By Franklin Lamb
28 January, 2014
Damascus: As a new workweek begins here is Damascus many citizens across a fairly broad spectrum appear to be backing, and even exhibiting a kind of pride for their diplomatic team at the Geneva II conference. It might appear flippant for this observer to suggest that returning to Damascus after recent events in his neighborhood of Haret Hriek in Dahiyeh, South Beirut sort of feels like one has arrived in a peaceful holiday local rather stress free, but others have told me the same thing once they crossover from Lebanon. Damascus is currently the most quiet and ‘normal’ appearing that I have found this historic city for more than two years.
Damascenes to a person it appears, despite differing political views, are hoping for breakthroughs that just might bring an end to the carnage that has left virtually no one unaffected and has driven 9.5 million people from their homes, killed close to 140,000 and with more than 18,000 missing. These and many more tragedies creating a major humanitarian crisis both within Syria and among this birth place of civilization’s neighbors.
At the Set al Cham (Grandmother of Damascus) a home style cooking small restaurant around the corner from the Dama Rose hotel, close to where a rocket hit 30 yards outside the front entrance of the five star hotel last week and ignited half a dozen cars and shattered windows in this ‘security zone’, there are currently animated conversations about the Geneva II conference. They focus on the prospects for a ceasefire which all here apparently agree is the first essential step to ending the carnage ravaging this country for the past three years. The apparent imminent release of women and children from the more than 500 families who have for many months been trapped in the old city of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, has created some inchoate hope. According to UN Mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi , men also will be allowed to leave once their names are vetted to screen ‘terrorists’ from slipping out, a common security measure around this region during siege lifts and mass evacuations. The population allowed to exit Homs will be received immediately by volunteers from the courageous and deeply humanitarian Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARCS) and other humanitarian organizations that have stockpiled a range of urgently required necessities close by. As in the case with Yarmouk Palestinian camp in south Damascus, itself still under tight siege this evening with snipers on rooftops scanning the streets and alleys below through their gun sites seeking targets, baby formula is one of the foodstuff items most in demand and urgently needed in order save infant lives since their starving mothers generally are no longer able to produce milk.
With respect to Yarmouk camp, which if of grave concern here in Syria as it is internationally, this observer had an informative three hour meeting today at UNWRA HQ on Mezzeh Autostrda with Chief Field Education Program Director, Mohammad Ammouri, and Abdullah Al Laham, Deputy Director of UNWRA in Syria. These gentlemen, Mr. Ammouri from Tantura village near Haifa, and Mr. Al Laham, from Bethlehem Occupied Palestine, devote their full schedules these days trying to get aid into Yarmouk, and to bring those under siege out. Both gentlemen gave this observer some reason to believe that finally an agreement, after more than half a dozen failed ones, might just stick tonight so that tomorrow UNWRA trucks, waiting nearby with more than 40,000 aid parcels can finally enter. Each aid box, contains rice, sugar, flour, dried milk, cooking oil and other basics and are designed to feed a family of five for two weeks (families up to eight in number will get one and one-half UNWRA boxes every two weeks) can finally enter. Syrians trapped in Yarmouk, who number more than 2000, will also receive the emergency parcels from UNWRA no questions asked. Mr. Al Laham raised his eyebrow a bit and did a sort of double-take when this observer asked him if like SARCS, UNWRA distributed the well-known World Food Program (WFP) or International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) family aid parcels. “No! No. My dear. You see, we at UNWRA have our own aid parcels, in fact ours are bigger and better” he quickly exclaimed and then smiled a bit sheepishly.
Three days ago UNWRA believed they would finally be allowed to enter Yarmouk with aid but at it turned out only about 3% of the aid parcels they were trying to deliver to the more than 18,000 starving Palestinian refugees and Syrians still trapped was able to be distributed because all aid is still being blocked by various militia who themselves appear to be rather well fed, financed, and armed. We should know by tomorrow (1/28/14) if substantial aid will be allowed into Yarmouk and whether dying residents can be evacuated. UNWRA literally has the engines of its trucks idling nearby tonight and ready to move into the besieged camp on less than a minutes notice if they get a green light, this observer has just been advised.
