REPORT OF VISIT TO SYRIA
31 August – 7 September 2016
Why Did We Come to Syria
1. We came to listen, to learn, to meet as many people as possible in order to contribute our experiences to the wider discussions of the situation in Syria.
2. We emphasise our commitment to the fundamental principle of impartiality and solidarity with all those who are suffering, whatever their faith and cultural traditions or political views.
3. A pastoral visit to the suffering people of Syria – including Christians, Muslims and Yazidis; to see for ourselves the realities on the ground; to listen to as wide a range of voices as possible who are not being heard outside Syria; to hear from religious leaders, communities and political leaders as well as Internally Displaced People (IDPs).
4. To visit different religious communities in different Syrian locations; to listen to the voices of their members and leader; to experience their places of worship and view any destruction of churches and mosques and loss of ritual treasures.
5. To learn about efforts being made within Syria to bring about a peaceful resolution.
6. To reflect on our response and that of the UK and other members of the international community.
7. To explore academic relationships relating to possible cultural and academic collaboration.
8. We emphasise our fundamental commitment to as much impartiality as possible. For this reason, the visit was at our own expense.
We were invited by the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr. Hassoun, Bishop Armash Nalbandian, Armenian Archbishop of Damascus; Bishop Audo of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Aleppo; and Revd. Harout Selimien, President of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Syria.
Revd. Andrew Ashdown . (Leader of the Group)
Revd. Dr.David Clark
Baroness Caroline Cox
Dr. Simon Fisher
Lord Raymond Hylton
Rt Revd. Michael Nazir-Ali
Ms Jo Simister
The journey into Syria is always one of mixed emotions...excitement and anticipation at meeting friends and being a witness to profound, complex and painful realities; and a realistic unease that nowhere is completely safe. That concern was particularly heightened on this occasion knowing that we would be travelling to Aleppo. Though that journey is literally life-threatening, not going was not an option. We had been invited by the Armenian Church and by the Chaldaean Catholic Bishop, and we felt it vital to make a Pastoral visit to the city and to be a witness to what we saw and heard. The journey from Beirut is quite magnificent over the Chouf mountains into the Bekaa Valley. Pictured here, we are at the border official waiting room where we were met by my dear friend and guide Qusay, who arranged everything and stayed with us throughout, and by my friend Revd Harout Selimien, President of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Aleppo, one of those who invited us. The journey continues into Damascus through numerous checkpoints, with views over the city, both of the devastated rebel-controlled areas, and the cosmopolitan and bustling city centre which is under government control.
So what is Damascus like in the midst of the conflict?
It is a divided city. The outer areas of the city have been under the control of extremist fighters, and have been heavily bombarded by the government. Most of the residents of these areas fled early on in the fighting from the 'rebels' either to join refugees outside Syria, or to the comparative safety of government-controlled areas. (Remember that there are more internally displaced refugees from rebel-held areas being cared for in government-controlled areas than all the external refugees in the region and Europe combined.) Two years ago, I visited some of the refugees on the outskirts of Yarmouk and heard the horrific stories of the brutality of the rebel groups against the citizens, and of the harsh conditions under the ensuing siege. Speaking to other internally displaced people from rebel-held areas, (and we also spoke with others on this visit) they consistently report that supplies that do get through are withheld by the fighters or sold at exorbitant prices to the residents in order to promote the kind of starvation that will evoke international sympathy and condemnation. Then there is the common misrepresentation of facts.
A few weeks ago, the government siege of Darraya was lifted. The UN had told the Syrian government that there were 10000 civilians in the suburb and that they should provide food for 10,000 people. The government consistently argued that there were less than 10,000 people there but nevertheless provided what was asked. When the reconciliation was reached with the help of the local reconciliation committee, the total number of people who left Darraya was 1826 people, of whom 1200 were fighters. (Despite reports of 'eating grass', they did not appear to have reached that level of starvation) The remaining civilians (though many are families of the fighters) are now being housed by the Syrian government and Syrian Green Crescent. The fighters are given an option: to be bussed safely to other rebel-held areas; or to receive amnesty, lay down their arms, be reintegrated into the community or join the Syrian army and police. Many have chosen the latter, but of course this is never reported. Consider by contrast what happens when Syrian soldiers are captured by our 'moderate' friends anywhere in the country. They are in almost all cases summarily executed, very often by brutal and inhumane means.
Arriving in the centre of Damascus, a city at war, is strange. Security throughout the city is necessarily tight with numerous checkpoints. Citizens are generally accepting of these, as the risks of car bomb and terrorist attacks are high. But on the surface everything appears normal. The streets are busy. People go about their daily lives. Striking too is the evident diversity of the city for which Syria has always been renowned. Dress ranges from modern western to conservative Islamic. People are free to dress and move as they wish. Churches and mosques stand side by side and the Call to Prayer often mingles with the sound of Church bells. Christians, Sunni, Shi'a, Druze, Alawite, Kurds, mix freely on the streets and in the restaurants and markets. It remains a beautiful city. But beneath the surface lie other realities.
This was my fifth visit to Syria since April 2014 and I have seen the changes. The city is certainly quieter since two years ago, when the Old City and the city centre were under continuous 'rebel' bombardment, and received regular car-bomb attacks that randomly killed hundreds of people and injured thousands more. And the sound of government bombing of rebel-held suburbs was also frequent. Today such attacks have reduced as government advances and reconciliation initiatives in the Damascus countryside have reduced the threat. There is a renewed sense of hope that the (western-backed) terrorists may not prevail. However the cost on society has been huge, and sanctions are affecting everyone, especially the vulnerable. With the collapse of the Syrian pound, everything is expensive, and the value of incomes has plummeted. There are widespread shortages of essential goods. Electricity cuts are frequent and sometimes electricity is available only 2 hours a day. We were told that some of the power stations that serve the capital are under 'rebel' control, and therefore the government are forced to liaise with 'rebel' factions and come to financial arrangements in order to ensure the provision of power to the city. Meanwhile, throughout Syria, including areas under the control of different factions (including IS), government employees are paid in full, and healthcare and education provision continues to be provided free of charge as has always been the case.
