Putin and Assad claim Syria's opposition threatens religious minorities. This besieged city's struggle proves otherwise.
- By Hind KabawatHind Kabawat is the director of the Interfaith Peacebuilding Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, and a member of the Syrian opposition's High Negotiations Committee.
The church bells in Daraya, a Damascus suburb that has seen some of the worst fighting in the war, no longer ring. To understand the tragic trajectory of Syria today one must look at how this town, doggedly held by rebels for the past four years, a mere half-hour drive to Bashar al-Assad’s palace, has transformed over the years.
Before the uprising, Daraya was a sleepy middle-class suburb for Damascus residents. By 2011, it had become an epicenter of peaceful protests, as thousands marched in the streets calling for Assad to step down from power. As a member of the Syrian Christian community, I was overwhelmed with excitement to join this grassroots people’s movement that called for democracy, freedom and rights for all Syrians, no matter our differences.
Syrians were united then. The church bells rang in Daraya in solidarity with the protesters. From their balconies in the narrow streets, Syrian Christians showered protesters below with rice and flowers. They marched hand in hand.
A holy war, this was not.
By 2012, the Assad regime intensified its armed crackdown against the unarmed protesters in Daraya. A terrible massacre occurred there on Aug. 24, 2012, as Assad’s regime sent troops, secret police, and members of the elite 4th Division to prevent residents from fleeing the city by any means necessary. Families were executed in their homes, whole buildings of women and children were machine-gunned in the streets, and residents were even decapitated — long before the so-called Islamic State even existed.
The state-run media launched an aggressive propaganda campaign claiming Muslims were massacring Christians, aiming to stoke fear of the opposition in the Christian community. As regime soldiers went door to door, searching for people to murder, it was the Christian community of Daraya that opened theirs to protect those fleeing the atrocities. One Catholic church treated the injured and prepared food for them.
Assad attempted to break Daraya with chemical weapons in 2013, launching a horrific sarin gas attack that killed over 1,000 across the Damascus suburbs — many were children still in their pajamas when the nighttime attack happened. Images of asphyxiated children lined up on the ground are etched in our memories of that night. The international community was on the verge of holding Assad accountable for that atrocity, but the Russians intervened at the eleventh hour with a negotiated settlement. Before the ink was dry, Assad instituted a brutal starvation siege upon Daraya and neighboring Moadamiya.
Today, as a member of the High Negotiations Committee — a diverse group of Syrian opposition members from civil society, armed groups, and politicians organized to participate in the peace talks — my colleagues and I are entrusted to work with the international community to negotiate a resolution of the conflict. And as talks of a cessation of hostilities gather momentum, I am regularly reminded by the people of Daraya, with whom I speak every day, that the war is far from over.
We were shocked that Daraya was not initially listed as a town protected by the cease-fire. How is it that an almost entirely civilian town, where people peacefully and collectively took to the streets to demand their rights, could be the site of atrocities committed by the Assad regime? The truth is that the biggest threat to the Assad regime is the Syrian people’s legitimate demands for freedom and dignity, not terrorism. After intense lobbying, we succeeded in having Daraya included in the cessation of hostilities agreement.
The Russians and Assad have proven adept at shifting the narrative surrounding the peace talks. We are asked to discount the atrocities that Daraya and other towns in Syria continue to suffer at the direction of Russian-manned command centers in Damascus. The fight against the Islamic State and al Qaeda, the narrative goes, is paramount.
But how can one fight these extremists, who threaten to slaughter Christians and Muslims alike, without a moral commitment to ending the humanitarian crisis? And how can Moscow claim that it is fighting terror in Syria when it systematically contributes to the destruction of the very antidote to terror — civil society activists, women, and, yes, even us Christians who once lived in harmony with our countrymen in Daraya?
Moscow claims that its intervention will also help protect Christians in Syria. The Orthodox Church in Moscow once evoked the image of extremists destroying churches and kidnapping priests as justification for Russia’s military assault. In an interview with a French magazine last year, Assad praised Vladimir Putin as “the sole defender of Christian one can rely on.”
If anything, Putin and Assad’s bombing and starvation campaign has made Syria more dangerous for Christians. The barrel bombs dropped by their military machine on Daraya and towns across the country cannot offer our Christian community protection. The thousands of Syrian children unable to attend schools, and the thousands facing starvation due to Assad’s kneel or die policy, cannot offer Syrian Christians peace of mind.
Syrian priests to this day continue to defy the regime by covertly smuggling food into besieged Muslim neighborhoods, at the risk of their lives. The Bible tells us: Do not repay anyone evil for evil. If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. The threat this principle poses to Assad’s and the Islamic State’s authoritarian worldviews is more powerful than any man-made weapon.
The Assad regime and the Kremlin are using the specter of a reduction in hostilities to renew attacks against Daraya. In their briefings to the press, the Russian Defense Ministry claims that they are striking al Qaeda targets there – targets that we know do not exist. The Russian-enabled air and ground strikes are a naked attempt at a land-grab while the rest of the world is lulled into accepting an otherwise hollow cease-fire at face value.
Despite an overall reduction of violence in Syria since the beginning of the cessation of hostilities, the country is still being barrel-bombed by the Assad regime. Just this week, Daraya’s local council reported to me that regime tanks are encircling the town and seem poised to stage a ground raid. Despite this threat, Daraya residents are taking advantage of the relative calm to organize peaceful demonstrations and a children’s festival. These demonstrations are happening throughout the country — after nearly five years of war, even a brief respite from the indiscriminate attacks was enough for Syrians to return to the streets to peacefully demonstrate their commitment to freedom from tyranny in all its forms.
If Assad remains emboldened and enabled to treat peaceful opposition as terror — I myself have been charged by the regime’s terrorism court — it can only ensure that the church bells of Daraya never ring again.
Photo credit: AMER ALMOHIBANY/AFP/Getty Images