(Vatican Radio) Peace talks underway in Geneva are offering a glimmer of hope to the people of Syria who, on March 15, look back on exactly five years of death and destruction caused by the indescribable violence of war which has killed more than a quarter of a million people.
Western officials are cautiously welcoming the reduction of Russian forces in Syria saying it could pressure the government to engage in talks.
Five years of conflict is a grim milestone to mark, but a necessary reminder and wake-up call as millions of ordinary Syrian people struggle to see the light at the end of a dark tunnel during which they have lost loved ones, homes, jobs, schools and the very semblance of a future.
Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni spoke to a Syrian economist and civil rights activist who has been watching the tragedy unfold in his nation while providing civil society support and organization as well as capacity development from a base in Turkey.
He is Assaad Al Achi, the Executive Director of a Syrian civil society organization called Baytna Syria, currently based in Gazientep.
Assaad points out that in fact March 15 marks the start of the uprising – not the war…
An uprising – Assaad says - which consisted in peaceful demands and peaceful protests that took the Syrian people into the streets only to be immediately quashed by such violence on the part of the regime that it soon became war.
“Five years on it’s heartwarming to see that the people are resilient, they have the same demands, and with the minimum reduction of violence we see the people back on the street demonstrating, asking for the same things that they were asking for back in 2011” he says.
So overall, Assaad says hope is back. He says he does not fully understand yet the reason for the Russian withdrawal from Syria “we need some time to understand what is happening”.
Assaad says every reduction of violence and hostilities is, by definition, good but he thinks it is too early to say what’s behind the Russian decision to reduce its presence in Syria.
Competing Interests at an International level
Asked why it has taken so long for international players to sit down and push forward with peace talks, Assaad points to competing interests between UN Security Council members “namely the United States and the Russian Federation”.
“Competing interests over the Middle East but not only over the Middle East: over the situation in Ukraine, over the NATO ambitions to expand towards the East etc., etc.” he says.
Assaad says the situation in Syria quickly turned into a proxy war where international affairs were being resolved.
“A lot of people cynically say we had a third world war in one country” he says.
Lack of solidarity
Assaad also speaks of how the Syrian people have felt let down, abandoned, even betrayed by the West that has shown indifference and a lack of solidarity before the suffering of the nation.
He refers to the latest estimate published by the New York Times that says some 470,000 people have been killed in the past five years.
“About 95% of those people, according to the Syrian Observer for Human rights were killed by the regime, so when we have a regime that is that murderous, that barbaric, and nothing is being done to halt it and to keep it at bay, the regime enjoys impunity and that has been the major issue in Syria over the past five years” he says.
Assaad says the regime enjoyed a lot of impunity, and so did everyone else. This, he says, led to an inferno and escalation of violence because no one was held responsible towards their commitments.
“Especially as we are speaking of a government which is supposedly a member of the United Nations and that has to abide by International Humanitarian Law” he says.
The flaunting of International Humanitarian Law
Assaad says the regime has continuously flaunted IHL because of the paralysis within the Security Council.
This practice, he observes, de-legitimizes the Security Council and undermines the very foundations on which Europe is built upon.
He says the whole system in the United Nations must be revised as it has failed to respond to this major crisis. It has failed to respond – he says – because it is held in the hands of five countries with a right of veto and this right needs to be questioned
Hopes for the near future
Assaad says that what he is hoping for now is for the cessation of hostilities to continue.
“The people inside Syria are happy that they don’t have to face the barrel-bombs and the missiles and the cluster bombs and the missiles that were thrown at them 'en masse' by the Russian air force and by the Assad air force” he says.
His second hope – he says is for humanitarian aid to reach all areas, especially the besieged areas where people are in need of absolutely everything to survive.
“If we do not act very quickly we are going to see the same horrific images that we saw coming out of Madaya two months ago” he says.
He also points out that the only way to bring food into the besieged areas now is to buy off the Hezbollah checkpoints and Assad regime checkpoints, and this not only costs a lot of money, but it fuels the war by providing funds for more military operations and ammunition.
Assaad, who has experience working in many international contexts, says he can’t wait to go home to Syria one day.
“I’m waiting for the day when the situation allows me to move all the work we do out of Gazientep into inside Syria”.