"Long Odds to Save Their Country"
As we begin a new week here in Damascus, many citizens, across a fairly broad
spectrum, appear to be backing, and even exhibiting a kind of pride for, their
diplomatic team at the Geneva II conference. It might sound flippant for this
observer to suggest that returning to Damascus, after recent events in his
neighborhood of Haret Hriek in Dahiyeh, South Beirut, sort of feels like
arriving at last in a relatively peaceful, stress-free locale. But others have
described the crossover from Lebanon in similar terms. Damascus is currently
more quiet and "normal"-appearing than I have found it for more than two years.
It appears that Damascenes, to a person, despite differing political views, are hoping for breakthroughs that just might bring an end to the carnage that has left virtually no one untouched in a conflict that has driven 9.5 million people from their homes, killed close to 140,000, and resulted in more than 18,000 being missing. It is a major humanitarian crisis in the birthplace of civilization, and it has been felt both within Syria and among its neighbors.
At the Set al Cham (Grandmother of Damascus), a home-style-cooking small restaurant that sits around the corner from the Dama Rose Hotel, close to where a rocket hit 30 yards outside the front entrance of the Five Star establishment last week and ignited half a dozen cars and shattered windows in what is labeled a "security zone," animated conversations about the Geneva II conference can be heard drifting through the dining room. Whether a hoped-for ceasefire can be achieved is the major question on most people's minds, but all agree it is the essential first step to ending the carnage ravaging the country. The apparent imminent release of women and children from the more than 500 families who have for many months been trapped in the old city of Homs, Syria's third largest city, has created some inchoate hope. UN Mediator Lakhdar Brahimi says men also will be allowed to leave once their names are vetted to prevent "terrorists" from slipping out. It is a common security measure in this region during siege lifts and mass evacuations. The population leaving Homs will be received immediately by volunteers from the courageous and deeply humanitarian Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARCS) and other humanitarian organizations that have stockpiled necessities close by. As in the case with Yarmouk Palestinian camp in south Damascus--itself still under tight siege this evening with snipers on rooftops scanning the streets and alleys below--baby formula is one of the foodstuffs most in demand, due to the fact that malnourished mothers generally are no longer able to produce milk.
With respect to Yarmouk camp--of grave concern here in Syria as it is internationally--this observer had an informative three-hour meeting today at UNWRA HQ on Mezzeh Autostrda with UNRWA Field Education Program Director Mohammad Ammouri and Abdullah Al Laham, Deputy Director of UNWRA in Syria. These gentlemen, Mr. Ammouri from Tantura village near Haifa, and Mr. Al Laham from Bethlehem, Occupied Palestine, devote their full schedules these days trying to get aid into Yarmouk and to bringing those under siege out. Both gentlemen gave this observer some reason to believe that finally an agreement, after more than half a dozen failed ones, might just stick tonight so that, tomorrow, UNWRA trucks, waiting nearby with more than 40,000 aid parcels, can finally enter. Each aid box contains rice, sugar, flour, dried milk, cooking oil and other basics, and is designed to feed a family of five for two weeks. Families up to eight in number will get one and one-half UNWRA boxes every two weeks. Syrians trapped in Yarmouk, who number more than 2000, will also receive the emergency parcels from UNWRA with no questions asked. When this observer asked him if UNWRA distributed the well-known World Food Program (WFP) family aid parcels, as do the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), Mr. Al Laham raised his eyebrow a bit and did a sort of double-take. "No! No! my dear," he said. "You see, we at UNWRA have our own aid parcels. In fact, ours are bigger and better." He then smiled a bit sheepishly.
Three days ago UNWRA believed it would finally be allowed to enter Yarmouk with aid, but it turned out that only about 3% of the aid parcels could be distributed. This is because most aid is still being blocked by various militia, who themselves appear to be rather well fed, financed, and armed. We should know by January 28 whether substantial aid will be allowed in and whether dying residents can be evacuated. This observer was advised that UNWRA planned, literally, to have the engines of its trucks idling the night before, so that, if they did get a green light, they would be ready to move into the besieged camp on less than a minute's notice.