However, with the huge strain of millions of internally-displaced flocking from 'rebel'- held areas to the comparative safety of the government-controlled territories, one sees many people on the streets. Some pavements are filled with clothes either being given away or sold cheaply because many cannot afford to buy in normal shops. Yet, life goes on. There is a perseverance and dignity in the people that is admirable. A common phrase is: 'Syria will survive: continuing to work and live is our resistance to terrorism. '
We must not forget the place of women in society. Women in Syria have enjoyed more freedom of rights in Syria for many years, than almost in any other Arab country. One woman we met whilst walking freely in the streets spoke for many: "You've walked the streets and seen the women. We have total freedom to dress the way we want, to eat what we want and to get appropriate education and medical care. We choose our own way of life. The situation for women in Syria is perfectly good and was before the crisis. Now in areas controlled by Daesh and other groups, women are really suffering: they are not allowed to get education or practice their rights under the control of the extremist mentality. If the regime changed in Syria and these extremists took control of everything, just imagine how miserable life would be for us women. We won't even be able to walk in the street without a male accompanying us. Females will be forced to stay at home. We can't imagine that."
Most Damascenes (indeed most Syrians) have no wish to see regime change because the alternative is likely to be too awful to contemplate. They do wish to see reform though and yearn for the international community to stop supporting extremist people of violence and to work with the Government to defeat terrorism, and bring about peace and reform. Damascus was and is one of the most beautiful, diverse and tolerant cities in the Middle East. It is also the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. The people deserve for their voices to be heard. It is unconscionable that those of us who seek to listen and to enable those voices to be heard, are criticised for doing so. This surely raises serious questions about the agendas behind Western policies towards the conflict and the suffering people of Syria.
Formal meetings: Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban, Presidential Adviser. And Tourism Minister Besher Yazji.
Our first day in Syria was taken up in formal meetings. This was not an official delegation and never claimed to be, but it was appropriate and courteous that as the first British group with significant members to visit the country since the start of the conflict, we should respond to official invitations. Meeting with Dr Bouthaina Shaaban, the highly educated Political and Media Adviser to the President, she pointed out that even in the Presidential Office, the diversity of the country is represented, with senior staff coming from Sunni, Shia and Christian communities. She was highly critical of the biased international media representation of realities in Syria (a criticism echoed by everyone we met throughout the country); and asked why the West claims to be fighting terrorism whilst allying with countries who are funding and supporting terrorists. Dr Shaaban acknowledged that there had been mistakes in dealing with political unrest, but like other ordinary citizens we spoke with, she said that the war had stifled the development of the active civil society that was beginning to emerge prior to the conflict. Reforms and the development of democratic processes could only take place in a peaceful context.
We then visited the Minister for Tourism, Besher Yazji. He is a younger man who is passionate about the abundant historical heritage of the country. Immediately prior to the conflict, the government had been doing a huge amount of work to restore monuments and improve the tourist infrastructure in the country - something I witnessed for myself in 2010. He lamented the massive destruction and looting of historical sites, most of which had taken place at the hand of extremist factions whose ideology wishes to obliterate the the diverse history, culture and faith of the country. He pointed out that where sites had been liberated from terrorist control, restoration work has already begun (as we saw for ourselves in the restoration of the churches in Maaloula.)
Of course the tourism industry, a major source of income for the country has been devastated by the conflict, with hundreds of hotels and restaurants closed. However, the tourism industry is picking up a little. Pilgrims continue to visit the Shia and Christian shrines in the country, and as the security situation has improved in many of the government-controlled areas of the country, Syrians themselves are wanting to return to places of interest and relaxation that are 'safe'. Sadly sanctions have deeply affected all the industries and of course with sanctions against Syrian banks the country is mostly operating under a cash economy which is very hard on ordinary people. The Minister said that the concert that was held in the amphitheatre at Palmyra after its liberation, where Syrian soldiers had been executed by terrorists only months before, (and which was cynically condemned in the western media), was a symbol of the new life and hope that will emerge and that will overcome the horrors of extremism. He emphasised that post conflict every effort will be made to restore the ancient sites and that international experts will be welcome to participate in that process.
We spent a most moving day meeting the people of Maaloula, one of the most famous Christian villages in the Middle East, famed for its early Christian shrines, and for being one of few villages in the world where Aramaic, the language of Jesus is spoken. Occupied by Jabhat Al Nusra and 'Free Syrian Army' 'rebel' groups in 2013, we met with leaders of the village and villagers, who spoke of the murder and kidnap the terrorists perpetrated against the Christian population, tragically aided by some of the Muslim villagers, and the attempted destruction of the ancient Christian monasteries. Famed for centuries for its religious co-existence, villagers are traumatised by the events. However, there are signs of hope. The restoration of both shrines and homes has been started and is progressing, and about half the original inhabitants have returned to help rebuild the village. The village is strong in its support of the Syrian Government and the Syrian Army, and are dismayed at the international community's support of the 'rebels', whose brutality they have experienced first hand, and whose sectarian extreme Islamist agenda and intentions are proven and explicit.
The monastery of St Sergius in Maaloula was used for months by the terrorists as their headquarters, and was badly vandalised by them. The Church is 3rd Century, and has a unique pre-Christian altar, which they smashed but which has since been repaired. The numerous historic and valuable icons that adorned the Church were either stolen or destroyed. After visiting the monastery, we walked down the famous gorge to the Convent of St Thekla, a disciple of St Paul. Here, the terrorists burned the Church and the cave shrine where St. Thekla is buried. Here too, the government is assisting the work of restoration.
A couple of stories...pictured first the only pharmacy in Maaloula, which was destroyed by the 'rebels' and has recently been reopened. Due to sanctions, only the most basic drugs are available, and those are expensive. Syria used to have a major factory producing pharmaceutical drugs, but it has been destroyed and neither the equipment to produce the drugs or the raw materials to make them are allowed into the country due to sanctions.
Secondly, a picture of Antionette in the Cave in her home where she was shot and seriously injured when 'rebels' came into the house and shot dead her brother and two other male relatives when they refused to renounce Christianity. The residents said that the FSA were assisting the attackers. Do we really think these 'moderates' will bring ‘democracy’ to the country?
