Over the weekend a delegation of Western officials, reporters, academics, and think tank researchers were welcomed to Damascus by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a conference convened by The British Syrian Society. Established in 2003, the nonprofit organization has sought to foster effective “relations at all levels between Britain and Syria…” Some of the overarching goals of the conferences workshops were to present American and British audiences with a better appreciation of the dynamics at play in Syria; how the Syrian people view the conflict; and the tragic repercussions of terrorism at home and it’s spread abroad. To investigate beneath the surface that is so often portrayed by the American government and Western press, and discuss the true nature of the war against Syria and the role terrorism and proxy powers have played in prolonging the insurgency, at the expense of Syria, regional stability, and global peace.
Controversy surrounded the conference from the start, with think tank careerists, whose institutions are funded by Gulf monarchs, launching a smear campaign against any who resolved to attend the conference, paying special attention to independent journalists who were to attend. In a scandal still reverberating, journalist Rania Khalek was forced to step down as editor of the publication she worked for and abandon her plans to attend the conference.
The smear campaign was unable to succeed in thwarting the conference. A considerable group attended, including reporters from The New York Times and British PMs, who were able to question and hear from Bashar al-Assad himself at the closing ceremony. Dexter Filking, writing in The New Yorker, “asked Assad what it felt like to be branded a war criminal”, an inflammatory statement with no basis in international law or any legal proceedings or charges. nevertheless, Bashar answered with a rebuttal that was instantly quotable…
“There’s nothing personal about it—I am just a headline,” he said. “The headline is ‘The bad President, the bad guy, is killing the good guys. They are the freedom fighters.’ And so on. You know this. It’s black and white.”
The campaign by Syrian government officials to reach out and show a new openness towards the West is indicative of how well events on the ground are playing out. Rebels on the outskirts of Damascus are failing as Syrian military forces recapture holdouts. From within Damascus, one would hardly know there is an ongoing war against fanatical Islamist groups outside its perimeter, as reported by The New York Times who attended the conference.
Rebels in East Aleppo are besieged as Syrian forces and their allies seek to finally liberate the remainder of the city from its captors. A new found confidence is being displayed by President Assad, his many high-profile interviews with Western press sources like NBC reflect that, but welcoming influencers to Damascus in such numbers was unprecedented. In the five years after the U.S. and U.K governments put in place sanctions on travel and conducting business with Syria, no such conference has taken place. Now, Western officials are increasingly comfortable reestablishing communication with Syria’s government.
The Syrian people, after hearing so many others speak for them these past five years while the country was on the defensive, are now reasserting their agency and speaking for themselves, more loudly than ever. The conference should not be seen as the close of the campaign, but a new salvo in the public relations battle to come. The majority of Americans and Europeans find the refugee crisis, Islamic terrorism at home, and the fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda the most important national security topics. Who is president of Syria is low on the list of priorities, and as Assad says, “Good government or bad, it’s not your mission” to play world policeman and overthrow governments and state institutions abroad. Many Americans, after decades of experience, agree. Government actions produce more chaos and uncertainty in the world, are against international law and dismissive of national sovereignty, and worse, decreases the quality of life of the citizens the American people meant to help, creating more distrust for America as a world power.
As American and European audiences search for a more honest assessment of Syria, they find that their governments have been making the same mistakes there as they did in Libya and Iraq. There is little appetite to empower Islamists like ISIS, only in the confines of think tanks funded by Syria’s Gulf enemies can terrorist sympathizers be found.
“Islamization means ‘I don’t believe in anyone who doesn’t look like me, behaves like me, thinks like me,’ ” he said. “Secular means freedom of religion.” – Assad
The organizational strength of the pro-peace community in the West will grow, of this, we can be confident. Common sense is on the side of the secular Syrian government, and public sympathy, though it may not wholeheartedly embrace the head of Syria’s government, will follow the logic of remaining uninvolved in Syria’s domestic politics. Reform in Syria’s post-war period will be necessary, but reform can only be decided upon by the Syrians themselves.