Four years ago this past Sunday I flew from Damascus to Aleppo in Northern Syria for the Remembrance Service at the Commonwealth Cemetery there. I flew because the roads were deemed no longer safe to drive… and the Syrian authorities were restricting travel for some diplomats…. particularly those representing countries with an interest in human rights and not especially friendly to the Assad government. The British Ambassador and I (who shared this distinction) travelled up together and were subjected to a good deal of attention from the security forces at the airports, otherwise it was a solemn but uneventful day.
I did not know that this would be my last trip to Aleppo… an ancient and wonderful city which I had often visited. A few days later on the 11th of November we observed the Day of Remembrance in the beautiful Commonwealth Cemetery in Damascus… surrounded by hundreds of acres of cactus groves planted over a century ago.
In both locations, the services were brief and dignified, and all who spoke, Christian and Muslim alike, conveyed messages of peace and prayed that the troubles, then in their 7th month in Syria, would soon come to an end.
Now, four years later, Aleppo is in ruins. Like other cities in Syria it has suffered heavily from the regime’s use of barrel bombs dropped from helicopters against its own people and the civilian losses have been horrible.
Today, the city centre of Damascus itself, the oldest continually inhabited capital on Earth, has by all accounts remained relatively unaffected… but it is the keep within the castle walls… kept secure while all around is under siege and burning. The Damascus suburbs are shattered, the cactus fields have now been bulldozed and while the Assads remain firmly in control of the capital, they are in tenuous control of only some 20% of the rest of the country.
Before the unrest began in early March 2011 my family and I had travelled throughout the country. We came to know it well and to love the Syrian people. I have never met more welcoming or gracious people than in Syria, nor have I experienced a greater demonstration of co-existence and mutual tolerance than I saw in our early years in that country. Syrians are wonderful people with a legacy of terrible government. They have long deserved better.
History is everywhere in Syria especially that of the three great monotheistic religions.
There used to be a thriving Jewish population in Syria…. although the vast majority left in the 1970s, I have seen Jewish houses abandoned but still protected after 40 years.
Syria has a major place in our Christian heritage; about 10% of the population of 22 million was Christian until the civil war; Saul of Tarsus – later Paul the Apostle and Saint Paul was converted on the road to Damascus and the street called straight where he walked is still there; we heard the Lord’s Prayer recited in Aramaic, the language of Christ, in a tiny church 1500 years old; and we met extraordinary and courageous people who practiced the Christian faith and brought good to the country… some of whom have since been murdered.
Syria is of course a Muslim country, with about 90% of the population being followers of Islam. Before the civil war there was peace between Shia and Sunni in Syria – rare in many corners of the Muslim world. There was also a very comfortable and easy relationship between Christian and Muslim, and the closeness of the two religions was more apparent in Syria than anywhere I have ever seen. The great Umayeed Mosque of Damascus, one of the most sacred sites in Islam, has 3 minarets one of which is the Jesus tower. The head of John the Baptist is by tradition reverently housed in the Great Mosque as a sacred relic. Christian visitors were genuinely welcome in the Great Mosque and always found peace and comfort there… and I sometimes wondered if Muslim visitors would be as graciously received in the great cathedrals of Christianity.
Today, while the Great Mosque still stands, the peace and harmony it reflected so perfectly is now in tatters.
Apart from its religious heritage, Syria is an ancient land in ways that we as a new country can hardly comprehend. People rarely forget … or forgive… anything.
There are sites where bronze age society flourished, and I have seen the ruins of cities dating back 5,000 years, walked in silence in the ruined Roman cities of Apameya and Palmyra, and approached the great crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers through valleys filled with spring wildflowers and gazed with awe at it, still intact after a thousand years.
Now, ISIS has plundered artifacts from Apameya and is destroying Palmyra, Krak has been bombed by the regime….and where will it end?
Where indeed. The Syria we knew had a population of 22 million in an area about 3 times the size of Nova Scotia. Today over 4 million have left the country, and another 7 million are internally displaced…. half the population. Over 250,000 are dead … and who knows how many are missing or imprisoned.
I need not dwell on the brutality of the regime and of its many opponents or the history of the civil war. Let me just say that it was not outside agitators who were responsible at the beginning of the unrest as the Assads claimed; they came later.
In the early stages ordinary Syrian people asked their own government for justice and reform through peaceful protest. They were met with violence, which is what the Assad regime understands, and they eventually responded with violence.
The Assad regime has no interest in the well being of the people of Syria; their only goal is to stay in power. Had it not been for the financial, military and political support of Russia and Iran, the regime would have collapsed two or three years ago. But it has been propped up and strengthened and funded, and a complex and horrible civil war has been sustained: the regime and its supporters are now pitted against scores of opposition groups, many of which fight each other; Sunnis now fight with Shia; Jihadists fight everyone, and foreign powers play out their own interests by proxy through groups they fund and support.
Where will this lead and how will it end? I do not know. The recent Vienna talks were a step in the right direction, but only a step, after 4 years. I am very guarded in my outlook for a ceasefire any time in the near future… unless Russia, Iran and the regional states become serious about helping end the bloodshed. Only pressure from them can achieve this, and it may still be years in coming.
So where does this leave the people of Syria, who are caught in the midst of it all … and what does it mean for the people of Canada and of Nova Scotia ?
The plight of the Syrian refugees is very serious. There are over 2 million in Turkey, a million in Lebanon (pop of 4 million) and 600 thousand in Jordan. These are good people, ordinary people, who are in great need.
Most of them simply want the fighting to stop so they can return home and start to rebuild their lives. They do not want to leave. Winter is arriving and the UN and NGOs who are helping the refugees are seriously underfunded.
Canada and the rest of the international community need to fix this and to generously fund the humanitarian relief efforts… and extend bilateral assistance to the countries which are bearing this burden. I am greatly encouraged by the government’s recent announcements in this area.
There are of course many refugees who do want to leave, and Canada, together with the rest of the international community, must open our doors and make them welcome.
What the Bay Project is doing to sponsor Syrian refugee families is wonderful, and a great example for other communities. We all need to open our hearts and help make it possible for more new families to come to Canada. Like many who watched the swearing in of the new federal cabinet last Wednesday I was struck by our new Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, who herself came to Canada from Afghanistan in 1996 as a refugee of 11. I have heard her speak before, and she does so with an eloquence and dignity and pride as a Canadian that makes me stand a little taller and think what a country we have where this is possible… and what richness new Canadians can bring to this land.
On this Remembrance Day as we reflect on the sacrifices of those who fought for Canada in the past, perhaps we might also consider how truly we can honour them by welcoming the innocent victims of another war… and helping them find peace and a new life in the blessed country which our forbears have bequeathed to us …. and to help us all build a better Canada.
Nova Scotia resident Glenn Davidson is the former Canadian Ambassador to Syria, and a great friend of the Bay Refugee Project.