An Open Letter to President Bashar Al-Assad

By Harry Hagopian
October 31, 2015

HE President Bashar Al-Assad

Presidential Palace

Al-Rashid Street

DAMASCUS

Syrian Arab Republic

 

28 October 2015


Dear Mr President:


Allow me to introduce myself. I am ethnically Armenian and faithfully Christian, and my professional career has spanned the disciplines of law, ecumenism and politics at different stations of my life. To put it in a lawyerly format, I am the man on the Clapham omnibus – an expression that you would surely be familiar with from your many years in London.

I had wished to address this letter to you in 2011 during one of my genial coffee conversations with your erstwhile ambassador in London. I had also hoped to visit Syria with a high-level Church delegation, and even do a spot of tourism to the archaeological sites that are under threat today. But things did not work out quite well: not only has Syria been at war for almost five years, but much of its archaeology – not to mention its long-suffering humanity - has been scarred too.

However, having been involved with the broader MENA region for well over a decade before the initial popular uprisings in Tunisia started with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on 4 January 2011, I allow myself the human right to address this Open Letter to you today in the candid hope that I can express some of what I - and no doubt countless others – feel as a result of witnessing the ruination of Syria. Mind you, I would have liked to hand this letter to you personally, but I suspect that any attempt these days for me to travel to Syria might put me in great peril. Not only would it be viewed unfavourably by our own EU authorities, I am far more worried about my real chances of survival in Syria itself. After all, given my longstanding beliefs about what I deem to be the egregious errors in responding to the peaceful demonstrations of March 2011 in Deraa, I would guess that your moukhabarat agents and shabiha moles would be more than ready – and not with much compunction either – to host me in one of the Tadmur-like notorious prisons. I cannot even look for succour outside the areas that your army – well, let us call it your army - controls in the country since my fate would conceivably be even worse if I fell into the homicidal hands of those millenarian jihadists or self-obsessed takfiris who would not only be too ready to torture me but also isolate my head from my shoulders.

Mr President, I started this letter by qualifying myself as an Armenian and a Christian for a clear reason. You see, I keep being told by some learned colleagues that Christians – in Aleppo, Der Zor, Kessab or Damascus – are your unflinching supporters. I also keep being reminded by some church hierarchs and their institutional mouthpieces that all Christians are unflinchingly supportive of your presidency of Syria – if not always of new 'holy wars'. Mind you, some of their voices have been muted over the past year and I still want to believe that many of those Christian communities adhere to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – the Beatitudes – about dignity, justice, freedom, self-respect and economic rights. As for the political elites, we both know alas that they can be naïve if not duplicitous and that they tend to alter their expedient views according to the latest political weathervane! Despite the colonial history of the West, or those veteran Arabists, diplomats and analysts who wrestle with the variegated realities of the MENA, most politicians rarely fail to allow their instincts to take the wrong decisions based on wrong assumptions, and as such follow the wrong turns or draw the wrong red lines!

Mr President, given President Putin’s decision to engage Russia more proactively in the wars that are being fought on Syrian soil, let alone your lightning visit to the Kremlin in Moscow earlier this week, I cannot but think of those five unsparing years of suffering inflicted upon a brave people let alone of the appalling statistics of deaths, refugees and internally-displaced persons. Let me also mention those barrel bombs that have wrought indiscriminate havoc upon the civilian population and contributed to turning off 83 per cent of the lights in Syria. How could anybody witness the meltdown of this country that traces its rich heritage to the pre-Christian era and not be moved profoundly by it? How can I hear those stories, watch those images of the White Helmets saving lives and not be affected – and I am not even the president?

If the truth were told, I welcomed your return to Damascus from London when you were gifted the presidency in 2000. I thought that everything about you would help engineer reform and progress for the country. You were young, highly educated, with a perspective of the West, and decidedly secular. So I thought that you would open up Syria to the outside world and prove to many other rulers of the MENA that one does not need to be ruthless, confessional and wielding a rod of steel in order to be successful. This does not of course mean democracy as we understand it – or struggle to practise it – in the West since it would be laughed out of many MENA diwanniyat as the project of activists, intellectuals, NGO’s or teahouses but certainly not of governments. And much as I refute this Orientalist premise that democracy should be alien to the Arab World, I would add that it depends on how we understand or apply democracy – anywhere in the world.

But instead of heralding an era of openness, benevolence or gradual emancipation of rights, look at the frightening legacy to date with over 250,000 deaths, over 4 million refugees and a little fewer than 8 million internally displaced Syrians.

Mr President, whether you agree with my succinct analysis or summarily dismiss it, is it not the decent thing to move sideways in order to spare the further breakdown of the country and salvage what has remained from further wreckage?

Let me be quite clear. I reject any large-scale deinstitutionalisation of Syria that is comparable to the disastrous de-baathification of Iraq that was applied over a decade ago. Furthermore, I think I am pragmatic enough and also conscious enough of realpolitik exigencies to add that you would not pack your bags and leave next month. But given how you publicly profess to love Syria, do you not think you could help implement the Geneva accords that would painstakingly initiate a transition into a more inclusive Syria, unshackle the country for a different system of governance and release all communities from bitter polarisation? Even if you feel personally wronged or misunderstood, as you might well do, surely the sign of true leadership let alone of great patriotism is to put the good of the many above that of the few? Syria needs to rid itself of those Daesh radical elements that your administration helped foment in the past. Yet not even this could happen unless your extended political family stop considering Syria their fiefdom. Could you not desist from further divide et impera tactics and relinquish power so the majority of Syrians caught between a rock and a hard place can sit together and try to fashion out their future? The solution to Syria must be tailored by Syrians – as Staffan de Mistura opines constantly if also a tad helplessly – so is it not time to stanch the human haemorrhage and give others a chance? Is it not time to make that most difficult of gestures and help Syria by stating that you are ready to relinquish power?

Mr President, your move away from the presidency does not mean that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi or another self-appointed caliph would lead the country. Far from it! That still is not the only choice facing Syria today although the space for a unitary, peaceful and inclusive country is closing rapidly. Call me naïve and even irrelevant, but I still seek the third way after those five truly dreadful years. I am sure there is still time to save what remains of Syria whilst simultaneously negotiating a deal that firewalls you and Asma, your extended family and acolytes, from any recourse to the International Criminal Court. In the final analysis, Obama, Putin, Rouhani, Hollande, Erdogan et al cannot become the saviours of Syria. Like others, they are primarily – almost understandably as Lord Palmerston opined once – interested in their own political dividends. Syrians alone can save Syria, but they have to be given a chance at long last.

 So assuming you still have your say in the future of Syria, would you be willing to consider its future good?

 Humbly yours,

 Harry Hagopian

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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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