The Loviisa Peace Forum’s Syria seminar brought together prominent thinkers and doers from Syria and Finland. The seminar provided fresh analysis of the situation of the conflict that is already in its third year, and with more than 10 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance.
The speakers offered insights to correct some of the most common misunderstandings or misinterpretations in the Western world and provided the audience with concrete advice on how to go about with helping the Syrian people.
Mr. Salam Kawakibi, who is chairing the Initiative for New Syria and works as the research director of the Arab Reform Initiative was astonished by the lack of solidarity that the Syrian situation has causing in the West since three years.
Kawakibi, who hails originally from Aleppo, told the audience that there are three common myths about Syria in the West that need to be deconstructed in order to understand the situation and act upon it.
The first is to talk of Syria (and the Assad family) as secular state. Instead of being a secular state, religion is extensively used and abused in the country to divide the communities. The regime wants people to follow a very obscure interpretation of the religion, in which all progressive voices are silenced. Artificial dichotomies such as the choice between groups such as ISIS (“extremist”) and the current regime (“protector”) is being imposed to the Syrians. Kawakibi noted that this is a cynical and powerful strategy.
Second myth according to Kawakibi is that Syria is being labelled as socialist, progressive leftist country. There is widespread and systematic corruption in the country that is being led by the current regime and the economy has in fact been privatized for the President and few people around him.
Third myth is that Syria is anti-imperialist, anti-US, whereas in reality the regime has worked to serve the US policy interest consistently. This has been most visible in Syrians relationship with Israel, which according to Kawakibi is far more friendly then the regime wants people to think.
Kawakibi noted that Syrian problems are often local and deep-rooted. Since 1958 Syrian people do not enjoy healthy social and civil life; there has been no political parties and neither the media nor the civil society has been free. More than five decades of such reality impacts deeply the society. However, the civil society is much more active and powerful than before. According to Kawakibi, while there were 800 Civil Society Organizations in 2011, currently there are more than 2 500 of them, and they are playing an increasingly important role in education, social support among others.
The role of external actors in Syria is often negative, according to Kawakibi. The Syrians have lost their faith in Western States. The US took swift action only when chemical weapons was being used by the regime. While these weapons have caused 1,000 deaths in comparison with 200,000 due to conventional weapons, chemical weapons provided a threat to Israel, hence the action by the US. Instead of states, the Syrians are putting their faith in the civil society organizations in the West.
Concluding, Kawakibi said that Syria is currently facing three main threats: the current regime; ISIS; and the indifference of the international community – 200,000 killed in Syria and no-one cares. Why?
Ms. Mania Alkhatib, a Syria activist who has been resident in Finland since 2001, said that ideology offered by ISIS or other extreme groups is foreign to Syrians. There are, however, other threats to Syria such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar, who do not want to see the popular uprising succeeding in Syria as it would provide an example for the domestic audience in those countries.
Alkhatib noted that the forced absence of the people from the public domain in Syria is visible currently in low capacity and lack of cooperation. Respectful people who could make peace are seen as threat be the regime, and they have been killed or expelled systematically. Yet some are still remaining. Alkhatib said that she and her colleagues have been making efforts to help the Syrians through using some of the lessons-learned from Finland. For example, project that has been run by Finnish Psychologists for Social Responsibility has proved successful to address some of the capacity gaps and practical problems such as kidnappings.
Mr. Armenak Tokmajyan, a researcher from University of Tampere has lived years in Syria. He focused in his intervention on promise of the local peace agreements in Syria. Between February 2012 and May 2014, there have been over 50 cases of local ceasefires in Syria by religious leaders, artists and other well-known people. They are concentrated in and around Damascus or Homs, but not in the North.
Tokmajyan noted that there are some general trends around the local ceasefires, or, reconciliation as the Government labels the processes. These are: 1) foreign fighters are not involved in the local talks 2) artists, actors and youth are supporting these initiatives 3) when ceasefire/reconciliation happens, then the parties try to establish joined checkpoints or other joint structures 4) opposition demands systemically the release of the prisoners 5) when reconciliation/ceasfire succeeds, food and aid flow increases and services such as electricity is better available.
Tokmajyan noted that the ceasefires can have negative consequences. The ceasefires are often fragile with no credible guarantees that the conflict would not erupt again. Then again oftentimes the opposition is forced to accept the terms offered by the regime for example when there is shortage on food. One kilogram of rice can cost 35 euros in Syria. Moreover, the ceasefires are being used as military strategy: reconciliation in one region looks to lead in military victories by the Government in adjacent regions as reconciliation nearby is eating up the common defenses. Yet, the ceasefires also have positive consequences: some IDP’s are returning back home; local opposition is gaining in experience; hope is being created through small positive steps (and in contrast to the failures in high-politics) and the fact that civilian population have better access to food.
Ms. Liisa Liimatainen, who has worked a quarter of a century for the Finnish Broadcasting Company and published books on Saudi-Arabia and Iran, places the Syrian crises in larger regional perspective. According to her, the Sunni Jihadism is a Saudi product. While Saudi-Arabia is under pressure to reform, it has declared against all changes of the so-called Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia is at odds with the US, and yet the US holds keys to unlock some of the most crucial regional locks where the Saudi’s are at the center. Liimatainen joined Kawakibi and others in expressing disbelief in lacking international attention towards the Syrian crisis.
In the Q & A part of the seminar, the audience posed questions on the ability of the opposition to represent genuinely the Syrians and the choice between bottom-up approaches in contrast with the high-level peace initiatives. Kawakibi told that no-one knows exactly the number of the opposition groups in today’s Syria, yet, despite obvious representation problems, in the absence of popular elections the current model of claiming representation is the best option. The speakers, including the moderator Professor Tuomo Melasuo, said that Syria needs both bottom-up and top-down peace initiatives, regardless of the less-than-stellar track record of the latter.
Text: Jussi Ojala
Photos (cc): Jouni Viitala (more photos from here).