Letter from Syria

June 7, 2012

Dear Sirs,

I have lived in Syria for more than 40 years, a Christian in a Muslim family, but have never felt so threatened before. There have been many times when trouble here, or war, or differences between the Syrian and British governments have arisen, but I cannot recall any time when the actions of the country I still call home have been so embarrassingly prejudiced.

Syria is not a very well-governed country, and most people complain of the various secret police forces and their power, but for almost everyone almost all the time, life has been secure. I have walked through a city of 5 million people late at night with no thought that it would be unsafe, and the different Muslim and Christian sects have worshipped in their own ways and places with little control. Even the synagogue, now deserted, is protected from damage, and the land abandoned by Jewish emigrants waits for them to reclaim it sometime.

The present hate campaign seems to me to have started when the Lebanese leader, Rafiq Hariri was assassinated some years ago. It had to be Syria’s fault, though he used to spend time in Damascus, and owned a house there. There was screaming and shouting from the Americans that Syrians must be brought to trial, and only when evidence which had been ignored was forced on the attention of the world, that the Americans themselves, with Israeli help, had been involved, was the subject quietly dropped.

The basis of a democracy, I was taught, is a free press, and Syria is only now beginning to get that. However, how free is your own information? The official news program from Syria is now going off the air from the Nilesat and Arabsat satellite, so others in the Arab world will not be able to get any official view of Syria. Europe has Syria on Hotbird, but the news on the BBC Arabic service usually discounts anything put out by the government. On the other hand, the programs which are devoted to the opposition are given free rein on the airwaves, even when their content is often extremely controversial and frequently wildly inaccurate. I have seen reports of opposition rallies which showed pictures of pro-government rallies, and reports purporting to be from the North Syrian countryside, where it has been an incredibly wet year, which appear to have been taken in some desert. The news being accepted as truth by BBC World News is so biased these days that I no longer believe what they say about anything any more, after more than 60 years of crediting them with the truth.

Syria certainly needs democracy, but most of the people I speak to, from friends to cleaners, factory workers and taxi-drivers, are actually looking for ‘a strong leader to be a father to his people’. Like the majority in England, if they can see life getting a little easier for them and their families, they really don’t worry too much about the system, so long as it treats them fairly.

There had been many improvements in the way of life and in the standards of living of many working people in the last few years. One big difference is the reduction of corruption in the police and the judicial services, and the limiting of the powers of the security services. Another advance was, until the present conflict, the massive growth in tourism to Syria, pulling thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of people into paid employment of one sort or another – this has, of course, disappeared, to the distress of many families. . The tragedy here has been twofold. The population has more than tripled in about 35 years (how would Britain manage that one?), and nobody has bothered very much to keep the system fair. The president is much criticized in the West for favoring his tribe, but I would point out that many of the people in his government are not Alawites, although many are, and he increasingly heads a government of technocrats.

The saddest part of the present events is, for me, how two other Arab countries, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are being encouraged to bring their own forms of democracy and force them on Syria. When one remembers that the Saudi police start where the Syrian police leave off, and are proud of it, that women have no equal status there, that the religious police have power and status, and that any and all opposition is dealt with ‘firmly’ by the Saudi army, even when it is in neighboring Kuwait, I can only wonder at the naivety of the Foreign Secretary who appears to want to bring them to relatively laid-back Syria.

The opposition, ah yes, the poor, unarmed rebels fighting the might of the Syrian army. Here are a few facts that I can produce actual witnesses for:

A business acquaintance of my husband was invited to join a peaceful demo after Friday prayers in Hama last summer. He was worried for his safety, but was given a red rose to carry and assured the whole thing would be calm and orderly, and seeing many other men from the mosque joining in with their small sons, he agreed. They walked for a very few minutes, the unarmed police watching them from the wayside, then a man NEXT TO HIM pulled out a gun and shot the nearest policeman dead. The result was a riot. With fatal casualties, reported on Al-Jazeera as a gratuitous attack by the police on demonstrators.

An elderly man in Jisr el Shugur, retired and living with his wife in a ground-floor flat, decided that he had better stay and look after it when the Freedom Fighters took over. The weather was hot, so his shutters were shut but the windows open, and he heard people talking outside who did not have Syrian accents. He judged them to be from Saudi or some such place. He did not mind being in the hands of Syrians, but was furious and frightened to find himself at the mercy of foreigners, so he put his wife in his small car and left, pretending to go to Idlib, as they refused him permission to go to Aleppo.

When the Arab Peace Mission went to Latakia, a man begged them to get the rebels out as they were making life impossible. As soon as the Peace Mission left, he was hanged by the rebels in the public square, to the horror of a foreign friend there.

There have been multiple kidnappings in Aleppo, and the UN has said that they are the work of the opposition. There are also well-known death lists for anyone working for the government in any capacity. I just hope that this letter does not put me on one!

Shops in many parts of Aleppo have been shut after the owners found, painted on their shutters, ‘Close or be burned down’.

The horrible events at Houla, where children were shot or knifed to death. So many governments were so quick to blame the Syrian army, but the UN observers have not yet put in a report. Why not wait until it is known what happened?

There are so many cases I can quote from my own knowledge. Please ask yourself if it is to YOUR benefit to have an extreme Muslim regime here. The Christians have already been told, ‘It is your turn next,’ painted on church walls in Latakia and Aleppo.

It is clearly true that there are many very bad sides to the present government, but demonizing the president does not seem to be a useful way forward, although the pressure on Syria at the moment has certainly helped to move the internal political process out of the rut it has been in for so many years. Perhaps a little less hysteria from the Foreign Secretary, and the old adage ‘you catch more flies with jam than with vinegar might be useful at this point in the events.

By the way, if you hear of the death of a British citizen in Aleppo in the near future, it will be because this sort of opinion is enough to put me on a death list — and not a government one!

Yours truly,
Angela Formby


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