Syrians deserve a third way

21 Dec
Published in ON LINE opinion
Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Syrians deserve a third way
Posted Friday, 21 December 2012

‘All we are saying is give peace a chance’ was the theme of the anti Vietnam war movement in 1969, thanks to the guiding star of John Lennon. And it may as well be the theme of the anti war movement in Syria today, thanks to the guiding star of a Melkite nun Mother Agnes Miriam. This star of hope is rising in the night sky and wise people of all creeds seek its solace.

This fearless woman has indiscriminately nursed and sheltered many wounded civilians and foreign mercenaries near her Homs monastery ironically named ‘St James the Mutilated’. She has even negotiated with the government to release dissidents. This optimistic soul retains her faith that the uniting spirit of reconciliation will prevail against the dividing forces of revolution.

The reconciliation or Mussalaha movement paths a third way – a way towards peace. Not the status quo of the authoritarian regime where dissonant voices were crushed. Not a bloody revolution that is fuelled and financed from foreign powers. But a third way – evolution that is driven by the will of the Syrian citizens in their own time and in their own way. Driven by their love of re-building their secular society, not ripping it apart along sectarian battle lines. It is this majority of ordinary peace loving people who have been forgotten when the conflict is crudely portrayed as ‘Assad versus rebels’.

During the latest Friends of Syria summit in Marrakesh, Morocco on 13 December, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was endorsed by 90 of the 114 countries attending as the ‘legitimate voice of the Syrian people’. Foreign Minister Bob Carr was swift in following suit: ‘Australia joins the United States, the UK, France and many others in acknowledging the Syrian opposition and further delegitimizing the Assad regime’ so that we can support ‘adherence to democratic principles [by] … a credible alternative for Syria once a political transition occurs’.

How can the forcible overthrow of a sovereign government by foreign forces (via their rebels, jihadists and mercenaries) lay the foundations for a new Syrian democracy? With a presidential election scheduled for 2014, how can outsiders pre-empt the outcome on behalf of the exiled minority when there are 23 million citizens in Syria? How can we turn a blind eye to the lethal cocktail of Coalition agendas that include fatwas to replace the secular society with a sectarian caliphate: ‘Christians to Beirut and Alawites to their graves’?.

The Syrian National Council has been allocated 22 of the 60 seats in this new ‘government in waiting’. Its newly appointed chairman George Sabra wasted no time in declaring the SNC’s new direction: ‘Quite clearly, we want weapons’.

If the current regime is heavy handed and murderous, then the second way of an armed revolution is just as violent. Titles such as revolutionary, forces and weapons do not spell less bloodshed. Cynically assuming that we suffer from collective amnesia, the US-Saudi led sponsors of this revolution are repeating similar tactics to those deployed in the overthrow of the other Baathist secular state: Iraq.

Ten years ago, lies about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and al Qaeda connections were propagated by the US-UK alliance to justify the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Earlier this month, we again witnessed ‘leaks’ from the US Pentagon about Syrian ‘chemical weapons’. On cue, US defence Secretary Leon Panetta beat the drums of war that ‘there will be consequences…[if] the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons…on their own people’.

We have heard such scaremongering as a pretext for war all before, and we know that the consequences unleashed a civil war inside Iraq with no end in sight. So alarm bells should point us to a healthy scepticism: where is the evidence to support this serious claim? Why are foreign jihadists and mercenaries deceitfully included as ‘their own people’?

Hence the second way of revolution is a vicious cycle of war and propaganda that is hell bent on assuming power and serving the sponsors, with very little reference to serving the Syrian citizens.
The third way of reconciliation has no place for weapons, as the theatre of war is replaced by a round table where citizens talk to each other, not about each other. The enemy is rehumanised rather than dehumanised. This Mussalaha movement is not romantic. It is real ‘reconciliation from below’ starting from families, clans and civil society who are ‘tired of the conflict’.

It was born within civil society in Homs in June around the monastery of Mother Agnes. Another inter denominational meeting in Deir Ezzor culminated in the participants rejecting ‘sectarian violence and sectarian denominational strife, as preconceived ideological and political opposition are urgently required.’

Even the Syrian government embraced the concept and appointed a Minister for National Reconciliation, Ali Haidar, who assembled a Mussalaha committee to ‘unite the children of Syria in love and reconciliation’. He pledged that his ministry would be ‘the dwelling of all Syrians, without exception’. He attended another Reconciliation forum in Homs on 14 October where multi-faith leaders sort to ‘restore a ‘city free of weapons and gunmen’. While it is easy to dismiss this as tokenistic and ‘too little too late’, this door has always been open to unarmed dialogue, whereas such reconciliation is invisible on the National Coalition agenda.

In October, Mother Agnes visited Australia as part of her international mission to promote this movement. Contrary to the popular narrative that exiles are fleeing from the Syrian army, she is fleeing from the rebels. The ten point plan that she presented to Australian politicians during her visit is pro negotiation, anti war and anti propaganda. She warned of the fate of the Christians in Syria if a sectarian regime was installed, especially the Christians of Antioch which is the oldest church in the world. There are branches of this grass roots multi faith Mussalaha movement globally, including Australia.

Of course such grass roots initiatives go largely unnoticed because they present a challenging counter narrative.

Although the uprising in Syria may have started in Dara’a as a popular movement in March 2011, that was quickly hijacked by militants and jihadists with a different agenda. The new popular movement is Mussalaha.

It is time for a counter revolution that puts people first.
Joseph Wakim founded the Australian Arabic Council and is a former multicultural affairs commissioner.

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