Where Do We Go From Here? A First-Hand Account from Syria
In the midst of breaking news stories about the Syrian war, the voices of Syrian women remain absent, despite their contributions to advancing peace in local communities across the country. Rula Asad and Mariam Jalabi give a first-hand account of life in Syria today. They reflect on organizing for human rights and justice in the midst of Syria’s protracted war, and the opportunities they see for the future, both within Syria and for displaced populations in Lebanon and Turkey. This meeting is part of a high-level series in collaboration with the Compton Foundation, to explore new strategies for security.
BIGIO: Good afternoon. Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. We’re so glad that you all could join us for this session today with Rula and Mariam. My name is Jamille Bigio. I’m a senior fellow with the Council’s Women and Foreign Policy program. Our program has worked with leading scholars for 15 years now to analyze how elevating the status of women and girls advances U.S. foreign policy objectives, including prosperity and stability.
I want to take a moment before we begin to thank our advisory council members who are here with us today, as well as the Compton Foundation for its generous support for today’s discussion. I also want to remind everyone that the presentation as well as the discussion and the question and answer period will be on the record.
Before we begin the discussion, let’s recall that the Syrian conflict is entering its eighth year, with over 400,000 people killed, and 11 million people displaced from their homes to date. Reports are that close to 1,300 people have been killed since the latest UN ceasefire resolution was adopted just a few weeks ago. In fact, there is an escalation in violence as Russia and the Syrian government pursue offensive operations in the suburbs of Damascus.
This uptick in violence underscores the dire need for diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflict, and yet we’ve seen negotiations falter. The latest round of both UN-led and Russian-led talks were unsuccessful. And the voices of Syrian women remain absent, despite all that they have done and that they are doing today to advance peace and security across the country. Today we’re thrilled to be joined by two Syrian women who are working on some of the most pressing issues in Syria today.
We have Rula Asad, who is the founder and executive director of the Syrian Female Journalists’ Network. And we have Mariam Jalabi, who wears two hats. She is a founding member of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement and is also the representative of the Syrian Opposition Coalition to the United Nations, so here in New York.
Rula, let’s start with you first. In the midst of breaking news stories about the war, there are few journalists reporting on the particular experiences of Syrian women and girls, of what their lived realities are today. And so can you share, what do you see from your own work, from your journalist networks, of what the situation is for Syrian women and girls on the ground now?
ASAD: Sure. Thank you for having me today.
Actually, through our work as journalists, we thought all the time we can—even we are a citizen of a certain country, we have a better eye to report about issues. But since the media has changed, and especially in a zone where there is a conflict, media become a part of the civil society. And because of this division in Syria, I mean, no journalist outsider can enter. The journalists have been targeted from the regime and other armed groups since the beginning. So now the citizen who is really reporting about very detailed issue from inside Syria.
So because of our work in the place, in the middle between women movement in Syria but also as a media. So we are trying to develop the media to bring more women voices and women’s story to the media. We find out, like, even us, as journalists from the same country, we can’t see the same issues. A lot of citizen journalists we trained during the last five years, because we established in 2013, they report issue, for example, now the problem of documentation. So, like, maybe they’re poor and then they don’t have any access to institution to register their babies. And then there is no access to health care. There is no access to education. And then you can imagine for—I mean, what kind of life is waiting people without documentation, and what kind of suffer, like, the mother, the woman, is facing during this journey to get a paper for a born baby.
So that’s one of the issues, but it’s not the only one. I mean, again, people who are displaced from area to the other area, also they don’t have their space or a place to go to send their children to education. And education is very important because now we have a thousand of children without schooling. And that’s, I mean, inside Syria, outside Syria, in the refugee camp. Issues like child marriage, for example. It’s one of the issue reported from different areas within the country.
And how the legal—I mean, supporting such a decision, I mean, the judge even in the courts within the government-controlled area, they are—still they are saying child marriage is acceptable according to sharia. And the citizen journalists trying to bring more and more stories to say we have to start from here, I mean, for the basic rights. Freedom of movement from a neighborhood to the other neighborhood, it’s much more harder for women alone than for a man—a young man alone or old man alone.