Meeting with the Grand Mufti
It is always a joy to meet with the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr Hassoun. A Sunni Muslim scholar of renown and a spiritual leader of stature. Yet he is vilified for two reasons: firstly that he is an appointee of the government (as all Grand Muftis in the region are); and secondly because of his liberal views towards people of other faiths. The Mufti is passionate about the importance of Syria's religious diversity and he believes in the theological as well as political significance of the religious minorities. A few years ago he was cynically accused of 'threatening' Europe with suicide bombers. This is very far from his character and he has explained time and again that his words were not a threat, but rather a warning of what would happen if Europe continued with its policies. Of course his prophetic prediction has come true. The Mufti told us: "Christ summarised his teaching in 'God is love'. Any religion not based on love is made by man...God is not in temples, churches or mosques, but in human hearts." He lamented the rise in Islamic extremism and said we should be wary of its growth in the UK. He could not understand why our Government allies with the country where the worst kind of extremist ideology is nurtured and supported. Dr.Hassoun told us that after his son was murdered by 'rebels', he publicly forgave them and asked them to talk to him. The reply they sent was that they would kill him too. He was very clear that terrorism has been imported into Syria by many countries. Of the government he said: "I do not stand against Assad and his government because we are secularists who separate religion from politics. It shouldn't be for others to tell us what to do. We should decide our own future." He continued: "If there is a God, we will be asked one question at the day of judgement: Did you love one another? As a Muslim I love Jesus and I call you brothers. Please let us stop fighting. Let's give our children the flower of love, not the seeds of hatred, or they will ask us; ' why didn't you teach us to love?'"
Meeting with Syrian Orthodox Patriarch. His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem.
It was a joy and a privilege to meet the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Syria, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem, and also with him the Bishop of Hassakeh. As we gathered at the Patriarchate, a wedding was taking place in the Church and in a hall next door a family were receiving condolences on the death and funeral of their mother in a terrorist attack in Hassakeh eight days previously. The son of the deceased came in to meet us. Visibly distressed he told us how when terrorists were bombing the town, his parents had hid in a basement but a rocket had landed above them filling their basement with flames and smoke. The mother had 60% burns and all the flesh burned from her legs. His father had 50% burns and was still comatose. They were transferred by military helicopter to a hospital in Damascus but his mother died a few days later.
As he spoke, children were playing in a neighbouring Hall. The Patriarch commented on the cycle of life and death: a Wedding; children playing; a funeral all surrounding us. He said: "Five years ago Syria was not like this. We are a pluralistic society with freedom of religion. Do you think Saudi or Qatar will bring us 'democracy'? Is it 'democracy' that the international community do not allow us to choose our own leader and want to impose another? If the regime is toppled it will be the mullahs ruling like Iran or Egypt. There is no secular opposition; any 'moderate' group will only be used by the Muslim Brotherhood. Bashar may be a dictator but he is secular. Christians in this country are siding with those who are defending them. We do not support Bashar as a person but as a representative of the government that is defending us. You say Christians are supporting the regime. But I am not ashamed to support the government that is protecting us, whilst western policies are helping to empty the region of Christians."
His message to the Churches in Europe was this: "We greatly appreciate you coming here to see us. My message to our Christian brothers and sisters is: 'please try to understand and come and see for yourselves'. We want to be helped to stay here, not to leave. We want our Churches to have a better life. we want as Syrians to be able to choose our own life and our own future. I hope we will see churches in the West come to visit, and especially the World Council of Churches who haven't even asked if we are OK. Please support us. God bless you all."
And to conclude with a comment from myself: Everywhere we went in Syria, everyone expressed such gratitude for our going to visit and listen; especially the Christian communities in Damascus, Maaloula and Aleppo. Why is it that I am one of just a handful of Christian leaders to have made a Pastoral visit to the country, and why is it that the Christian leadership in this country are so profoundly critical of that engagement? Would Jesus stay silent? Would he follow the politically expedient path? If I believed he would, I would not be a priest.
Journey from Damascus to Homs
It was with trepidation that we began the journey to Aleppo. What was before the war a five hour journey on a direct highway is now an 8 hour journey on a route that is regularly attacked by ISIS on one side and Jabhat Al Nusra on the other. Because of the make-up of the group, and the danger, particularly closer to Aleppo we were provided with an armed escort in convoy, though our own vehicle was a 'low key' very cramped minibus. The first part of the journey to Homs is largely safe having been secured by the Syrian Army.
I have travelled this segment several times since April 2014 when it was still at risk of sniper and shell attack. Most of the villages en route had been destroyed in intense battles, but it was encouraging to see rebuilding taking place, and even more surprising to find the occasional 'motorway restaurant ' newly restored and serving the people who travel this route. Homs was a divided city.. The part of the city that was occupied by 'rebels', which included the Old City and the Christian quarter was largely destroyed, but the rest of the city remains vibrant, though rarely safe and has suffered numerous car-bomb attacks by the rebels which have killed hundreds of people and injured thousands.
Today, there is a feeling of hope. The amnesty and reconciliation process agreed by the Government and arranged with the help of local faith leaders, means that most fighters have now left or laid down their arms. Some have even joined the Syrian army. (This process, which has led to dozens of ceasefires around the country and the rehabilitation of many fighters has been largely dismissed by most of the international community despite its success.) Quite a few of those who fled rebel- controlled areas of the city are now returning and starting to rebuild a life among the ruins. But the peace is fragile.
In Homs we stopped at a checkpoint for some rest and refreshment. We talked with the soldiers before continuing the more dangerous part of the journey. The next day, that very checkpoint was one of four in the country blown up by co-ordinated car-bomb attacks by the 'moderate' rebels. Over 40 people were killed and dozens injured in that particular blast, including amongst them probably the soldiers with whom we had talked and who had wished us well the day before. None of these attacks were reported in the western media..
Journey from Homs to Aleppo. The Castello Rd.
