Syria on the ground vs. Syria on Western airwaves
International peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who represents the UN and the Arab League, will soon leave Damascus after urging the Syrian government and the rebels to observe a four-day truce over the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, which this year begins at dusk on October 25th.
Also called the Feast of the Sacrifice, Adha is a Muslim holiday which commemorates Prophet Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) willingness to sacrifice his eldest son Ismael, in obedience to a command from God.
On Sunday morning, I was in the lobby of my hotel, where it turns out UN envoy Brahimi was also staying, chatting with one of the remaining three United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) members still in town. The affable trio is all that remains of the roughly 300 UN Observers who spent months here (40 stayed at this Dama Rose secured Hotel) trying to help with a separation agreement that never really got off the ground.
There were also in the lobby perhaps a hundred reporters and cameramen who were busy setting up for the news conference the Brahimi staff announced would begin immediately following the envoys meeting with Syrian president Bashar Assad.
No sooner had envoy Brahimi entered the hotel than he rushed to his room calling over his shoulder that he would be right back. As we waited, a somewhat unkempt, rather zany lady approached me. It turned out she was an Italian reporter and she wasted no time stating her business. She said, “I know you’re Franklin Lamb and you’re staying on the executive floor. What are you doing in Damascus?” Nonplused, I replied, “Ma’m I’m here for a couple of appointments at Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and looking into the current political situation.”
She gave me one of those scowling “give me a break buddy!!” looks and got straight to her point, drawing hard on her cigarette and blowing the smoke sideways. “Mr. Lamb, do I look naïve to you or what?” she demanded to know, a bit aggressively. Before I had a chance to utter a stammering syllable, the lady lit into me with:
“I happen to know from a reliable source that you, an American, are staying on the executive floor and also on that floor are Russians, Iranians, and Hezbollah. That’s no accident Mr. Lamb is it? What are you all doing up there? What are your meetings about? Don’t worry I won’t quote you but are you gentlemen going to arrange for an Eid ceasefire?”
Mercifully, as I closed my, by then, gaping mouth, envoy Brahimi appeared from the elevator with his entourage to begin his news conference and I haven’t seen the dear lady since, as she rushed front and center to shout a question and then, following the short news conference, followed Mr. Brahimi out the front door as he left for another appointment.
My point is that there are plenty of wild speculations and conspiracy theories around this town as elsewhere, concerning Brahimi’s important mission.
Envoy Brahimi didn’t reveal much about his mission but spoke about his hope of reaching a ceasefire and mentioned his meetings with government officials including Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, and President Bashar Assad.
In this observer’s opinion, his body language revealed more than his words and reflected his resignation that there will be no ceasefire as he told us,
“If we achieve this ceasefire during the al-Adha holiday and maintain it, we can try and build on it. If it does not happen, then we will keep trying and we hope we can find another way to bring relief to the Syrian people.”
UN envoy Brahimi seems to know that his noble mission will come to naught, at least this time. However, aides say he will persevere until the US, Russia and Iran agree on a diplomatic solution. He told reporters that some members of the opposition whom he had met were open to the idea of a ceasefire only if the Syrian government committed to it.
In a statement after the talks with Mr. Brahimi, President Assad said,
“Syria is open to any sincere efforts for a political solution to the Syrian crisis based on respect for Syria’s sovereignty and the rejection of outside intervention.”
The reason, and perhaps it’s impolite, since Eid is still days away and UN envoy Brahimi might still pull a rabbit out of the hat, for this observer to reluctantly conclude that he has failed in his mission is substantial evidence garnered from discussions here over the past several days. Would that I be mistaken.
But, for this observer, being here makes all the difference, as I learned in Libya, in getting a more accurate picture than offered from the main stream media on the one hand and some of the more chronic conspiracy theorists on the other. The key to learning what is happening seems quite simple: listening, listening and listening to a cross section of the Syrian population and moving around the neighborhoods as much as possible.
Perhaps the most often heard argument one hears in Damascus from the general population, military types and even officials involves mistrust and doubts across much of Syria that the opposition would honor a ceasefire.
One Syrian army officer I met who is a liaison with the remaining three UN observers, freely answered my questions including one focusing on what he would propose to President Assad if he was presenting his professional and personal advice to the Syrian leader.
“For sure I would advise our President to oppose a ceasefire at this time. For these main reasons: First it would dishonor the hundreds of our brothers in the military who have sacrificed for their country with their lives. To me it would be almost traitorous not to press on with the military momentum that we now have achieved after hard months of conflict. We need to finish with these foreign terrorists and our fellow citizens agree. We are currently in the strongest military position because of those among our ranks who died defending our country. Second, a ceasefire, even for 96 hours, will allow our enemies to relax, re-group, bring in more supplies of heavy weapons funded by Persian Gulf countries with the blessing of yours who are offering ‘non-lethal’ assistance such as night vision devices and related equipment. As a military person I can assure your government that there is no such thing as non-lethal aid when it’s the type they are furnishing including ‘non-lethal communication’ equipment. Having state of the art communications equipment is more important than rifles in some instances.
“Why should we give them these gifts? Do you think al Qaeda and these North African and Persian Gulf jihadists will observe the Eid al Adha holiday? Do you think they will pass Eid praying and sacrificing lambs and camels and distributing the meat to poor people as a gift? Or, by celebrating the end of the Haij Pilgrimage and asking God for forgiveness? No my dear, I assure you they will not. They will use a ceasefire to rebuild their ranks to prolong the chaos and terror. Our president is very wise and he knows this as well.”
“We will defeat this western project to destroy the [anti-Israeli] regional Resistance but we won’t do it by stopping our momentum. We are making advances on the ground that you don’t hear about from media outlets like al Jazeera and al-Arabiya but it’s true. We can take you to have a look if you like. Of course, you can find some of our military leadership who favor a ceasefire, but the big majority agrees with the views I expressed and I would give to our President. I think our leaders would face criticism from the military and the public if they ignored our views. I expect there will be no Eid ceasefire unless the international community can convince us that they would be a ‘freeze in place’ which means no fighter on either side could move and take advantage of the calm. Trust is the big problem for us. Who will guarantee a ceasefire?”
“The opposition has the habit of using terror and hit and run tactics. They set up checkpoints for pro-western media outlets to film to demonstrate that they are gaining support and then they quickly run away before the Syrian army attacks them. It’s kind of a psychological war, but as a military man I can tell you psychological tactics with one’s enemy are very important. Their aims are to impress the western media and to weaken the confidence of our people, soldiers and leaders. They will eventually fail but an ill-considered ceasefire for Eid will not help.”
This officer’s views appear to be widely held here.
Dr.Nabil Toumeh, a historian and CEO of Toumeh International in Damascus supports the regime yet, like many, even officials is also critical and emphasizes the need for reforms. Dr. Toumeh, hosted me in his office a few nights ago and spoke frankly and he explained to this observer that a growing number, probably around 65 percent of Syrians support the government and its efforts to end the crisis, they also demand three major reforms, being the economy, security agencies and the military.
I am not finding here the fear of criticizing the government that I found in Libya under Gaddafi and which persists there, if to a lesser extent, today.
One Damascene, a 24-year old graduate who eschews politics, but who is still angry at having his car hijacked by an armed gang three weeks ago, told me that,
“You can speak pretty freely, but its best not to act or get involved with street groups. But, you know, increasingly people are losing their fear of the security services. We just want the killing to stop. We want to get on with our lives. Enshallah it will happen soon.”