Leaders of the Syrian opposition came to the European parliament on a mission to find solid measures to counter extremism in the Middle-East.
They spoke to members of parliament about the perilous future of the Middle-East if a solution for the Syrian war isn’t executed promptly. The Syrian delegates forewarn an intensified refugee crisis as women and children are now following their husbands, fathers and sons in the rush to flee war-torn Syria.
The Syrian delegates joined a panel of experts in a conference assembled by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).
Appearing before the panel was the 85-year old Syrian lawyer and human rights activist Haitham al-Maleh. He has been arrested and detained in his home-country several times by order of the government, and was incarcerated for six years as a political prisoner in 1980.
Al-Maleh now serves as head of the legal commission of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an alliance of Syrian opposition parties. In 2012, the EU recognized the coalition as “legitimate representatives” of the Syrian people.
He commenced his part in the debate by stating that he has seen the city of Damascus, his home for 80 years, being torn apart by the crackdowns of Bashar al-Assad’s regime on revolutionary forces since 2011.
As if the air was suddenly sucked out of the room, the parliamentary chamber fell quiet as the old man of law slowly started calling out numbers. Numbers of deaths, displaced people, demolished hospitals and razed houses of worship.
Slowly, giving each number a notion of weight, he listed: “300.000 imprisoned. 13.5 million displaced. 300.000 dead, of them 25.000 children. 4 million refugees outside Syria.”
“3 Million houses, 4.400 schools, 2.029 mosques, 70 percent of hospitals.. Destroyed”
The list came to a brief halt when the 85-year old lawyer uttered a single sob as he broke down in tears: “Children out of school.. 3 and half million.”
“This is all a minimum,” he said as he continued the list, shifting to concealed anger when acrimoniously stating the numbers signifying the economic downfall of Syria since the 2011 revolution.
His emotional remark regarding Syrian youth left without education received strong acclaim by European Union diplomat Christian Berger, who serves in Syria as Middle-East director of the European Commission’s foreign service.
“What we have seen over summer, and particularly now, is a change in people who are actually arriving. It is no longer young men, it is now children and families.”
During the last Vienna conference in november, world leaders pushed for a cease-fire, but according to Berger, this would still not discourage Syrians to flee their country.
“Particularly families will tell you that even if there is a ceasefire, they do not believe that they can go home any time because they cannot offer a future for their children.”
“We have to make sure that these children are getting education. We cannot have it that thousands, or millions now, have no education and are a lost generation. Because that will come to haunt us in ten or fifteen years from now.”
Conflicts, conflicts, conflicts and.. conflicts
The conference assembled just days after the Paris attacks that shook Europe on it’s footing. Though only in the opening statement by liberal MEP Hilde Vautmans were the attacks discussed.
ISIL was mentioned more often, though always enclosed with the queerly consoling understanding that everybody is against them and that they are against everybody.
For a quick recapture of today’s crises in the Middle-East, Christian Berger took it upon himself to embark on this.
The question, he said, is: “What conflict are we actually dealing with? We are seeing more than one conflict and we are seeing multiple players with multiple objectives.”
He stoically continued: “We have the Assad regime, which is fighting the opposition with all its force. We have Daesh (ISIL) who is fighting everybody else. We see a Sunni-Shia conflict. We see a fight for hegemony and leadership by countries in the region. We see the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict being played out in Syria. And we also see a conflict, perhaps more on the political side than on the military side, of Russia versus the west.”
“But this is just to understand how difficult it is to solve the conflict.” He said, talking about the conflict of countering extremism. “it is very difficult to come up with one single political process that will address all the other conflicts.”
There are some solid solutions on the table, he says: “We need to see an immediate cease-fire. Then we need to get the oxygen out of the conflict – the oxygen being money, arms and ammunition that flow into the fighting, along with the foreign fighters who fuel the conflict.”
To defeat ISIL, he says there has to be an internationally united front to destroy the self-proclaimed state. But not without a plan, there needs to be a prospect for reconstruction and support for a political process by an impartial party, such as the UN.
Hisham Marwah is the vice-president of the Syrian National Coalition and so -in the eyes of the EU- also the rightful representative of Syrian people, says that the current threat of extremism can be inextricably linked to the regime of Bashar al-Assad: “Assad has invited extremists to come into Syria because of his behaviour.”
Marwah continued by claiming that Assad is using ISIL as a political tool, by releasing extremists from Syrian prisons at strategic times. Furthermore, Marwah said that Syria benefits greatly from ISIL by buying oil and electricity from the organization. Assad, he concludes, is the single beneficiary of keeping the so-called Islamic State alive.
“The barbaric Assad regime has proven that it knows no limits,” he said after showing a video montage of explosions, demolished houses and floors lined with deceased children; the grisly aftermath of the regime’s airstrikes on opposition grounds.
So how would the exiled opposition-leader counter terrorism -in a country run by a regime quite unfriendly towards any opposition- and solve that part of the conflict? It seems like an impossible task. Though, Marwah’s conviction is in line with Hilde Vautmans’ opening statement, in which she proclaimed that “optimism is our moral duty.”
And he is optimistic: “in one word, to end the violence we need to start negotiations, between both parties. But that needs two parties to believe in negotiations.”