All this is stories. I mean, and the long—I mean, with all basic needs for girls and women have been reported from other citizen because they have the skills how to report about the issue, to write a blog. And many of these blogs and stories within the Syrian media outlet, I mean, the alternative media established after 2011, as react of the governmental media who controlled any news coming from the country. They start to report about every single details about, for example, how people together living in a certain area, whether this place, whether they are Arabs or Kurds. Such, I mean, stories, we didn’t read it before in Arabic, first, or in the Syrian outlet.
So through all this, I mean, work—great work from citizen journalists—and even they are sacrificing their lives, for example, giving us such a story because they are challenging all the authority in their area. Sometimes if a young female journalist with a cellphone going outside to take a photo of—a photo of (gravity ?), for example, she is in trouble. The armed group, they will take her phone for two days. And then she has to pay money to release her phone. And she has to come with a man to guarantee, like, she is not going to do such a thing again.
So from our work, it’s not only the story we are offering, but also the situation and the safety of female journalists doing such work, it’s something we realize—even I am journalist myself. I travel to—I mean, I report from Syria, from Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. But still, when I learned from other colleague what kind of challenge they have, I mean, I feel like what a great people we have inside country. They have us that much hope to continue working as civil activists, as civil—as a society to bring more stories. Because so far, it has been said, the conflict in Syria have been documented—the most documented conflict in the world because of people using all technology, even the technology turned out to be against them sometimes—like, having been tracked very easy, being arrested, et cetera.
BIGIO: So what is your hope with all the risks that are being taken, as you said, to share these stories, to share these experiences, to get this out there. What is your hope of what’s then done with it, of how can it be better lifted up or better—you know, more attention paid to the experiences that people are risking their lives to share?
ASAD: Right. Actually, so far the citizen of the world get very exhausted from Syrian conflict. We know that. It’s a lot of information we are sending out to the world. And many people, they start to be very, very tired of following any kind of a news from Syria. All these stories deserve to be continue—to be continued published, but also the people to continue to be supported. So if we don’t save the life of those people and give them all the capacity to continue their work, to make sure they are safe on the ground, to make sure this media outlet, they are able to continue their work, they have a freedom of movement in exile, especially in the neighboring country in Syria, well, this story would be part of one of other conflict, you know. We will look back to read it in—after 20 years.
But it’s not anymore, I mean, acceptable for any journalist, any citizen in the world care about other people, because now we are connected. It’s not like something that’s happened in Syria, oh, that’s very far away from here. It’s nothing. It’s affecting everyone’s life, I mean, in the world. And with all this, I mean, connection and technology, people inside Syria, they know they can use it. And they believe people on the other side, they are in solidarity with them. They believe their story even there were a lot, for example, regime tried, and Russians said, like, White Helmet, they are a terrorist organization. This is fake news, et cetera. But, I mean, eight years of revolution—for people, it is revolution. Probably now we see only fighting, but if we look to the—what a change in the society the gender role to change to the positive, or election for women for example, and they hope it will continue after this conflict end. I mean, it’s not a fake—it’s not fake anymore.
So what is needed, this story to be held and to continue, I mean, the support—to believe in the power of the citizen who are trying to sacrifice their lives, only to give you another perspective of what’s happening in Syria. It’s conflict. We know that. It’s complicated. Already we know it. Still, there are people who are trying to find their way in all this, as you said, like bloody, I mean, conflict.
BIGIO: And against the backdrop of what Rula just shared are the negotiations and what’s happening at the political level. There’s at times a connection and at times a disconnect from the realities that Rula is talking about—these kind of daily tradeoffs that people are making.
Mariam, before we get into the work you’ve done through the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, could you say a few words about what’s happening right now at the negotiation level between the governments and the opposition?
JALABI: Thank you. And thank you for having me here. Before I go into that, I do want to remember today three people. Today marks the 7th year of the Syrian revolution. We’re entering into the eighth year. And I want to mention, just to make it a little bit more human and a little bit more real, I want to mention three people. The first one is Hamza Khateeb. Hamza Khateeb was 13-year-old when he was captured—when he was arrested by the Syrian regime in 2013, when the revolution was still peaceful. He was returned back to his family with torture signs on him, dead and a body. I don’t know how to say better English. He was given back dead to his family, and torture signs on him. He was only 13 years old. This is Hamza Khateeb. He came out in demonstration. God knows what he said—I don’t know, freedom, democracy. And he was arrested for that, and tortured, and killed for that.
