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Christians in the Muslim World

Syrians abroad and the entire civil society: revive the room for negotiation, put a stop to arms

Everyone is concerned about the situation in Syria, but it is not clear as to how to proceed: military intervention, humanitarian intervention. What do you propose?



This is what Pope Benedict XVI also asked for on 12 February, but it seems that nobody really listened to him. The launching of his very appeal once again: before the worsening of the civil war in Syria, we foster the role of civil society, encouraging negotiation and stopping the use of arms. And for the very reason that the room for negotiation in Syria has been reduced, we promote workshops among Syrians living abroad, in such a way that they can meet, listen and speak to one another.



Why should what failed in Syria work abroad?



Because abroad the Syrians live in democracies and are not shooting at each other. In democratic contexts abroad and thanks to the help of mediators, the Syrians are able to pinpoint the principles to get out of the present civil war and rebuild peace. It is important for them to sit around the same table and look at themselves in the face. Of course everybody knows perfectly well that the interests and ambitions of Turkey, Iran, the Arab League, NATO or Russia exist, but in the end, taking all this with a grain of salt, what do the Syrians want? To kill each other right to the bitter end? They should let the international community know about this: ‘whoever wants to give us the arms needed is welcome’. Is this really what they want? I do not think so.



The referendum on multipartyism organised by the government has recently been held. What is your assessment of it?



In a certain way the recent referendum means two things: the first is that the Ba’ath regime has dissolved itself, forty years of a single-party system have officially come to an end and this is a significant fact; the second is that the principle of a pluralist democracy, even if unsteady, is now presented as a national objective, an aspect that seems like a good basis for official talks.



How many turned out to vote?



The percentages do not count, and in this respect we are still ‘old fashioned’. The subject of the referendum is significant and not the shape that it took.



It is one month since your extensive interview with us. How have things changed since then?



In the direction that had been foreseen, and this is not something to be happy about. With respect to a month ago the situation has worsened considerably, the violence is increasingly brutal, while the international community is blocked by mutual vetoes. It does not seem that foreign armed intervention is wanted, since this would in fact become a war between NATO and Russia, but the two sides fighting here continue to get arms from the outside. At local level there is faith in the armed struggle, by the two sides. It is absolutely essential to find the way to protect the civilian populations and to ensure fundamental human rights are respected. The risk is that, with the present alliance between the West and the Sunni majority, if the option to arm the opposition is coherently pursued, there will be a loss of national unity. In the meantime, a serious loss of security is recorded on the ground. The Christians find themselves in the middle of this. They seek refuge in the safer areas, like Damascus and Aleppo and go abroad as soon as they can. A terrible tragedy is taking place.



The monastery where you live is not far from Homs, the town where the most violent clashes have been.



Our area, half way between Damascus and Homs is extremely sensitive. It is in fact the jugular vein of the capital. Here violent clashes are foreseen if a ceasefire is not negotiated very soon. Unfortunately the room for negotiation gets narrower and the number of people embracing the party of so much the better so much the worse increase. The violence has confirmed everyone in their own idea. It must also be considered that it is the whole of Syria that is being used as a ring in the anti-Iranian question: it would be necessary to go to Teheran and Moscow to have peace talks. Of course, in its various compositions, the people has plenty to say too.



As the expression of a minority, why does the regime insist on the course of military confrontation with the majority? Isn’t this a suicide policy considering the ratio of forces?



The point is that the government thinks that it is leading a group of various non-minority forces as a whole. 30% of Syrians belong to one of the different minorities. But there is another 30% (the percentages are obviously indicative) of Sunnis who do not want an Islamic state. To represent the conflict as a fight of the ‘few’ against the ‘many’ is to simplify matters. Even to think of interpreting the conflict only on a confessional basis is misleading.


It is also true that, the more the violence grows, the more the civilian scope is ‘sucked up’ by extreme solutions, while it is necessary to give it breathing space again and a voice to civil society. In the long term the repression wears away the consensus of that 30% of Sunnis that are not hostile to the present government on principle. Now a phase of political pluralism has begun and this must anyway be fostered. On the other hand, the risk of the Islamists gaining power must not stop the tension in the direction of a real political sharing, an authentic consensual democracy.