In Damascus one senses that much of the population believes that what is happening at Geneva is admittedly a series of "half-steps," to use UN envoy Brahimi's description for the progress so far. But there is the feeling that it just might result in a breakthrough in the desperate effort to save Syria and move the nation toward a cease-fire and the opening up of humanitarian aid corridors. On Monday, Syrian delegation member Dr. Bouthania Shaaban commented that the day's talks had been "professional." This is at least a modest achievement, considering that both sides enter and exit the meeting room from doors at opposite sides and, when assembled, speak only to Envoy Brahimi and tend to avoid eye contact with their "negotiating partners."
Syria's delegation in Geneva is led by a seasoned, smart, deeply knowledgeable and formidable delegation. It is a group that includes the power-house Foreign Minister Walid Muallum, a former Syrian Ambassador to Washington, who has a reputation in the West, and also here, as intelligent and wily, and whose negotiating style is tough at times, and no-nonsense. Syrian state television quoted Muallum as telling UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi last Friday that, "If no serious work sessions are held by [Saturday], the official Syrian delegation will leave Geneva due to the other side's lack of seriousness or preparedness." Mr. Muallum is credited with brokering the deal with Russia to remove Syria's chemical weapons, enabling Assad to present his government as a partner in the project and thus to strengthen its claim to legitimacy.
Another delegation member is Syria's Minister of Information, Omran al- Zoubi. The indefatigable Mr al-Zoubi is well known to the international media for his personal warmth, direct talk, and incisive articulations of his government's interpretations of the crisis. During literally hundreds of media interviews, Zoubi has earned a reputation, both internationally and in Syria, as an insightful political analyst and a skilled lawyer, one who does not mince words or sugar the realities, though who is respectful of his audience. From Derra, next to the Jordanian border where the crisis began, Zoubi, a Sunni Muslim, commented late Monday afternoon: "We will stay here until we do the job. We will not be provoked. We will not retreat and we will be wise and flexible." He added also that anyone at Geneva II expecting the removal of President Assad was living "in a mythical world, and let them stay in Alice in Wonderland."
Also a member of the delegation is Muallum's Deputy, Feisal Makdad. In a conversation with this observer earlier today, one of Makdad's colleagues described him as a deeply knowledgeable and unflappable career diplomat with a vast command of the foreign policy issues facing Syria. Speaking in Geneva, Makdad himself explained that his government has tried to send essential supplies to beleaguered residents, but that not as much as they would have liked has successfully gotten through, a problem he attributed to two factors: "The armed groups had kept firing at those who tried to take in the aid, and the weather has not been conducive to making the movement." He pledges that his government will continue its efforts nonetheless.
Makdad also insisted, "We don't hold any children prisoners at all. We categorically deny that," and claimed that the list of prisoners supplied by the opposition was full of errors. "I have studied this list; 60 to 70 per cent of the names are not in prison, 20 per cent have already been freed. About the rest, we don't know anything."
In one sense, Syria's diplomatic team in Geneva is anchored by Dr. Shaaban. Officially President Assad's Media Adviser, she is a former Minister of Expatriates, as well as a mother, and recently a grandmother. Distinguished as a writer and professor at Damascus University, Dr. Shaaban earned her Ph.D. in English Literature from Warwick University in the UK and is the author of several well-received books, including Both Right and Left Handed: Arab Women Talk About Their Lives. Many media critics concede that, as the New York Times wrote, she is stellar when explaining the Syrian government's views on foreign policy. Perhaps because of her quality of humanizing the conflict and her obvious love of her country, she is the most sought-after delegation member from either side for interviews.
It would not be shocking were the Syrian delegation to feel a bit on the defensive, given the lineup of those who want them to falter. So far, however, we have seen no sign of a lack of resolve on their part. Its members insist they have come to represent Syria, bringing with them goals that include struggling through a cumbersome and slow diplomatic process to achieve a ceasefire, opening up humanitarian aid, participating in prisoner exchanges with various militia, holding a presidential election in the spring, and beginning the reconstruction of massive war damage.
We will likely learn soon if they can work through a myriad of opposing and deeply antagonistic negotiating adversaries to achieve a sustainable cease-fire, reconciliation, and reconstruction. Syria's long-suffering people demand and deserve no less.