The other person that I want to mention is Yahya Sharbaji. Yahya Sharbaji was one of the first people who came out in peaceful demonstrations. He’s a devoted nonviolent activist who had been arrested before by the regime in 2003 because he actually had a group of people with him who cleaned the streets and who had a campaign against smoking in his neighborhood. And he was a devoted nonviolent activist when the revolution started. And it was peaceful at the beginning, nonviolent. He was on the streets telling people to give roses and flowers to the soldiers that are coming to arrest them and kill them. And one of his friends was Ghayath Mattar, who maybe you have heard of if you’re familiar with the beginnings of Syrian revolution, who was also tortured and killed in his—in prison cells in Syria. His body was given to his family three days later.
Yahya Sharbaji, who I’m mentioning today, is still in prison. We don’t know what happened to him. We have no way of knowing what’s happening to him, which gives you a little bit of a detail of what’s happening in the Syrian prisons, to remember the detainees who are there, and we have no idea of what—where they are, no account for them, they are disappeared. And this is—Yahya Sharbaji is one of 250,000 people who we don’t know what happened to. About 170,000 people of them maybe we have the names of. There is another 150,000 of them that we don’t know the names of where they sent. Forcefully disappeared.
The third person that I want to mention is Razan Zeitoune. Razan Zeitoune was abducted in late 2013 by an unknown group from eastern Ghouta. Razan Zeitoune was the head of the violation documentation center where we get our numbers from, the 1,300 that have been killed since the adoption of Resolution 2401, to stop—for the cession of hostilities in Ghouta. That’s the organization that she had started. She was abducted with three people, her husband, a friend, and another friend—Samira, and Nazem, and Wa’el. And we still don’t know what happened to them. These people, we don’t know who they were abducted by, because there are different groups on the ground that are behaving in illegal, unlawful ways, that could be—that is creating complicated situation on the ground. But this is all the creation of a regime that’s not able to protect its citizens.
Now I go to Geneva. And today marks the 7th anniversary of Syrian revolution. Geneva, we’ve done nine rounds of talks. We have come to every talk as the Syrian opposition with willingness to sit and negotiate and engage seriously with whoever is sitting on the other side who’s willing to create a solution for Syria—to stop the killing, to stop the bombardment, to stop the refugee influx from Syria. The regime has not come to any of these rounds, especially not the last two, in any serious way, to negotiate.
They come. They’re present. They skirt out the issues. They marginalize this issue and that issue. They say, oh, we have an issue with ISIS, with—not ISIS—with the terrorist groups on the ground. And they never give any official engagement or paper to discuss. While we have seriously given all of the different baskets that the special envoy, de Mistura, has proposed to us, the baskets on anti-terrorism, elections, constitution and transitional government. We have given papers. We have given our ideas. And we have fully engaged. But nothing has come out of it.
So we are there right now. And what’s happening on the ground is that the regime comes, sits at Geneva, and talk and whatever they do. Meanwhile, on the ground, they’re intensifying their bombardment and their arrests and their military actions on the ground. Every time a negotiation happens people in Syria, inside, fear of what’s going to happen to them, because it has become a trend every time people sit at the table there is actually intensified bombardment by the regime and its allies.
So it seems the last two rounds have demonstrated most clearly in the negotiations is that they have advanced further and further on the ground with the support of their allies, with the lack of the international community’s interest in combatting that or working against it. And they have been taking one area after the other on the ground and making military gains on the ground.
So when you have a regime that feels that they have the upper hand on the ground, it becomes very difficult to bring them to a negotiation table and tell them, hey, we need to sit and negotiate with you on what could be done for the constitution, elections, and most definitely they’re not going to then discuss transition. So unless there is something that happens on the ground that changes the scenario, that changes the balance, there is no way this regime is going to come and negotiate with us.