One of the main reasons for travelling to Syria was as a Pastoral one to honour an invitation by Christians in Aleppo to visit and to see for ourselves the realities there. The journey to Aleppo is currently one of the most dangerous in the world, with the only access to the government-controlled part of the city (where most of the population live) being via a circuitous route close to ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra lines, who regularly attack the road. If it wasn't for a 20km track into the city opened up by the Syrian Army, 1.5million people would be under rebel-siege, as they were for nearly three years. Their story though is rarely told by media networks who are embedded with terrorist groups on the other side. For us, not going to Aleppo was not an option, despite the danger, and we are grateful to the Syrian government both for the permission to do so, and for the security the Army provided for the journey.
The journey from Homs however is a profound experience, for it involves hours of travelling across expansive plains, through miles of destroyed and deserted villages and towns that had been occupied, terrorised and destroyed by Islamist fighters, and the battles that ensued. Most of the millions of internally displaced who fled to the comparative safety of government-controlled areas, and refugees who have fled the country fled early in the fighting, both because of the brutality of the rebel groups, and because of the government bombing of the enemy. But none of us realised the extent of destruction which had been done at the hands of the fighters, who would destroy the homes and factories of anyone who opposed them.
As we passed through the deserted destroyed streets of one large town, we saw graffiti insulting a local Saudi Sheikh who had preached the Wahhabi ideology, and who had encouraged the town to rise up against the secular government. Throughout our visit, people in different places told us that one of the factors leading to the uprising had been the influence of Wahhabi doctrine on the thousands of Syrians who had gone to Saudi Arabia to work and study prior to the conflict. This was an insight of a which I had not been previously aware.
Continuing the journey, we pass many burnt out vehicles, the occasional tank, and Syrian army and Russian positions. And the tension rises as we approach Aleppo, the most dangerous part of the journey.
One of the most poignant sights of the journey, is the obliterated industrial city on the outskirts of Aleppo. Prior to the conflict there were four industrial cities, comprising thousands of factories producing all kinds of products. Of the four only one remains. The largest was outside Aleppo- a city comprising 5000 factories which produced numerous products for export. When the western-backed rebels overran the area, they stripped the factories of all the machinery and took it to Turkey; and then destroyed the buildings. Today it is a deserted city of ruins - a symbol of the deliberate attempt to destroy the economic heart of Syria.
The last part of the journey is a difficult 20km potholed track through demolished suburbs, with sandbanks to protect from sniper fire. It is regularly attacked. Yet this is the only lifeline and access to the city for the 1.5 million people who live in the government-controlled parts of the city.
And then - suddenly and without warning - the bombed out streets become normal, and you enter the government-controlled city, where the majority are getting on with their lives, under the constant threat of the rockets and 'hell-fire canon' - the gas canister missiles that shower down upon the city bringing death and destruction, not from the government, but from the 'moderate' rebels...And one discovers that the whole city is not destroyed, but that most of it, and the majority of its population, are still standing and getting on with their lives..
Arriving in Aleppo from the Castello Rd is a bewildering experience. After passing through miles of destroyed suburbs, (formerly occupied by 'rebels', but now secured by the Syrian army) the road into town very suddenly becomes like any other city. Within the space of a hundred metres, empty ruins become tree-lined, car-filled boulevards, cafes, shops, Churches and mosques. The media give the impression that the whole city of Aleppo is destroyed. This is far from the truth. Large areas are, but two thirds of the city still stands, and in this city, constantly shelled by rebel-held areas, where death and destruction is a threat from all sides, a veneer of ordinary life goes on. Arriving at sunset, less than five hundred metres from an area that looks like a scene from Armageddon, people were out in the streets and the cafes were full. This is government-controlled Aleppo, where 1.5 million people live. These people are not being bombed by Assad. Rather the Syrian Army is protecting them, no matter to which sectarian or faith community they belong. These people are very grateful that the long siege of the city imposed by the rebels, which received barely any attention in the international media is now over.
The scenes of devastation that we see on our TV screens are real, but they are only a part of the story. The narratives we hear about on our media are exclusively reported from the rebel side, where an estimated 200,000 people struggle to survive. Of those, 50,000 are fighters, many of them foreign and most belonging to extremist factions, and the remainder are mainly families of those fighters. Most of the resident population of those areas have long since fled, either to the safety of the government-held areas, or have fled the country.
We were the first British group to visit Aleppo since the start of the conflict. As we entered the city, we passed the City's University, where earlier in the day, four shells from the rebel-controlled areas had landed, miraculously without loss of life on this occasion. Our reception was deeply moving. As we arrived at the Armenian Club in the City, about four hundred people on 2 floors who had come to have dinner with us, rose to their feet and applauded. We were welcomed with a wonderful Armenian feast, and with warm hospitality. The meal was serenaded with two accompaniments: a string quintet that played for us; and the constant sound of bombing and shells (going both ways) just a few kms away. At one point, close gunfire interrupted the music, and we were told that one of the front-lines was less than a kilometre away.
The people of Aleppo suffer from regular power and water cuts, often cut off by rebel groups.
The Syrians we met asked if the world knew what was going on in Aleppo. I could only respond that as far as people knew, the whole city was destroyed, and that the government are bombing, shelling and gassing their own people. They were both amused and exasperated. They said that the rebels had used gas, not the government. It is also an extremely common view in Syria (and often repeated by those in Aleppo themselves) that the people whom the government are bombing in the city, are not civilians, but are almost exclusively terrorists and their families. The 1.5 million civilians living in the comparative 'safety' of the government-held areas of the city are exhausted by the constant shelling and 'hell-fire canon' attacks of the rebels, and are keen for the government to win the war.
We stayed at a remarkable 5* hotel in the city. Throughout the night, we could hear the sound of bombs, shelling and gunfire in the near distance.
In the morning, we were on the way to visit some of the Churches destroyed in the war, when our vehicle was stopped and turned back - the immediate vicinity of the Churches was being shelled by the rebels. And so we went as invited to the Bethel Armenian Evangelical Church, where we were met by over 500 local Christians, and by some of the city's leading Muslim figures. The warmth of our reception was humbling. Everyone was deeply grateful for us for having made the effort to visit.
