Syria. A point of no return?
Father Paolo Dall'Oglio talks to Antonella Vicini 9 January 2013

With a speech effectively reiterating the status quo and a UN report stating that since March 15th 2011 over 60,000 people have died in the bloodshed in Syria, President Bashar al Assad and the United Nations have presented the current situation in the country. Speaking from the House of Culture in Damascus in the presence of his supporters, al Assad proposed a three-stage plan that basically eliminates all revolutionary forces, described as “puppets of the West”, while in recent days the United Nations published a series of disquieting figures. As the military offensive increased, about 5,000 people, mainly civilians (about 76%), have died every month since July. This is only partial data and the report is entitled the Preliminary Statistical Analysis of Documentation of Killings in Syria. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, emphasised that the figures are higher than expected, adding that it was really “shocking.” The figure is even higher than the 45,000 deaths reported by groups linked to the opposition.

Torture, attacks on protected locations, the use of forbidden weapons and widespread violations of human rights were also reported in a recent 2012 document from the International Commission of Inquiry for Syria led by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, describing a conflict that has become increasingly sectarian and has now also extended to minorities initially “inclined to adopt a neutral and non-hostile attitude” and one in which there is the presence of foreign combatants “with their own agenda.” “The war of attrition that is being fought in Syria has brought immeasurable destruction and human suffering to the civilian population. As the conflict drags on, the parties have become ever more violent and unpredictable, which has led to their conduct increasingly being in breach of international law.”

“The sole way to bring about an immediate cessation of the violence is through a negotiated political settlement which meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. These words complete the update for September to December 2012 probably simplifying the complexity of the situation on the ground.

A very recently published United Nations report speaks of 60,000 people having died since the beginning of this conflict. What are your thoughts?

I cannot assess the number of people who have died, nor am I competent on this subject. What I have observed, however, is that uprisings usually tend to report a high death toll for propaganda reasons. The UN, however, is using reasonably reliable sources and has come up with an even higher number of deaths (15,000 more than the 45,000 already reported, Editor’s note). This does not surprise me, but I fear that when all is said and done, when the dead are counted, the death toll will be even higher. It is not possible to drop bombs month after month on civilians and then report just a few victims, this is even worse from a moral perspective. In Syria no action is taken to attack resistance leaders, but only to kill Syrians en masse. The Assad regime’s ethical code is either with Assad or the destruction of the country.

How do you explain the basic absence and delays of the international community regarding Syria?

Once the Islamist danger in Syria had been outlined by the regime and its supporters, the international community felt legitimised to maintain a wait-and-see attitude, since there will be no democracy in Syria, there is no reason to work for the democracy of Syrians. We are faced with a paradox; this attitude has created the conditions for the spreading of radical Islamism.

Overall, the revolution judged the initial operations of these groups as a plot against the Syrian state. I never fell into this trap, but manipulation guided by television is no novelty in the Syrian scenario¸ and there have been regime manipulations of extremist cells. Without oversimplifying matters, I would say that the activities of Islamic extremism were, from the very beginning, part of the state’s hypothesis that the uprising was simply terrorism funded by foreigners. When this diversified, complex and effective political area became capable of taking the initiative and leading the uprising, those groups provided the international community with an excuse for inaction.

It was a incredible miscalculation and those same groups have blown-up in the hands of the regime.

The report from the United Nations International Commission of Inquiry for Syria says that, given the situation on the ground, a military solution to this conflict is now virtually impossible and hopes there will be negotiations.

At the moment a negotiated solution seems improbable. The regime wants negotiations to the extent that it needs more time to continue its systematic destruction of Syria, thereby entering phase three, attempting to regain control over the country. I expected the regime in Damascus to try and divide the country along the Orontes River having acknowledged that it cannot control everything. Faced with a widespread uprising, the only possible solution would have been a Syrian Kosovo, relying on the loyalty of the Alawites and other minorities in the area such as, for example, the Christians. Such a solution would be acceptable to lran’s Shiites as the lesser evil. For the moment this has not happened and in revolutionary circles it is said that it cannot happen, because rebels have now infiltrated that area and such a division is no longer an option for the regime.

Why was the secessionist option not chosen when it was still a possibility?

In my opinion there are two reasons. One is psychological. Bashar al Assad has always said “I am a man from Damascus and not from the Alawite mountain.” His cultural and mental framework consist of the whole of Syria. Paradoxically, in this sense Assad is “non-sectarian.” He uses his sect for his own power, but power that does not extend to the whole of Syria is of no interest to him. There is a rift between his idea of himself and reality.

The second hypothesis is based on the idea that the regime is a complex organisation, divided between the Baath ideology, obviously not pro-secession, and the beliefs of the Alawites. These two ideologies have been distancing themselves one from the other for some time, but not to the extent of geographically dividing the country.

You have spoken of the need to at least govern the areas that are now free…

Just two days ago I posted a message in Arabic on Facebook asking the coalition’s leader to set up a transition government immediately in the freed territories. This should be done immediately since it would avoid giving the impression that the revolution in Syria is now entirely in the hands of illegal and clandestine Islamic extremism and would begin to return the state to the Syrians. There are practical issues to be addressed such as the lack of water, electricity, jobs and salaries….

Is it too soon in your opinion to discuss the future of minorities?

It is not too soon, on the contrary we should discuss it now, but it is hard to predict the future precisely due to the lack of international assistance. There is the hope that the revolution will have self-governing capabilities allowing the country to remain united within the framework of a reconciliation effort hoped for by all the Syrian democratic insurgents. There are only a few extremist military groups that seem to be threatening the destiny of minorities, although they have never attacked Christians specifically.

In recent days, however, there was a report on this subject from Sister Agnes Mariam (a Carmelite and the Mother Superior at the Deir Mar Yocoub monastery in Qara, well-known for her serious criticism of the insurgents, Editor’s Note).

Sister Agnes is very careful when she speaks and this is – and I wish to repeat and emphasize this – only a clever example of the Syrian regime’s lying manipulative work. Sister Agnes states she is the head of a movement that is not present in the country and is called Musalaha (Reconciliation, Editor’s Note) and this is a serious problem because her interpretation of events is selective and she believes the revolution is terrorism!

What is your opinion of a possible post-Assad Syria after almost two years of war?

I believe that democratic Syria’s profound nature will be an extremely interesting backdrop for the civilised evolution and political development of the Arab Islamist area. Syria has a cultural dignity that differs from Gulf Islamism.

That is my hope, that is what I am committed to. At the end of January I will participate in the Syrian revolution’s committees that are going to try and avoid massacres when victory comes and in February I hope to return there. Syria cannot win this revolution leaving 100,000 dead Alawites on the battlefield. One will have to find an ideological and also theological way of avoiding all revenge against the Alawites and all criminals must be judged fairly.

Translated by Francesca Simmons