Uniting for Peace Forum on Middle East and North Africa
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By Dr Halla Diyab for LIBERTY Blog
On Wednesday, 25th June, 2014 I spoke at Uniting for Peace and Fortune Forum, at Ballroom of Dorchester Hotel in London. The event was about the current crisis in the Middle East and North Africa. The event was chaired by Rita Payne Chair, President, Commonwealth Journalists Association. The speakers were Vijay Mehta, Chair, Uniting for Peace, Yasser Bin Homran, Peace Campaigner, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK, Nadeem Chibbar, Assistant to YBH (Introduction), Irfan Husain, Columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Author, and Rev. Brian Cooper, Churches & Interfaith Secretary, Uniting for Peace
My speech’s title was “Moving towards Peace in Syria“, and here is the transcript of the speech
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen”
“Please allow me to express my gratitude to you for inviting me to speak in this important event today where we will all attempt to understand how we can move towards peace in the Middle East and North Africa. Before discussing the issue on peace in Syria, I want to start by asking; “what do we really mean by ‘Syrian’ peace?”
Is peace about “reconciliation”, “conflict-resolution”, “ceasefire” or something else? I believe that “Syrian peace” is about tolerance. Tolerance helps people embrace their political and religious differences through understanding, dialogue and acceptance.
However, to what extent can dialogue take the place of arms and violence? can free speech address abuse, oppression, bullying and tyranny? Can sharing ideas and experiences bridge the gaps between people and communities?
Three years into the Syrian conflict, the death toll has exceeded 160,000. The number of refugees has reached 9 million, 6.5 million of whom have been internally displaced, and around 100,000 are asylum seekers in Europe alone, as reported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In the Syrian conflict, around 10,000 are foreign fighters, 400 of whom are British Muslims and are among the 100,000 to 120,000 armed rebels following hard-line al-Qaeda-style ideologies, as reported by Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. The Syrian economy has lost US$84.4B since the uprising erupted. Some estimates put the loss of jobs at U$2.33M during the first two years of the conflict. A survey conducted by the Microfinance Department of the UN’s Relief and Works Agency indicates that the Syrian economy will take approximately 30 years to return to its 2010 economic levels. The country is experiencing severe shortages in fuel, water, electricity and essential supplies. The agricultural sector, which was once one of Syria’s economic pillars, has been destroyed. Over 60% of Syrian infrastructure has been demolished, and the main heritage and tourist sites have been destroyed or looted. A vast number of Syrians rely on relief aid, especially those in the northern regions.
How can we therefore reach peace with the continuing war in Syria? Providing more arms to the so-called ‘rebels’ will only exacerbate an already chaotic situation and could, in the long term, lead to deepening political and sectarian divisions in Syria. The West and the Middle East must deal with this conflict in not only an objective but also a sensitive manner. Simply arming a certain side will not bring the conflict to a reasonable conclusion. In truth, the opposition group has no answers to the conflict. However, many of its leaders endorse that arming the ‘moderate’ rebels or allowing Western military intervention will lead to the fall of President Bashar al-Assad and the Baathist regime.
This analysis is naïve because it illustrates a lack of understanding of the reality in Syria. What may seem like a simple solution to end the conflict can lead to more instances of internecine conflict and tit-for-tat killings. In other words, the cycle of violence becomes never-ending. As the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) quickly advance, questions and concerns have emerged on the destiny of Syria if the regime falls. The naïve distinction between certain ‘non-Islamist’ moderate factions and ‘extreme’ factions becomes impractical in consideration of the current chaos in Syria. The question of rebel loyalty also arises. At any given day, a fighter may claim to stand with a so-called ‘reasonable’ faction, and then on the following day, he can declare allegiance to al-Qaeda. For instance, Nasser Muthana, a 20-year-old from Cardiff, was accepted to study medicine in four universities. Now, he is Abu Muthanna al-Yemeni who is fighting with the terrorist group ISIS in Syria. This example shows how morale, integrity and principles quickly change in Syria.
Implication of the Syrian war to the rest of the Middle East and North Africa
If the war in Syria continues, the ‘Afghanization’ of Syria and the Levant should rightfully be feared. With ISIS advancement on the ground, which controls the northeast part of Syria, as well as with the capture of Rutba, 90 miles east of Jordan’s border which crosses to Syria and two towns in western Iraq, terrorism will expand its territorial gains. If Syrians continue to leave the country and resettle in the west, more Syrians, especially the minority groups, will be encouraged to leave the Levant. As a result, three quarters of the Syrian population will be displaced, and Syria will lose its mosaic diversity. With reverse immigration to Syria from the Jihadists and foreign fighters, the danger of the rise of an Islamic state creates a battlefield similar to Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. The country will gradually change into a hub of extremism and terrorism in the world.
If the arms race and the funding of the fighters by regional Arab countries continue, radical groups will have more territorial gains in Syria. Undermining the position of Shi’ism in the Levant as one of their main objective, they can further advance to Lebanon and Iran.
Lawmakers by now should have realised that no side in Syria, the opposition or the regime alike, can claim the moral high ground. The issue at stake is no longer about fulfilling the demands of Syrians, which was made back in 2011 to achieve political and social freedom. What we have now is a whirlpool of competing factions attempting to secure their own interests. Atrocities have mounted on both sides.
How we can bring peace in the region
What can we then do to bring peace to Syria? I think that the international community, especially Britain, should offer concrete support to the peace talks between the Syrian opposition and the government. Britain should support national Syrian reconciliation to persuade the two conflicting parties that only diplomacy and political dialogue can prevent the conflict from spiralling out of control. I urge the British government to chair peace delegations involving Syria, Turkey, Russia and Iran, as well as representatives of the Assad regime and members of Syrian opposition; so that they can all meet and discuss a transition plan in line with the UN Geneva Communiqué released last June. This would call for ceasefire and national reconciliation. Saudi Arabia needs to play a role in this peace delegation and reconcile its differences with Iran over Sunni–Shia presence in the Levant. Seeing this conflict drag on and ensuring the advancement of Islamist forces to other countries, similar to what happened in Iraq, will not be in Iran’s or Russia’s best interests.
Let us not allow Syria to fall victim to the axiom that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I implore those who want Syria to remain a cohesive and diverse nation to work on national and international reconciliation for the country, so that the senseless violence which we witness day by day can finally be stopped. Let us heed the words of Gandhi that, ‘Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit’. Only tolerance can promote peace, and peace is the only solution which is sustainable and is not based on what seems ideal only in the moment.”