The people we met included Sunni and Shia leaders; Chaldaean Catholic Bishop Audo; President of the Armenian Evangelical Church, Harout Selimien and other local Armenian and other Christians; Yazidi refugees; Doctors Council of the City. The majority of the city is not under government control and is not being bombed by the President. Here, different communities coexist and are getting on with life despite the constant random shelling and killing by the rebels. (Throughout our visit we could hear the shelling and gunfire of both sides).
A service was held, attended by members of other Christian and other faith communities, during which I had the profound honour of preaching, using as my text, the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, and receiving a warm response from one of the senior Muslim Sheikhs. The Sheikhs present affirmed their respect for the Christian communities; their abhorrence of extremist Wahhabi ideology, and their support for the Government. We also met some Yazidi refugees with horrific stories of their experiences at the hands of ISIS, and pleading with the international community to prevent Turkey from allowing the influx of arms and fighters.... Everyone we spoke to there (Christian and Muslim alike) pleaded for us to share the realities in the city; counter the lies that litter the media; and to call upon our Government to cease supporting the Islamist extremists who are destroying the country; and to work with the Syrian government to promote reform and sustain a pluralistic, secular society.
Doctor's Council of Aleppo...
In the afternoon, we met with the Governor of Aleppo who told us of the efforts being made to receive what civilians are left in rebel-controlled areas. He mentioned the many stories of people who are wanting to leave those areas, being prevented from doing so, and some being killed for wanting to do so. He despaired of the international media’s misrepresentation of the realities on the ground.
Afterwards we were incredibly lucky to visit the Senior Doctor's Council of Aleppo. This was a last minute arrangement, and by chance we interrupted a meeting of the Senior Executive of Aleppo Doctors. The doctors were glad to interrupt their meeting and welcomed us warmly, saying they were delighted we had come to see the situation. The group that were present included representatives of different medical specialities. The first thing we asked was about the regular media reports that there are only a few doctors left in Aleppo and that the last paediatrician was killed in a government airstrike. They laughed.
"Firstly you must understand that there is a media war against Syria, so you won't hear about what's happening in Government-controlled areas. Actually, there are 250 paediatricians currently active in Aleppo. The one that was killed is not on any register as a doctor of this city. Nor is the 'Al Quds' hospital that was supposedly destroyed known in Aleppo it all. It was probably a temporary field clinic set up by the terrorists. When they say that a 'hospital' has been targeted by the government, they are usually temporary field-clinics; they are not registered clinics or hospitals. Today, there are 4,260 doctors in Aleppo of which 3,150 are active. Of these, about 1,500 are specialists. Since the start of the conflict, 20 registered hospitals have been destroyed by the terrorists (these are not mentioned in the western media). But there are still 6 active public hospitals and about 40 small private hospitals in the city. At the moment we have a huge shortage of medicines and equipment in both public and private hospitals, including MRI machines. Our priorities are spare parts for equipment. Most of the aid given by the WHO and by other agencies, and all the resources given by Saudi Arabia and Turkey goes to the terrorists, not to the citizens of the city."
One of those present shared his experience of an attack on the only Mental Health hospital in the north of the country: "I was working in the Hospital in the Government-controlled area until 2012 with all my staff. We were giving all services to the patients. Then Daesh attacked. They bombed the hospital and took hostages as patients. They looted and sold most of the equipment and destroyed the rest. One of the patients was bipolar and doing well but she was raped; then she had a baby by the man who raped her. She is Christian but was forced to become Muslim. She was then divorced and returned to the hospital with serious PTSD. The Syrian Army retook the hospital and the gave us 1 million dollars to rebuild it. We now have 100 patients. Even in war areas under terrorist control we provide some medicines and treatment."
One of the key accusations against the Syrian government is of chemical attacks. There have been several chemical attacks by 'rebels' on government-controlled areas but these have of course gone largely unreported. Meanwhile, Syria's main chemical factory is under 'rebel' control. Add to that the dubious origins of the accusations; the growing evidence and proof of staged attacks and atrocities to implicate Syrian and Russian forces; and the consistent bias of many news networks, and it becomes clear that we should be very careful about taking reports at face value. This was emphasised to us when we visited the Doctors Council in Aleppo this week. And it was also admitted by two senior British journalists whom we met in Damascus that blame could not definitively be apportioned.
Journey out of Aleppo
Departing Aleppo was another hair-raising journey. The morning of our departure, the terrorist groups declared that the 'Castello Rd' - the only way in and out of the city - would once again be targeted, in response to the Syrian Army recapture of a crucial Aleppo airbase. We were travelling to Lattakia, but the only route available is south-east into the desert, close to Daesh lines and where vehicles are pretty much 'sitting ducks'; south-west to Hama; and then a circuitous route across the mountains passing within 5kms of Jabhat al Nusra lines in Idleb district.(All in all a journey that took 7 hours) The journey was made a little more worrying by the fact that our diligence in keeping our presence as quiet as possible had been 'blown' by the BBC when they reported our meeting with the President. We were grateful therefore for the armed escort for the journey. There was one worrying moment, when an unidentified helicopter sped straight towards us at high speed and low altitude from about a km distance - fortunately it was friendly and was obviously 'checking us out', but it highlighted for us the sheer vulnerability of our position.
Lattakia.. (A case-study for the West ?)
In Lattakia one enters a different world... a thriving coastal city, and heartland of the Alawite community. Lattakia has not been untouched by the war. There have been car bombs and attacks, and massacres in villages in the surrounding hills, most notably at Kessab in 2014. Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands injured. Meeting with the Governor of Lattakia province, he told us of some of the challenges facing the district. Most notable is the fact that Lattakia province - a small coastal area - hosts 1 million internally displaced people who have fled rebel-controlled areas. Of these, only 4000 live in Community Centres set up by the government. All the rest are living in houses provided by the government. All services are provided by the government free of charge: electricity, schools and health care. The Centres that exist are simple but provide the best possible conditions.