Therefore, we are at a crossroads now where if the international community is really serious about bringing a political solution, like we all want, like, for Syria to happen—like, all of you, all of the international community wants to stop this atrocities, wants to stop for a lot of different reasons, for a lot of different interests of different governments in the world, and especially the regional powers. If you want to stop this, there has to be something done on the ground to stop the regime from feeling that they have the power.
I do have to mention a story here. And I take it from one of our fierce negotiators, Hadi al-Bahra, I heard him say it the other day. And I looked into it, and it’s like it’s Bouthaina Shaaban. She’s the political advisor to the Assad regime. She was in Moscow with a—in a meeting, in a conference where Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, and Zarif was there. Zarif is the foreign minister of Iran. And they’re sitting there and discussing issues. And they asked—they asked her something about, you know, negotiations or the political process in Syria. She didn’t mention anything about Geneva, about the political process. No reference to it whatsoever.
So Bogdanov, who is the advisor to the U.N. and who is part of the Russian regime and who has been trying to work, you know, on the negotiations on the side as an advisor, asked her, like, you’re not mentioning anything about the political process about what’s happening in Geneva. So she said, why would I want to talk about a political process if we’re winning on the ground, if we have the military upper hand? Like, why would we want to do that? Like, outwardly like that—(laughs)—like it’s out in the record, you know? It’s in the conference that she was at. Bogdanov couldn’t tolerate, himself. He actually got up and he said: Well, you would not be able to make those gains on the ground if it wasn’t for our help. And I learned later also that they were not allowed—she was not given a meeting with Lavrov.
I talked a lot, so I’ll stop here. I’ll let you ask further questions on the negotiations.
BIGIO: It’s helpful to have that background. As you’ve said, there’s the balance between what’s happening militarily on the ground and what’s happening at the table in the negotiations—will there be a political solution or not. Against that backdrop you formed the Syrian Women’s Political Movement. What was the goal in forming that movement? How do you hope it will influence the process?
JALABI: Yes. Being a woman and part of the opposition, one of the main reasons why we formed this Syrian Women’s Political Movement was the feeling that there is so much that’s happening in talk about Syria that does not include 50 percent of society. And I’m not talking just about, you know, a few people here and there. I’m talking about a majority—the majority, over 50 percent of society that are directly influenced by the crisis, by what’s happening, by every decision that’s being taken at the table. And we’re not present there.
And this—I do want to mention also that it’s not just a Syrian phenomenon. This is not just because we Syrian people are incapable of including women. This is a global phenomenon when there world of politics is run by men, and it’s dominated by men. And there aren’t enough women at the table anywhere or in any decision making or policy making where they are actually sitting there to make policies that influence the wellbeing and the rights of women. So we felt that unless we’ve created a movement that’s politically oriented, we will not be able to bring those voices to the table or create any policy.
And this is where I related to what Rula has said, is that there is also a little bit of a gap that we felt between what’s happening on the ground, what the civil society is doing on the ground, and the voices that are on the ground, and the suffering they have, or the messages that they have, that does not always reach to the opposition or to the people who are sitting at the table in the way that it should, and in the capacity, and in the—in the speed that it should, that we felt as women we are responsible for making that connection between the ground and what’s happening at the table, so that the decisions, the messages that are coming from women on the ground, from civil society, could be translated to a political message and put at the table to create policies that actually benefit all.
BIGIO: One of the things that we’ve seen the talks shift to as well is looking at reconstruction questions. What happens after the war is on the table, even as the violence continues. There are questions about the constitution, about investments to rebuild Syria. What do you both see as the priorities, given the experiences of women and girls on the ground. Rula, do you want to start there?
ASAD: Yeah. I mean, people in Syria, they are aware that the international community and U.N. are not coming to save them, because it’s already have been a lot of events and many of red line the regime has crossed. And it looks like an old story for them now. Like, there is now a chemical weapon have been thrown to Hamoria, near to—one of the eastern Ghouta village. But people who are not really—who are not directly under shelling, they are thinking about rebuilding the country already. And for I don’t know what reason, women, they are much more aware of their role for future than, I mean, the other men in the same community. So inside Syria already, people, they don’t really think about building as a building, as an investor, they are thinking about. But they know that they have to leave something to the next generation to learn from.
