Between a rock and a hard place in Syria

By Harry Hagopian
February 4, 2015

This month (February 2015) Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, went to Damascus, Syria, where he interviewed President Bashar al-Assad. It is linked below, along with a supplementary videocast from Tepperman.

There have been other journalists, including a few Western ones, who have previously interviewed the Syrian president. So the fact that he did it was not really the major feat for me. Rather, it was the long trek that took him to Syria via Beirut (with all the behind-the-scenes action) as well as his own assessment and conclusions after the hour-long interview.

He actually went to the People’s Palace and spoke to the man who has been at the heart of so much blood and gore over the past four years. It takes guts to get to this huge and rectilinear building and is, in my opinion, one of the best methods – especially for a keen eye and knowing mind – of sussing out the state of mind of the president.

To situate my comments on that exchange, let me first share a few spine-chilling statistics from a Syrian site that reflect a gruesome reality today. Just read these figures contemplatively – take your time – and note the number of zeros.

* Over 250,000 killed, including some 20,000 children
* Over 1.1 million injured and thousands maimed
* Over 11,000 tortured to death
* Over 5,000 (reported) cases of rape and sexual violence
* Over 250,000 detained
* Over 13 million displaced
* Over 2 million properties destroyed

We need to recall that the Syrian protests initially erupted in Daraa (in the south of Syria along the border with Jordan) in March 2011. They were peaceful and consisted ab initio of some schoolchildren drawing anti-regime graffiti on the wall. They then ballooned peacefully, still without arms, until the regime attempted to crush them with all its brutish might as if the demonstrators were not Syrian citizens but flies who had to be swatted away.

Such unsparing brutality eventually 'weaponised' those protests, neutering the so-called 'moderate', albeit hapless and dissonant, rebels and then also radicalising the country with the introduction of Al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State (ISIS) into the overall imbroglio.

Back to Jonathan Tepperman and his piece. His assessment of the Syrian president is complex. He suggests that Bashar Assad is either in deep denial, is blithely complacent, or else is deceptive and mendacious. He also adds that he is unrepentant and not ready for a settlement. Many keen observers of the Syrian scene already suspected – I am eschewing the use of 'knew' here – that the president has been ably clinging to power despite wreaking so much havoc. What makes it much more chilling is that the world community, let alone some cross-sections of his own population, support him.

I have often stated in interviews or write-ups that the majority of the Syrian population today is caught between a rock and a hard place. There is a regime that has committed untold crimes against its population and would rather destroy the country than hand it over to others who might perhaps exercise better governance. Then there are ruthless thugs who belong to various groupings such as ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra rampaging across the country as they kill, behead, abduct and blackmail Syrians and other nationals. Caught up amid both extremes, it is the disempowered and broken human mass that is paying the stiff price today, since the regime is indifferent to suffering, while other groups seem to actually relish making others suffer.

It is a shame that we in the hard-fought democracies, as well as many Arab 'brothers' in various countries, allowed Syria to descend into such Stygian depths and devastating un-realities. Yet, despite our knowledge of what the Syrian people have endured over four years, the world has simpered politically just as others have whimpered too, and we have willy-nilly supported one side or the other in our proxy wars as we shielded ourselves and our interests from the fallout. We have used ordinary men, women and children as political dross. And today, we find ourselves in a place where earlier solutions are no longer applicable too – even if they were still available – given the amount of blood, rancour, destruction or meltdown.

The appalling statistics on Syria scream out the colossal – in some sense irredeemable – debt we owe Syrians, whilst Tepperman’s interview and article reinforce the fact that Syria today is facing two equally monstrous and paranoid evils. Will we ever repay this debt and retrieve some self-respect? After all, supporting one side at the expense of the other is a non-answer: as the proverb claims all too well, two wrongs simply don’t make a right, even in such murky political waters.

* Jonathan Tepperman's interview with President Assad: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/i-interviewed-bashar-al-assad-abo...

* Syria's President Speaks: Behind the Scenes With Jonathan Tepperman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHEjuPr_HJs

A longer version of this article, 'Two wrongs in Syria don’t make a right', appears on the Lebanon NOW news and media site: https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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