Vienna’s promise in a failed state
The ALDE party, hosting the conference, decidedly supports Marwah and the Syrian National Coalition. Earlier that day, political leader Guy Verhofstadt thanked Marwah for his presence in parliament.
He said to Hisham Marwah in public: “There shall not be an end to the conflict in Syria without your participation. The future of Syria needs you. We are now in a critical moment because in the next 4 or 5 weeks, this has to be settled, so that talks can start from the first of January 2016.”
The talks that Verhofstadt is talking about here are part of the roadmap, brokered by the United Nations, for Syria that was made during the Vienna Conference earlier in November.
On the first of January 2016, ceasefire-negotiations are supposed to start, according to the outcomes of the conference, along with a new constitution and internationally monitored democratic elections.
The panel seems divided over whether democratic elections will do wonders in Syria: “You don’t have a political, democratic culture,” says panel member Fouad Hamdan, chief of the Rule of Law Foundation in Holland.
“40 Years of Assad regime has destroyed a nation,” Hamdan says, pointing at his temple, “in their heads.”
“We have to start learning in the region how to rebuild our nations. Because we are not only failed states, but also failed societies,” says the Lebanese-born Fouad Hamdan. “It will take decades.”
The past Vienna conferences were structurally attended by Russia, who in spite of their attendance made the situation in Syria “extremely complex,” according to Hisham Marwah.
Because according to Marwah, while Russia claimed to strike ISIL targets, most of their targets hit moderate areas with prevalent opposition to the Assad-regime.
Fouad Hamdan affirmed this claim, saying that “Russia has been proven to be bombing non-ISIL targets.”
Still, Hisham Marwah remains optimistic, saying that Russia, after the terror attack on a Russian commercial airplane in Sharm el-Sheikh, “recognizes that ISIL is in fact the enemy.”
Iran’s hand in the conflict
Be that as it may, Fouad Hamdan seems not so optimistic. He said during the conference that there is a major lack of focus on Iran in the fight against extremism in the Middle-East. According to Hamdan, Iran is the de facto dominant power in Syria, by supporting Hezbollah militia.
“The war is all about Iran, Hezbollah and Iran’s nuclear power ambitions,” he said, pointing at the deals that were made between the US and Iran earlier this year, in which Iran agreed to dismantle their nuclear power facilities. Hamdan seems sceptical, he said that “Iran is not going to give up its nuclear power ambitions easily.”
Or for that matter, their supposed control over Syria, he continues firmly: “Iran will not let anybody for the time being in Syria, to take power, to control that country, whether it’s Assad or not. They need to have the assurance that Hezbollah will always be armed, that their army in Lebanon can always be fed with weapons. So that they can threaten Israel and everybody else in case they are attacked.”
“The Iranians see this as a regional conflict, just as the Saudi-Arabians,” says panel member Julien Barnes-Dacey of the Brussels-based think tank European Council on Foreign Relations.
“This is not about the Syrian people – neither Iran nor Saudi-Arabia have much concern for the Syrian people,” he continues. “This is about guarding their regional interest. The Iranians fear that if they give up on Syria, Hezbollah will be next and before you know it, people will be having their eyes set on Iran itself.”
“You need to give Iran something to convince them to order Hezbollah to disarm and to withdraw its militia and people from Syria,” says Fouad Hamdan.
“But at the same time you have to pressure it to accept that something, and you have to build trust with Iran.” So in principle, he says, the nuclear deal of March 2015 with Iran is good.
Fouad Hamdan: “You need to give Iran something”
At the same time, a lot has to happen. For that he sees an important intermediary role for Europe, which should focus on persuading Iran to loosen their destabilizing power over the region and to stop fueling the Sunni-Shia conflict.
He condemns Iran for the rise of terrorist groups such as ISIL and Al Nusra, he claims that they are a result of 40 years of Assad regime with support of Iran.
“Daesh in Iraq are a result of Iran taking over Iraq and oppressing the Sunni after the Americans left.” According to Hamdan, the Iraqi were not happily becoming jihadists, “they were pressured into becoming so.”
The atmosphere of extremism in the region will have major effects on the refugee crisis, and imminently that will cause large issues in the long term, says Julien Barnes-Dacey
Listening to him, it seems that the refugee crisis, commonly spoken of in Europe, has yet to unfold. “The real refugee crisis is not in Europe, we have a few thousand in different countries. A third of Lebanon’s population are refugees.”
“That is a long-term threat to us all if you look at what has happened in the Palestinian refugee camps in the past decades.” Barnes-Dacey makes a point similar to Christian Bergers’, saying that this is not only a lost generation, but also one that is ”Encircled by an environment in a region where radicalization is rife.”
“We should be very concerned, that’s where our focus needs to be because that will be painful for us in the long-term.”
The clock is ticking
Julien Barnes-Dacey ends his final statement on a grim note: “If there is not a solution soon, the effective break-up of Syria is where we’re headed.”
“Everybody wants to prevent that and it would be tragedy. But look at what the Kurds are doing, and look at what ISIL is doing – if no one moves in on ISIL territory with boots on the ground, ISIL is there for a long time to stay.
“And let’s be realistic about this, I don’t see any hands in the air. The clock is ticking – it is not far off. We are in the last chance saloon here.”
Photo’s were provided by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).