So women, for example, even in a city like Idlib, where the regime force, for example, now there is 2,000 people has to leave—has to leave eastern Ghouta, they have to move to Idlib. The same happened in Aleppo and in Homs previously. People in that small village, crowded with people, they are aware that they have to live together first. They have to find a way to future. They are—women, they are aware that they have to fight for their voice in the local councils. Some women, they know that they have to join the police in the city. So many initiatives to peacebuilding and to reduce any tension recruiting children.
So this is kind of thinking for future and how they contribute to building the country. They know—I mean, the other decision—it’s taken out of their, I mean, interest, but they still know that they are the one who’s living on that ground. And they are trying to do their own way how to leave some—I mean, already a very important heritage of Syria have been destroyed. But the people, they are still there. So this is what they are trying to contribute to rebuilding the country by what lesson learned from this. Of course, it’s not like all in the whole country is very beautiful, people they are loving each other and hugging each other. No, it’s not.
But there is a lot of initiative at the same time from women and young men and women to reduce all this depression from no one is saving us to what we can contribute to the future, how we keep our voices as civilians, and to get our messages to the people—to the world is up to date. It’s not like if there is no attacks or we are silent. No, even in what’s called for them a peacetime, they also send messages like this is what we are doing and we continue doing this, even you are hesitating or you are doubting. There is civilians still living in Syria and trying to do such a way to the future.
BIGIO: You talked about the idea of women taking on the mantle, serving as police officers or serving in politics in local councils. You also mentioned the idea that there has seen some opening around gender norms in society, that Syrian women are stepping into roles that they may not have had before the war started. So how can those roles be cemented, those opportunities be ensured so that women do continue to serve in these leadership roles that they’ve taken on over the course of the conflict?
ASAD: Well, it’s not secret. During the conflict there is a lot of positive opportunity, but also there is a lot of negative. It’s very strange to look to this conflict from my perspective as a woman, as a journalist. It’s open to a very positive opportunity. Even that experience of being refugee in a camp in Lebanon, for example, forced women somehow to go out and to learn some skills. So this is the question now. It’s for the future. I don’t have any answer. I don’t think anyone working in my field has the answers. Is it because the conflict now the gender role is changed? And then women, when they are back for what they called previously a normal life, they will give up, say, like, we are not anymore in expected situation. Or they will fight for that? I mean, this is a question—it’s the answer held with the international organization, international—I mean, governments going to save this, it’s a change for good.
So if we are not continuing, starting from my organization, not continuing working with citizen journalist, with the citizen who want to become, I mean, blogger, even when we are at this, let’s say, in a post-conflict era. So we are stupid not to do this, because it’s not—I mean, the solution, it’s not like we get rid of Assad. We know that. We are aware about that. So I think it’s very critical to think in the future, even within the international organization working in development, to think also in the future with the Syrian beneficiaries who are providing them with all this developing and empowering projects because now it’s a critical moment.
So it’s really held what’s happened after. It depends on how the narrative will change. Who will lead the country? How the political solution will come to the table, et cetera, et cetera. But for sure, if there is enough solidarity, enough support, well-planned projects, I think women they will not take—will not give away what they have gained as the skills and freedom during this very tough experience being displaced or refugee or detainee or in exile, et cetera.
BIGIO: Mariam, what do you think? What more can the United Nations, the U.S. government, others do to invest in a better future for Syria?
JALABI: I want to comment a little bit on the reconciliation part, is that on the—I want to go back a little bit in the history of Syria. Syria is 23 million people. There were about 700 civil society groups only that were there. And just so that you can get the comparison, Egypt is 18 million but 300,000 civil society groups. And these are two communities that were under a dictatorship of a sort. But all of the civil society groups that were inside Syria, the 700, were actually under the auspices of the regime. They were controlled by the regime. And Asma Akhras, the first lady of Syria, has taken her own initiative in starting a lot of women, you know, civil society organizations and working with different groups, trying to modernize the country. So she had her hand in a lot of these organizations.
