Peace and Security
All-Sides Consultation in Austria on the Syrian Conflict
Written by David Fraser Harris, Secretary General, UPF-Middle East
Sunday, March 9, 2014
An All Sides Consultation for a Political Solution to the Syrian Conflict took place March 8-9, 2014 at Burgschlaining, Austria, an ancient castle that has because a center for peace studies and a European Museum for Peace. Panel discussions addressed a variety of concerns of Syrian people: for security, to bridge the rifts, people on the move, political rights, and political transitions. The symposium was organized by the Peace in Syria initiative with the support of a number of organizations, including UPF. The following notes and reflections were provided by one of the observers, David Fraser Harris, Secretary General of UPF-Middle East, who until recently was living in Damascus with his family.
From the outset, I was impressed by Dr. Leo Gabriel's basic approach to the conference: it was to be a discussion among Syrians. From my time in Syria I can say this was fundamental to the success of the event. Everyone, it is true, likes to feel ownership of discussions about their country, but there is more to it than that. The Syrians have had British and French and Americans, often with questionable motives, telling them for decades - or centuries, if you add in the Turks - how to run their society. One leader, in a message to the conference, wrote, "Steer clear of foreign agendas."
This was named a "Civil Society Consultation for a Political Solution in Syria." It did indeed bring together Syrians, and those that came did indeed represent the diversity of Syria: Deir Es Zur in the east, Qamishli (where the population is mainly Kurdish), Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Lattakia and Tartous (on the coast), Salamieh (where the Ismailis are), and in the south Dara'a and Suweida (home for many Druze) were all represented, not to mention Damascus itself. Some of the Syrians came from outside Syria - from Austria, Poland, Germany, the UK, Egypt and Kuwait.
In his introduction, Leo Gabriel [who participated in UPF's Geneva Track 2 consultation in January 2014] emphasized that civil society speaks for itself, and that the objective was to find a consensus - there was to be no "majority voting."
Fateh Jammous of the Coalition for Peaceful change spent 19 years in a Syrian jail, not least because of his affiliation with the communist party. He claims that support for peaceful opposition is growing by the day. Tareq, a young Jesuit activist from Damascus, warns of the rise of Salafism, which he traces to well before the present conflict. He sees the danger of what should be a civil movement being hijacked by those with religious interests.
Unfortunately, the predicted group of people closer to the regime did not come in the end. There was, however, one participant, a journalist, who acted as a kind of lightning rod, since he was closer to the regime's position. This enabled lively discussion, which was intense but never unpleasant. Ayman cited examples of successful reconciliation, and emphasized that as a Muslim he wanted to live under a civil state.
Several people spoke of the suppression of democracy and free speech or free thought over decades. A former dean of the faculty of educational science said that in colleges all principles of democracy had been destroyed - they were just ideological propaganda places. (My children will confirm that!)
One older speaker obviously commanded a fair amount of respect: Aref Dalila, long-time opposition activist and former dean of the Damascus faculty of economics, said this long repression had resulted in the path of extreme conflict. "This meeting wants to end the violence. Military intervention would just make it worse…. Regional powers have no interest in stablizing Syria. Who can stabilize? Not the regime, not the violent opposition, but civil society; yet it has no real power on the ground. All the activists have been detained for the last 40 years, or silenced by militant killings. The question is how to revive civil society."
We had (at least) two Kurdish speakers, one of whom emphasized strongly the need for secular and democratic government. Other participants were Druze and Ismaili. Two participants were from the Muslim brothers.
Many people spoke of "raising the white flag" but two or three said that this would just lead to obliteration by the regime. "There needs to be a white flag on both sides."A Christian woman from Damascus (now based in Vienna) helps in refugee camps in Turkey and says that those who have suffered most are the Sunnis: "It's a crisis for the nation, not just for minorities."
People spoke of the need to have safe places where the refugees can return. Several mentioned that they would like this kind of conference to take place in Damascus; but of course security guarantees would be needed first.
Perhaps the overriding sense I had from the proceedings was that the Syrian people themselves are bigger that the two sides and two alternatives they are currently offered. There really is a silent majority who want peace; they do not feel represented by either side.
NOTE: UPF has convened or contributed to a number of civil-society forums on the crisis in Syria:
Vienna, Austria: All-Sides Consultation for a Political Solution to the Syrian Conflict, Mar. 8-9, 2014
Buenos Aires, Argentina: To Establish Peace in Syria, the Middle East and the World, Feb. 6, 2014
Geneva, Switzerland: Track 2 Consultation: Toward Peace and Reconciliation in Syria, Executive report of the consultation Jan. 25, 2014
Washington DC, USA: Women's Role in Syria's Transition and Reconciliation, Jan. 15, 2014
Vatican City: Pontifical Academy of Sciences Convenes Consultation on Syria, Jan. 13, 2014
Jerusalem, Israel: The Crisis in Syria and Its Regional Impact, Oct. 16, 2013
Washington DC, USA: Peace Zones as Avenues for Stability in South Sudan, Syria, Colombia and Korea, Oct. 15, 2013
Amman, Jordan: Prospects for Dialogue and Reconciliation in Syria, Oct. 13, 2013
Vienna, Austria: Syrian Christians in Austria Torn Between Hope and Despair, Apr. 16, 2013
Jerusalem, Israel: The Impact of Syria and Egypt on Israel's Security Measures, Feb. 14, 2013
Washington DC, USA: The Tragedy and Hope for Syria, Sept. 26, 2012
See also: Interfaith Declaration on Peace in Syria, Oct. 13, 2013
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