The Governor told us that many people had come from other cities to Lattakia because it is a comparatively safe area. Doctors, teachers, engineers, craftspeople and local people share their homes, food, water, schools with the families of soldiers who have gone to fight. Health care is free for all. He also pointed out that there hasn't been a single incident of violence against local people by the IDPs, whatever their background, and that they can move freely. He continued: "What is happening in Syria is not just terrorism attacking Syria, but it is terrorism that is attacking the whole world. Those countries who support the terrorists will suffer terrorism in their own countries. More dangerous than terrorism is the ideology that is affecting the next generation. Syria is committed to reconciliation. We recognise that we are all Syrians and we will always welcome those who have left even if they have been fighters against us. We are fighting terrorism on behalf of the whole world, and we shake hands with those countries who will help to end this terrorist war. I thank all people who stand with Syria and everyone who supports us with aid such as UN aid organisations to support the internally displaced, and the good people who come to see the reality for themselves.."
Internally Displace refugees and their stories:
In Lattakia we visited one of the Internally Displaced Centres, set up in the buildings of a sports complex. This had not been previously arranged. The residents were clearly surprised to see us and unprepared. Each family has a room. There are facilities for cooking as well as running water, showers and lavatories. The Government runs a kindergarten for the children with other small local NGOs, and the Patriarch of Antioch regularly brings milk. The people we met were from Idleb province and had been there since 1 January 2013. (These stories are very similar to the many stories that I have heard from IDPs in Lattakia, Homs, Damascus, and from refugees in Lebanon and Iraq).
The people in the pictures are those whose stories are shared below in their own words:
"Back home we were besieged for 2 years by Nusra, Ahrar al Sham, FSA and Nur ud Din Zenki." (We asked if they really meant that FSA 'the moderates' were also with the other groups, and they confirmed that was the case.) "The Jihadists stopped all food supplies and placed snipers in the mountains who shot us. We had to put the bodies of those who died in houses. We had no medical care for those who were wounded and we had to use clothes as bandages. In 2 months, 250 people were killed by snipers, mortars and tanks and at least 300-400 were injured - some with minor injuries and others with severe injuries. After the continuous siege we decided to escape from the village. As we ran, some went to the Turkish border, some to Idleb. 130 of those who fled to Idleb were captured and killed. Those who fled to Turkey had relatives who could helpf them. Then the Syrian government brought us here and provided this accommodation." We asked about the fact that the media say that the majority of the IDPs flee the brutality of the Syrian government. The speaker laughed. "It is the terrorists who are brutal. Before the conflict we had safety. I don't need the freedom the Jihadists are calling for as we already had freedom." We asked what he wanted to say to the international community. He laughed again: "Leave us alone. We've had enough of your 'freedom'! Let Syrians decide their own future."
Then the women told us their experiences:
Fadila: "We were besieged by terrorist groups supported by Turkey, attacking us with all kinds of weapons. My husband was helping the Army to defend us and he was killed by a sniper. I have 7 children and I hope we will return soon. The town I came from has 2 parts. One part helped the terrorists, but the majority resisted.;'
Fatima: "We were under siege by the terrorists, and on 24 December 2012 I fled with all the people of the village at night. Women were divided into 2 parts and we arrived safely. The rest were captured and killed, including my three children, aged 48,42 and 37. They all had children who are with their mothers under the protection of the government here."
Aysha: "I lost my son aged 25 and my husband aged 52. When we escaped they were captured and killed by beheading. My husband was caught, beaten and shot with 50 bullets. My brother and my brother's son were also killed in the same way.
Return journey from Lattakia to Damascus.
The return journey to Damascus from Lattakia via Homs was poignant. A few days previously 4 car bombs had exploded almost simultaneously at checkpoints in Homs, Tartous, Hassakeh and near Damascus. It is particularly shocking when you see the long queues of cars at these checkpoints, filled within innocent men, women and children, and the many Syrian soldiers around them, who are the husbands, sons, uncles and fathers of Syria. In each of these car bombs, over 40 people had died and dozens were injured. One of them had exploded at the very checkpoint where just the day before, we had stopped and talked with the soldiers - soldiers who were probably blown to pieces the following day. On our return from Lattakia, we passed the spot where one of the car-bombs had exploded, and also skirted an area where battles were continuing to take place in the Damascus countryside. What is shocking is that as far as we are aware, none of these car-bombs, or those who died, were mentioned by the international media. After all, it does not suit the narrative of heroic 'moderate' rebels, fighting the 'brutality' of a man who happens to be supported by so many...does it?
Meeting with Dr. Maria Saadeh, and Opposition Leader, Dr. Elian Mous’ad.
Back in Damascus, we had further meetings. It is always inspiring to meet with Dr. Maria Saadeh, a Christian, and former MP, she is working tirelessly to promote the development, involvement and training of local civil society groups involving people of all ages and all communities. She said that generally Syrians do not have the political awareness or experience they need (this has been a weakness of the political system in the past, but the capacity to develop it has also been all but destroyed by the conflict). This potential can only be developed in the context of peace. Dr. Saadeh is also very involved in working for the restoration of archaeological sites.in Syria.
We also met with the Leader of the International Opposition at the talks in Geneva: Dr. Elian Mous'ad. Dr. Mous'ad is a medical specialist in internal diseases, and joined the National Congress for a secular Syria. He stressed the fact that the internal opposition were happy to sit down with all parties in the conflict. He said that although Syria may be regarded by some as a dictatorship, what the USA and other countries are promoting and supporting would lead to a far worse dictatorship for the people of Syria. If certain nations do not stop arming ISIS and the militant groups, the war will not end. Rather than end the war, he believes the international community is wanting to maintain areas of influence in the interests of USA, Turkey and Saudi Arabia,
Like all the other internal opposition leaders in Syria that I have met, Dr. Mous'ad is bitter about what he describes as a 'media blackout' against the internal (unarmed and peaceful) opposition by the BBC, CNN and other media networks. (I too have heard them utterly dismissed in Parliamentary meetings in London). Rather, he says, the international media only quote the external opposition who are supporters of terrorist groups and who he says, do not represent the Syrian people.
The Ministry of Reconciliation
Of all the efforts in Syria being made to bring peace, the work of Reconciliation is one of the most significant and important. I have seen the work of the Reconciliation committee in Homs, and met with its members, all volunteers, who are led by the local Christian and Muslim faith leaders. These are people who are dedicated to ending violence, striving for the laying down of arms, and reconciliation between different factions in local communities. It can also be dangerous work.
