Respect for diversity key to Syrian Peace
Luca Steinmann 27 April 2018

Maria Saadeh is a former independent member of the Syrian parliament (2012–2016). She doesn’t belong to any political party but became active in politics at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in order to represent the Christian community inside state institutions. Nowadays she travels all over the world to represent Syrian civil society at public conferences. She recently visited Milan, right after a trip to Sochi, where she has spent quite a bit of time in recent months and where she is following the Syrian peace talks being held there. While in Milan, ResetDOC had the chance to interview her to find out more about her role as an observer and to get her take on the prospects for peace. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Maria Saadeh, you have had the chance to observe the Syrian peace talks in Sochi up close. Russia, Iran, and Turkey have agreed to establish a commission to write a new constitution for Syria. It seems that these states are seeking to carve Syria into different spheres of influence. Turkey is already taking control of northern Syria, seeking to expel the PKK from Afrin; Russia has consolidated its military bases along the Mediterranean coast; Iran is moving Shiite troops along the border with Israel. Does this strong foreign presence on Syrian soil not herald the de facto end of a sovereign Syria?

The UN special envoy to the talks in Sochi, Staffan de Mistura, said that the commission that will be created does not have the removal of the president Bashar al-Assad as a goal. On the contrary he said that the commission will include all the components of Syrian civil society and not just people selected by Russia, Iran and Turkey. For these reasons I believe these talks represent a great opportunity for the Syrian government to regain control of the entire country, to put an end to the fighting and to enable the citizens to go back to normal life in cooperation with its international allies and with the United Nations. A partition of Syria is not negotiable; we are negotiating with our allies and with some important international players on how to get back control of all our land so our citizens can start a normal life again.

The Syrian Negotiation Committee (SNC), the official UN-recognised opposition abroad, is boycotting the Sochi talks, arguing that these negotiations are controlled by Russia. Do you consider the SNC a reliable speaker for future negotiations?

This opposition is connected directly with some terrorist groups active in Syria such as Jaich el Islam; it is also connected with some of those foreign states that attacked the Syrian government by trying to divide the Syrian society. Their reactions to the negotiations reflect the positions of these foreign states and show what the Syrian war really is: not a civil war but an international proxy war fought on Syrian territory. The international actors that are taking part in it are now showing their real faces. These players, especially the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, started to fight in Syria through terrorist groups that they supported, armed and financed. Now that these groups are being defeated by the Syrian army and its allies, their sponsors are now forced to show up directly in order to protect their interests in Syria.

Is there the chance for the development of a new independent opposition inside Syria that can take part in the political life of the country?

There was no opposition in Syria before the war. There was just one party deciding for all the country. For this reason, opposition could only develop abroad, being helped and financed by foreign countries. These so-called opposition groups abroad were controlled from their birth by their sponsors and when the crisis started they began to act as “cat’s paws” for foreign interests inside Syria. They were used to try to divide Syrian society so as to attack the government, which was impeding their political agendas. Their main problem is that they don’t have a real connection inside Syria and among Syrians. We are now seeing that most of Syrians today indeed stand on the side of Bashar al Assad. The Syrian people saw the so called moderate rebels killing people in their country. They see now a war trying to destroy what they love the most: the coexistence of different sects, ethnic groups and religious faiths on the same ground and all loyal to the same national flag. The regime is giving equal right to all the citizens, no matter which religion they belong to. Opposition can only develop organically inside Syria and should not try to divide our society with the excuse of fighting a dictatorship by importing Western democracy, as has been the case until now.

Actually, Syria had a strong and also violent internal opposition before the war: the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is no negotiation possible with them. Secularism is a core value in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood uses religion to achieve political and ideological goals; they played a crucial role in preparing the ground to destabilize Syria during the 10 years before the war. Let me tell you my personal experience with that. I was teaching at the University of Damascus from 2001 till 2010. In the first year, just 10 percent of my female students were veiled. In the last year, just 10 percent were not. This was mainly due to the fact that many Muslim schools for girls were created in those years. At the beginning we didn’t know exactly what was happening inside. Then, we found out they were teaching the girls to marry young, have many children and to raise their kids in such a way that new generations of young are inculcated in their extremist ideology.

