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05/06/2012 Share/Save/Bookmark
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Syrians at Crisis (FP)
Syrians at Crisis (FP)

Syrians’ Social Reconciliation at Crisis

(Sarah Abu Assali | DP-News – Syria Today)

SYRIA- “One, one, one…The Syrian people are one!” This slogan was among the first and most-repeated slogans to be chanted in street protests, emphasizing Syrians’ unity against the regime.

But almost 16 months into the uprising, more frequently heard statements such as “we do not wish to become another Lebanon...or Iraq,” referring to the deep social divisions there, draw on a different reality. However, even broaching the topic of national reconciliation requires a prior acknowledgment that there is an ongoing war —sectarian or civil. And while the International Committee of the Red Cross stated on May 8 that parts of the conflict now qualify as a “localized civil war”, the opposing Syrian sides refuse to make such an acknowledgement.

Rather, the government says that national unity and Syrian social fabric are strong, and that only external attempts to sabotage them exist. The opposition, on the other hand, says the clash is political and that there is thus no need for reconciliation, since as soon as this political strife is solved, violence will be replaced by political disagreements resulting from new political alignments. Given this rift, it remains unclear how the country’s once-celebrated diverse society might be united again.

Clear and present danger
In his first speech addressing the crisis on March 30, 2011, President Bashar al-Assad warned Syrians against fitna, or sectarian-based sedition. The following month, banners denouncing it filled streets across the country. But the reality of this threat took months to appear.

Nearly a year later, on March 12, amateur videos posted on YouTube showed 50 corpses, including those of women and children, who activists claimed were slaughtered in the Karm Al-Zeitoun area of Homs. Privately-owned Addounia TV held the “extremist” Al-Farouk Battalion responsible for the slaughter, a claim supported by lengthy videos broadcast on state-run Syrian Satellite Channel which blamed unnamed “armed terrorist groups”. Anti-government activists, on the other hand, accused Hezbollah militiamen of committing this crime, according to several media reports.

The next day, 15 more civilians were found murdered in Homs’ Karm Al-Loz neighborhood, with vengeance cited as a motive; the regime and its opponents again traded blame and accusations of political motivations for the massacre.

Earlier, a February 12 report by BBC correspondent Paul Wood cited human rights activists’ claims that shabiha, (pro-government thugs), “going house-to-house, had murdered three families, men, women and children.” The report also described incidents of Free Syrian Army rebels in Homs kidnapping and executing Syrian military and paramilitary members.

On March 29, the German magazine Der Spiegel also reported similar cases of “self-administered justice” in which rebels established autonomous field courts, investigation committees, and burial brigades to punish regime supporters.

“The longer this [violence] continues, the more bodies pile up, the greater the desire for revenge on both sides. Civil war is not inevitable. But Homs today could be Syria tomorrow,” Wood cautioned.

Co-existence at stake
While deadly violence against civilians is an undisputable fact, its nature and the reasons behind it remain controversial. Some observers claim it is motivated by antagonisms between Syria’s diverse ethnic and religious groups.

“We don’t want to disregard these amazing scenes of national unity demonstrated by Syrians, but neither can we turn a blind eye to the testimonies leaked from certain places about sectarian tensions,” Syrian Jesuit monk Nibras Shihayed wrote in Lebanese daily As-Safir on March 26.

Journalist and activist Salameh Kaileh notes that in certain cases, violence occurred on a sectarian basis, but stressed that “this is a natural outcome of the different pressures imposed by the regime,” i.e. the violence it uses against opponents. However, he told Syria Today, “[a civil war] is not a possibility in Syria because people who oppose the authorities are politically motivated.”

In contrast, the Syrian government, which always promotes national unity and religious co-existence, blames armed Takfiri and Salafi fundamentalist groups for the violence afflicting the country.

“[The government] is concerned about the social paradigm which forms the unique Syrian mosaic. Unfortunately, national unity is not in its best shape presently; there is money being publicly pumped in” to sabotage this unity, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdissi told Syria Today, stressing the importance of social awareness and unification in opposing such extremism.

Peter Harling from the International Crisis Group made similar observations about social awareness but accused the Syrian regime of stirring the pot. “Precisely because the [Syrian] regime has sought to exploit every source of possible strife, its opponents have had to work hard to contain the more thuggish, sectarian and fundamentalist strands in their midst,” he wrote. “Their efforts are what have kept society together, despite a growing and worrying pattern of confessional, criminal and revenge-inspired violence”.

Makdissi, however, insisted that the Syrian government has no interest in provoking any civil or sectarian strife among its people. “[The state] is keen on ensuring civil peace and preserving the Syrian mosaic in order to boost the political process,” he stated. “There are no benefits from maintaining such clashes...It would be like playing with fire.”

Which way out?
Regardless of the conflict’s roots, most recent initiatives consider restoring national unity and social integration as the basis for building a new democratic and pluralistic Syria.

Nonetheless, little effort has been made to clearly map how to attain this, especially with the absence of a collective accord on whether or not there is an ongoing civil war.

Some of the very few proposals are modeled on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), created after the abolishment of apartheid and tasked with restoring justice through conducting trials to investigate human rights breaches.

One such plan prepared by the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) stipulates that during a transitional period “a national reconciliation commission must be formed in cooperation with civil and human rights organizations and individuals.”

Recently, the Building the Syrian State (BSS) bloc, along with a number of other Syrian political, youth, and civil society groups, scheduled a National Reconciliation Conference for March 16 aimed at “drying up sources of civil war...[and] addressing external attempts to ignite civil strife”, the bloc’s president Louay Hussein told the press.

However, the conference was postponed indefinitely.

Political analyst Nabil al-Samman told Syria Today that “discussing concrete mechanisms for achieving national reconciliation is premature. Without a political settlement, one cannot talk about introducing reconciliation.”

Kaileh agrees, since after the Syrian crisis ends “there will be political clashes, not religious ones, stemming from new political alignments during a transitional period [and] all sectarian illusions would eventually break up and fail to survive,” he argued.

An anonymous Syrian political analyst concurred. “The two sides are not ready to accept each other…[so] under the current circumstances, there is no space, at least for now, for reconciliation.” Rather, he expects “the battle…to become more bloody”. And since the international players involved “don’t want a reconciliation to take place,” he argued, “the decision [to reconcile] is not local anymore.”

Others give reconciliation the highest priority. “After the withdrawal of arms and insults, the regime and its opposition must sit down and negotiate” to create “a grand national reconciliation process,” Syrian journalist and poet Adel Mahmoud explained. “The objective is to turn Syria from a country into a homeland.”

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