One senses in Damascus that much of the population believes that what is happening at Geneva, are admittedly “half-steps” to use UN envoy Brahimi’s description for the progress so far in the desperate effort to save Syria, just might result in a breakthrough of sorts and then move toward a cease-fire and the opening up of humanitarian aid corridors. A few hours ago, Syrian delegation member Dr. Bouthania Shaaban commented that today’s talks had been ‘professional’. This is a modest achievement even though both sides speak only to Envoy Brahimi and tend to avoid eye contact with their “negotiating partners” while entering and exiting the meeting room from doors at opposite ends.
Syria’s delegation in Geneva is led by a seasoned, smart, deeply knowledgeable formidable delegation that includes the power-house Foreign Minister Walid Muallum, a former Syrian Ambassador to Washington who has a reputation in the West and here as wily, profoundly intelligent, tough at times and no-nonsense. “If no serious work sessions are held by [Saturday], the official Syrian delegation will leave Geneva due to the other side’s lack of seriousness or preparedness,” state television quoted Muallum as telling UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi last Friday. Mr. Muallum is credited with brokering the deal with by Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons enabling the Assad regime to present his government as a partner in the project and thus to strengthen its claim to legitimacy.
Another delegation member is Syria’s Minister of Information Omran al- Zoubi. Mr al-Zoubi has been indefatigable these past many months and is well known to the international media for his personal warmth and direct talk and incisive articulations of his government’s interpretations of the crisis. During literally hundreds of media interviews Mr. Zoubi has earned a reputation internationally and in Syria as being an insightful political analyst and a skilled lawyer, who does not mince or sugar his words but who is respectful of his audience. From Derra next to the Jordanian where the crisis began and a Sunni Muslim, the Ministers commented late this afternoon that “We will stay here until we do the job. We will not be provoked. We will not retreat and we will be wise and flexible.” And he added, anyone at Geneva II expecting the President’s removal was living “in a mythical world, and let them stay in Alice in Wonderland.”
Syrian delegation member and FM Muallum’s Deputy, Feisal Mdkdad, was described to this observer by one of his colleagues today as a deeply knowledgeable, unflappable career diplomat with deep knowledge of foreign policy issues facing Syria. Mr Makdad explained at Geneva today that his administration has been trying to send essential supplies to help beleaguered residents but not as much as they would have liked had got through, for two reasons: “The armed groups had kept firing at those who tried to take in aid and the weather has not been conducive to making the movement.” He pledges that his government will persevere. He also insisted that “we don’t hold any children prisoners at all. We categorically deny that.” He claimed that the list supplied by the opposition was full of errors. “I have studied this list; 60 to 70 per cent of the names are not in prison, 20 per cent have already been freed. About the rest, we don’t know anything.”
In one sense, Syria’s diplomatic team in Geneva is anchored by Professor Bouthaina Shaaban who is Political and Media Adviser to Syrian President Assad. Syria’s former Minister of Expatriates, she is also a mother and recently a grandmother, writer and professor at Damascus University and earned her Ph.D. in English Literature from Warwick University in the UK. Dr. Shaaban was Hafez al Assad’s personal interpreter, is well known internationally and has studied and taught in the USA and earned her Doctorate at Warwick University in the UK. She has authorized several well received books including her latest volume on Syrian diplomacy. Many media critics concede that, as the New York Times wrote, that she is stellar when explaining Syrian governments views on foreign policy. Dr. Shaaban is the most sought after delegation member from either side for interviews partly because of her quality of humanizing the conflict and her obvious love of country and dedication to stopping the carnage while possessing a quality of connecting with interlocutors emotionally and intellectually.
It would not be shocking were the Syrian delegation were to feel a bit on the defensive given the lineup of those who want them to falter, but there is so far little sign that the Syrian delegation is exuding a temerity at all similar to the defense team in The Hague trying to hold its own before the Special Tribunal on Lebanon (STL). Rather it acknowledges that it has come to represent Syria and to struggle through a cumbersome, slow diplomacy to achieve a cease-fire, open corridors of humanitarian aid, participate in prisoner’s exchanges with various militia, hold a presidential election in the spring, and begin reconstruction of the massive war damage.
We will likely learn soon if Syria and indeed can work through a myriad of opposing deeply antagonistic negotiating adversaries to achieve a sustainable cease-fire, reconciliation, and reconstruction. Its long suffering population demand and deserve no less.
Franklin Lamb is currently a visiting Professor at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program.