it not chosen the way of secession as long as it was possible?
I can give you two reasons. One is psychological. Bashar al-Assad has always said I am a man of Damascus and not of the Alawite mountains. His cultural and mental space is all of Syria. In this sense, paradoxically, Assad would be a “non-sectarian”. He uses his sect for his power, but a power that if it is not of the whole of Syria, it does not interest him. We see this as a disconnect between his own idea of himself and reality.
The other hypothesis assumes that the regime is a complex matter, divided between Ba’ath ideology, which is obviously not for secession, and the logic of the Alawite family. These two souls have been separated in time but not enough to contemplate the geographical dislocation of the country.
You have spoken of the need to begin to govern at least the liberated zones.
I have written in Arabic just two days ago, on Facebook, asking the head of the coalition to immediately set up in the liberated territories the sole government of transition. It is an operation that should be done immediately because it would eliminate the impression that the Syrian revolution is now entirely in the hands of Muslim extremists who are subversive and clandestine and they can begin to restore the country to the Syrians. On the ground there are practical problems such as lack of water, electricity, labour, wages.
Do you believe it is still too early to talk about the future of the minorities?
It is not early, in fact you have to talk about it now, but it is very difficult to see the future because of the omission of international relief. There is hope that the revolution as a whole may have a capacity of self-discipline that allows them to form that unity of the country in the reconciliation desired by everyone in the democratic revolution in Syria. Only some extremist military groups seem to threaten the destiny of minorities, even if they have never attacked Christians as such.
In recent days, however, there was a complaint by Mother Agnes Mariam (Carmelite and superior of the Deir Mar Yocoub monastery of Qara, known to be very critical of the rebels, ed. note) in this regard.
Mother Agnes knows how to dose the words and she is only, I repeat and I emphasise, the (able) clerical expression of the deceitful manipulation action of the Syrian regime. Mother Agnes is a self-proclaimed leader of a movement that does not exist on the ground, Musalaha (Reconciliation, ed note), and it is a real problem because for her interpretation of the facts is always selective and one-sided: that the revolution is terrorism!
How do you see a possible Syria after Assad and after nearly two years of war?
I believe that the profound nature of democratic Syria will be a laboratory of civil evolution and policy making of the Islamist Arab area of great interest. Syria has a cultural dignity of Islam that is different from that of the Gulf.
This is my vow, my hope and also the space of my commitment. At the end of January I will participate in the commission of the Syrian revolution that deals with preventing the massacres in the moment of victory and I hope, in February, to be able to re-enter the country. Syria cannot win the revolution leaving a hundred thousand Alawites deaths in its wake. We must find a way, even ideological and theological, to say that there will be no revenge against the Alawites and that all criminals will be judged with fairness.
Nun on Irish visit accused of peddling ‘regime lies’ about crisis in Syria
MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent (The Irish Times)
AN ITALIAN Jesuit expelled from Syria in June due to his outspoken criticism of government violence has accused a controversial nun who visited Ireland last week of peddling “regime lies” about the crisis there.
Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio, who lived in Syria for 30 years and has been heavily involved in interfaith work in the country, described Mother Agnes Mariam as “an instrument” of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “She has been consistent in assuming and spreading the lies of the regime, and promoting it through the power of her religious persona,” he told The Irish Times yesterday. “She knows how to cover up the brutality of the regime.”
During her four-day visit to Ireland last week, Mother Agnes Mariam, who is superior at the Melkite Greek Catholic monastery in Syria, gave media interviews in which she claimed Christians in Syria were facing “extinction” and that rebels battling Assad were predominantly foreigners linked with al-Qaeda.
Fr Dall’Oglio, who has spent time with opposition activists in several restive parts of Syria, said these claims were “ridiculous” and constituted regime propaganda.
“I have been there, I know the people, including the youth, who are working for the revolution, and I know that what she is saying is insane. It corresponds with the regime version of the facts,” he said.
Mother Agnes Mariam, who visited Dublin and Belfast, had separate meetings with representatives of the Irish Bishops Conference justice and peace committee, Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe, Nobel peace laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, and an official from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
One of her interlocutors here was taken aback when the nun claimed during their meeting that the Houla massacre, in which more than 100 civilians, more than half of them children, were killed, was an elaborate hoax concocted by rebels. This week a UN commission of inquiry concluded that Syrian government forces and the pro-Assad militia known as shabiha were responsible for the massacre.
In March, Mother Agnes Mariam was accused of running a “misinformation campaign” by a US-based Syrian opposition group called Syrian Christians for Democracy.
It said she maintains “close ties” to the Assad family and alleged she had fed selected visiting journalists “distorted facts and fake testimonies for the sole purpose of tarnishing the opposition’s image”.
The group referred to the role of a number of Christians in the Syrian uprising.
“Mother Agnes and those helping her are harming the Syrian people by disseminating negative pro-Assad propaganda and tearing at Syria’s social and religious fabrics,” it said. “The Christians in Syria, as well as the rest of the population, are in need of undivided support, backing, and funding. They do not need divisive rumours and the propagation of inaccurate information.”
Mother Agnes Mariam’s trip to Ireland was organised by Alan Lonergan, who acts as churches liaison officer with Sadaka, an Irish pro-Palestinian advocacy group, though he arranged the visit in a personal capacity.
“The impression people have of what is happening in Syria is very black and white,” he said. “We need to examine more of the grey area.”
thanks to Treasa