Most of the founders of the Italian Muslim community were members of the Muslim Brotherhood that escaped from Syria and Egypt in the ‘80s after persecution by local governments.

It is for sure dangerous for Italy to have the Muslim Brotherhood on its soil, while accepting migrants with Muslim backgrounds in the country. Italy should understand what Syria already has: that it is important to respect all religions, but it is dangerous to let people to use religion as a political tool. This can bring people to extremism. What I am saying is not just related to the Muslim Brotherhood but also to other groups, such as the Salafists.

Many Syrian citizens in Europe are targets of the propaganda of the Salafists, especially in Germany. Do you consider it a risk to European security?

For sure it is. It is way easier to influence people without strong roots and with a weak connection with the history of the country in which they live, like most refugees in Europe are. The ideology of the terrorists that we have in Syria is shared by different radical groups in the West. Why do you think that ISIS and Al Nusra destroyed Palmira or Maaloula? Because their goal was to destroy our historical heritage; they wanted our new generations to think that there is no link between them and their history, that they were not bequeathed anything of value from our ancestors. This is the hardest blow they struck in trying to destroy our society. After its destruction they wanted to create a new society without geographical borders, without history, without tradition and without any connection with our past. This ideology will not come to an end with the defeat of ISIS and Al Nusra. It is spread out in the Middle East as well as in the West. It can be defeated just by reminding people that they have a land, a heritage, an ancient history and a country they belong to. For this reason, it is in the interest of both Syria and the European countries to enable Syrian citizens to return, to rediscover their history and their culture and to have a future inside Syria.

Not all Syrians abroad want to return to their homeland. Bashar al Assad is supported by many people inside the country but the great majority of the Syrians abroad, especially those in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Germany, have stated they fled from the Syrian government and not from the terrorists.

This is the consequence of some mistakes made inside Syria but also of seven long years of violent conflict and the propaganda imbibed by most Syrian people abroad. Before the war there were certain problems in Syria and the authorities made a lot of mistakes, but the government was able to protect all the minorities and guarantee a secular society. Our internal problems are for us to solve; foreign actors have no business upsetting the delicate balance between the over 100 ethnic and religious groups that compose Syrian society. One of the main tools for Syria now is to enable our citizens abroad to go back to Syria, to create for them working and social opportunities to contribute to rebuilding the country and its social cohesion.

You are presenting the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood as two big enemies for any secular country. But Syria welcomed Hezbollah – which is not a secular movement and is not a part of Syrian society – onto its soil.

Syria is the frontline for Hezbollah. The principle of this war is not only attacking Syria but attacking many states one after one in order to change the balance of the entire region. After Syria, Lebanon and Iraq would be attacked, their national security is in danger as ours is. I don’t fear the presence of Hezbollah in Syria because Hezbollah is already as much a part of Syria as it is of Lebanon. Lebanon, Palestine, part of Jordan, part of Turkey and part of Iraq are natural pieces of Syria, which were separated from us by the Sykes–Picot agreement. We all share the same history and culture. We all belong to the same family. For this reason, it is so obvious that Syria always stands for Palestinians and it is so obvious that Hezbollah stands with Syria now.

Should Israel fear the new regional balance that Syria seeks to create in the peace talks at Sochi?

Israel has a problem with the entire region in which it is settled. They were able to create a state but have never been able to integrate themselves in our regional environment, where hundreds of ethnic groups and religious confessions coexist inside different national states. Israel is a new existing entity; its people come from different national backgrounds and have just a few shared values beyond religion. So they had to create a state based on Jewish religious factors, which is a value that does not belong to our region and is shared only by some minoritarian extremist groups, the same that the Western countries and their allies used to attack Syria. To find legitimation inside this region they are trying to divide our societies and to bring to power sectarian groups in each country. They supported and still support some Christian groups in Lebanon; they support the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Syria; they are allied with Saudi Arabia which is a modern state based on religion. They will fear every coalition that enables the coexistence of different people but all loyal to the same national flag, which is instead one of the main values of Syria.

Credit: Louai Beshara / AFP