Two years ago, I spent a morning with a Sheikh who two weeks later was shot dead when he went to talk to representatives of one of the 'moderate' groups to try and negotiate a cease-fire. This work, which is carried out in towns and villages all over Syria; has achieved 70 ceasefires; and we are told there are 4.5 milliion volunteers from all sectarian and faith groups within Syria. Yet, it is ignored by the western media, and dismissed by political and Church leaders outside Syria.
It has been my pleasure and privilege to meet the Minister for Reconciliation, Dr. Ali Haider on several occasions in the past few years. He has been a political activist since 1972, and he is the Leader of the Syrian Social National Party (SSNP). (He helpfully points out that there are two parties with this name in Syria; one which is fighting against the Government, and the other which supports the Syrian Army!) He stresses that he represents the latter!
As an Opposition leader, Dr. Haider's party was invited in 2012 to join the Government. As one who believes passionately in reconciliation, Dr. Haider was only willing to do so, if he could head up a 'Ministry of Reconciliation' - a request that was granted. He said it was the only post in Government that he would accept. For Dr. Haider, reconciliation is not an easy process. His own son was assassinated a few years ago by a terrorist group, simply for being his son.
The process of reconciliation he described as follows. It has two foci... Local reconciliation, and National Reconciliation:
1. We choose an area and initiate direct contact with fighting groups. If they refuse, we find local religious or other leaders to mediate.
2. The goal is to achieve a situation where the area is free of weapons and armed militias, and where local factions can start to dialogue and understand their differences.
3. Where there are foreign fighters we have to address this situation. If there are foreigners, the first step is to get them out of the area, because they are anti-reconciliation. (All Syrians we spoke to say that foreign fighters have no right to any say in the future of the country.)
4. Locals are given the choice to continue fighting with foreign fighters or to leave fighting and to join the Syrian Army or authorities such as the police. Many have chosen the former and lost their lives. Many others have chosen the latter. (But this is not reported).
5. The usual provision for civilians of free education, medical care and electricity (including to former fighters and their families) are restored. The presence of these is an indication of the success of the reconciliation.
6. We try to work on the much more difficult and painful issues of identifying the dead, the missing and the kidnapped. And we help the local Communications Committees to liaise with Government departments to help life to return to normal.
7. The ultimate target is to ease tensions and pave the way for national and international reconciliation.
The Minister said that some say that the reconciliation process can only begin once the fighting has ended. (An argument I have heard expressed in London). Dr. Haider points out though that there have been many successes, and that if we can save lives now through this process, then it is a positive development. He says: 'We seek, and have achieved, islands of peace in Syria." He also pointed out that the President is very supportive of this process. (This was confirmed by the President himself when we met with him.)
We asked the Minister about the Issues of Sieges. First of all, he pointed out that all sides are using siege as a means of warfare, but that the sieges by rebel factions are generally not reported. He also pointed out that many of the stories in parts of the western media have been proven to have been exaggerated. Again and again, as sieges have been lifted through the Reconciliation process, the numbers of people stated to have been under siege have been far fewer than reported. For example, the UN, ICRC and international media had claimed that there were 10.000 people besieged in Darraya. Despite denying this claim, the Government allowed in food for that many people. When the town was liberated, thanks largely to the reconciliation process, it was discovered that only 1826 people remained in the town, of which 1200 were fighters and most of the remaining were their family members. Not only that, but none of them appeared to have been starved to the point of 'eating grass'.
He pointed out that fighters are given the options of safe passage to other battle areas, or to lay down their weapons, and those that do are given temporary accommodation with their families. Sometimes, Dr. Haider admitted, the process does fail. This, he said, is often due to the intervention of foreign fighters who demand the citizens, who are keen to follow the process, to stop engaging in it. Consistently, citizens of towns that have been liberated from siege, have reported how when supplies were provided to the towns by the Government, UN and Syrian Red Crescent, these supplies have been controlled by the rebels, and either refused to the inhabitants in order to starve them and use them for international propaganda, or sold the supplies at exorbitant prices to the desperate inhabitants. He said: "I am not saying that everything is perfect. There is profound suffering. But the main cause is the armed groups who refuse to allow the UN and the ICRC to supervise distribution."
We asked about the prevention of access for Aid Organisations. He replied: 'In Aleppo, armed groups would only allow any distribution of aid if it comes directly to them. Also, they insist it comes from Turkey, and we know that many times aid has been mixed with weapons." (This is a key concern in the current ceasefire where the Government is understandably demanding that they are allowed to check the 'aid' that Turkey is so keen to send to its fighters in the city.)
We asked the Minister about the 'Moderate' armed opposition, and if they were responsive to these efforts. His reply reflected that of almost all the Syrians we have spoken to, whatever community they belong to: "The only difference between armed Opposition groups is their method of killing. One slaughters by beheading; the other by shooting. There is no 'moderate' armed opposition in Syria. We can prove this. Fighters trained by the US and in Turkey and Jordan come with huge numbers of weapons who pass them on to Daesh and other groups. All anti-tank missiles given to 'moderates' are given to Daesh... so the west is supplying terrorists. All the groups in Aleppo are fighting together under one leadership: Jabhat al Nusra." (This has been acknowledged In reporting in recent days). He continued: "Many of the atrocities committed by 'moderates' are as bad as those committed by Daesh, but the media does not cover these."
A personal comment: Having seen the commitment, courage and sincerity of some of these reconciliation volunteers 'on the ground', it astonishes me that this non-violent process that is achieving significant peaceful outcomes, is ignored and even criticised by political and faith leaders in Britain. I would appeal particularly to Church leaders to ask what the Christian response to these efforts should be, and to reflect on whether we really are being wise in the people we are talking to, and those (including many Church leaders in Syria) with whom we are refusing to seriously engage.
Meeting with the President
The furore that has followed our meeting with the President has (perhaps naievely?) surprised us. This was not a meeting that we advertised. It was a private 2 hour meeting, and the photographs that have been shown on the media were picked out from the Syrian media. We did not publicise the meeting ourselves. The pictures have clearly been used by TV networks and newspapers to discredit us, and in the case of the BBC, its broadcast was not only a deliberate attempt to discredit us even before we had a chance to respond, but caused added risk to our safety in Syria and was therefore highly irresponsible. The Syrian media were only in the room for about 3 minutes, and we allowed it. Why? Because frankly we did not feel that any meaningful 'propaganda' could be made of a few silent images of meetings .
Our meeting with the President was a courteous, frank, open debate. He made it absolutely clear that we could ask anything we liked, and we confronted him with all the main issues of which he is accused. His answers were clear, helpful, and challenging. He did not just dismiss things but acknowledged mistakes. And he was also very clear on his vision for a plural, peaceful, diverse Syria; the importance of the fight against terrorism; and the importance of political reform which could only come when there is peace.
I am not going to share his responses here. For they will probably be misquoted, dismissed, or used out of context, and used as 'propaganda' against me and against our visit. What I will say is that the President is an articulate leader who whether we like it or not, enjoys the support of a huge percentage of his people, and to deny this fact is to bury one’s head in the sand. No-one is innocent in this conflict, and it is unconscionable that the international community refuse to talk to the secular leader of a nation, whatever one thinks of him, whilst sitting down with and supporting leaders of terrorist groups, guilty of heinous crimes, who have no claim to representing the people of the country.
Moreover, is it not utter hypocrisy, that we who happily ally with brutal dictators and war criminals, (including supporters and funders of Daesh) when it suits our 'national' or 'economic' interests; who have been complicit in the destruction of numerous countries; and whose weapons have killed, and are killing, millions of innocent people around the world; dare to demonise one man, whilst supporting terrorists?
We wanted to witness to the fact that we believe that western governments are making a huge mistake in refusing to talk to the President of Syria. It has been written that no conflict has ever been resolved by refusing to speak to key parties within it, and that to engage with those key and relevant parties is essential if an effective and lasting peace is to be achieved. Jesus was criticised for mingling with ‘tax gatherers and sinners’, but rebuked those who criticised him. I therefore make no apology to anyone for having met with the President, and it was a privilege to do so.
What are our main findings?
1. The resilience and perseverance of the Syrian people enduring sustained and intense suffering.
2. The widespread existence of many initiatives by Government and local communities to address problems of war and poverty (e.g. Government and churches' initiatives to support IDPs and the provision of free health care).
3. Many Reconciliation initiatives at local and Government levels with that have positive outcomes for whole communities - for example, in enabling cease fires. The Minister for Reconciliation told us that there are Reconciliation initiatives in 70 cities, towns and villages involving 4.5 million citizens.
4. The devastating impact for all Syrian people of sanctions and the massive destruction and theft of the industrial infrastructure by armed groups.
5. The group has heard the consistent cry of Christians and Muslims for their places of worship to be respected and preserved and for a sympathetic response and engagement from their counterparts in the West.
6. The consistently positive working relations between Christians and Muslims in Government controlled areas in Syria.
7. Important and significant people with genuine voices of peace and reform are being prevented from visiting the UK and engaging with the British government and people.
8. The coverage by some media of the situation in Syria is not an accurate representation of many of the realities we have observed. ((For example, see the post on the Doctors Council in Aleppo).
9. The acute polarisation inherent in protracted war has all but destroyed the existing movement to implement greater democracy within the country. The majority of the city's population are profoundly impacted by the refusal of the international community to engage with Government-held areas of the city.
10. Many media narratives in the UK are refuted and disputed by the vast majority of people whom we have met.
11. Many people whom we met believe that the partisanship of many Western media narratives with the exclusion of most moderate voices will lead to the destruction of civil society and its replacement by violence, terrorism and another failed State as well as increased terrorism in other countries, including the UK.
12. Widespread concern was strongly conveyed over the UK's military support for Opposition forces which we are repeatedly told are not ' Moderate' but virtually indistinguishable from those fighting for the ideologies of ISIS and Al Nusra.
13. People are deeply concerned that the fundamental principle of End User Accountability is not being applied to all military support by the UK with disastrous results.
14. Without exception, every person we met believes that current UK and international policies of commitment to ‘Regime Change’ will destroy the pluralistic and diverse society which has existed for hundreds of years. They also passionately believe that Syrians should have the right to determine their own future and elect their own leadership.
15. While almost all media coverage in the West focuses on the devastating effects of military offensives by Government forces, in just one day during our visit (September 5th) the following attacks by the armed Opposition inflicting indiscriminate death and injury included:
Four car bombs at Homs with 12 killed and 30 injured; in Tartus 45 killed and 100 wounded; in the Damascus countryside, 3 killed and 12 wounded; in Hasaka, 6 killed and 20 wounded.
This is only a part of the daily toll of death and injury inflicted by Opposition forces on civilians, such as the shelling of the University in Aleppo by 4 missiles on the day we were there.
Already, we have been accused of spouting 'government propaganda'. No. We travelled to Syria to listen to the voices of Syrian people and we have met hundreds from across the respective communities in the country. Personally, this is my fifth visit to the country since April 2014, and the messages remain consistent and widespread. What we are sharing is not 'government propaganda' at all, but the voices of ordinary Syrians. Anyone who thinks otherwise is showing their ignorance!
I would repeat the cry of most Syrians we have met. Come and visit us and see the reality for yourselves. I have seriously wondered whether the enormous pressure put upon us by both government and Church figures NOT to visit Syria, is precisely because they do not want us to see and hear the truth, simply because it does not ally with the deliberate misrepresentation the international community is conveying to achieve their own agendas.
I hope and pray that any ceasefire leads to a true and lasting peace. I also hope and pray that the international community will adjust their policies to consider the real needs and wishes of the Syrian people, and that we do not use the 'provision of aid' as a means of rearming militant factions to further prolong the war. The goal of everyone should be the restoration of peace; the rebuilding of the country; the respect of plurality and development of reform; and the reconciliation and healing of souls, which will be the most difficult task. Enough of fuelling war. Let us end the policy of violence, and truly seek the path of peace, and listen first to the voices of the people themselves.
Revd Andrew Ashdown