So when the revolution started, what sprung up and what happened in Syria is that—with the freedoms—is the same thing that Rula was talking about, is that there is a new vision and a new space for people who did not have the space before to act, who sprung into action. And that came into this sphere of civil society groups who have started building in every level—educational level, health level, women empowerment level, on so many different organizational levels that now we have over 300—3,000 civil society groups alone that are functioning in and around Syria.
So when we’re talking reconstruction, I—knowing what’s happening on the ground. We know if you’re giving it to the, like, any kind of even just early recovery—I know the EU and a lot of the Western countries keep promising that we will not give any reconstruction money to the government unless, you know, there is a transition, and there’s a lot of the stock that’s happening. But there is money that’s going inside Syria. I know, like, for sure, like, that Japan has actually made big deals with—inside Syria for electricity and power for power plants, for gas, for—like, there is so much that they have done on the ground that’s actually going through the government, that’s all done by the government.
When you’re doing it through the government, you’re giving it legitimacy, you’re giving it power to oppress its people more. However, when you have this very well-established now, for the last eight years, for the last seven years, civil society, there is so much that they can give and they can add to the needs of the—the real needs of the Syrian people on the ground, the real needs of women, the real needs of children, education and health, because they are the ones who are involved in trying to rebuild on daily basis in basements, in shelters, doing education, helping people field clinics, doing everything they can from their houses, from the broken, destroyed areas that they’re living in.
So those are the people who are going to rebuilt. Like, it cannot be coming through—not even international organizations because international INGOs sometimes don’t realize what’s happening on the ground. And there’s so much that goes through them that does not trickle down to the local groups that are on the ground. So anything that could happen that could help Syrians right now has to be done through that. And then, of course, like, when the transition takes place or there’s a real credible change that happens on the political scene that creates somewhat of a legitimate representation on the ground, then of course the conversation would be very different, the reconstruction would be—the conversation on reconstruction.
BIGIO: It’s helpful to note—as many wonder who can they support, what can they do to help—there is a network of civil society actors who are delivering support and services and making an impact already. It’s important to know that they’re there.
BIGIO: You’re talking about the role of the U.N., and the U.S. government, and the EU, and Japan. You’ve talked about them in the context of reconstruction. What role do you see for them in the context of the negotiation and the political process?
JALABI: Right now Ghouta is under severe bombardment. As you mentioned earlier, only since the adoption of Resolution 2401 there has been over 1,300 people that have been killed, over 120 children that have been killed, over 100 women that have been killed. And all of these are civilians. And this goes back to the organization Razan—to the one that was started by Razan Zeitoune, the VDC, the violation documentation center. I encourage you to go back and see the numbers that they give on daily basis and the reports that they come out with.
This is a reality right now that’s happening on the ground. The regime is taking back—(inaudible). They just entered—like Rula said, they entered into Hamoria. Today there has been 3,000 people that have been displaced from their homes that have been taken somewhere into a camp. And we don’t know what’s going to happen to them. And this was done under the auspices of Russia and the regime. There was no international community presence there. There was no U.N. presence there.
So when you take a Resolution like 2401 and you feel that it was such a great accomplishment at the Security Council that it’s going to do some kind of a difference on the ground, 2401 was a resolution that was to implement a 30-day immediate ceasefire, a cessation of hostilities on the ground in eastern Ghouta, which is a suburb of Damascus.
BIGIO: And this was passed in February?
JALABI: And this was passed February 24th. And this resolution—since its adoption, the escalation of violence on the ground has escalated. It’s not—it has increased. As I mentioned, 1,300 people have been killed. Why is this? Because there is a loophole in the resolution that said: You can keep the bombardment and the attacks and the getting rid of all of the terrorist groups on the ground. As far as the regime is concerned, everybody is a terrorist on the ground. Anybody who is inside Ghouta. And if I may just explain a little bit the situation in Ghouta. The fighters that are Ghouta are actually the fathers and the educators and the engineers and the previous, you know, shop owners from Ghouta, who have taken up arms and became part of these rebel groups.
So when the regime—when the regime says, oh, everybody is terrorist who are fighting, like, with the rebel groups, so these people are from Ghouta. And they go back to their families in the evenings. Like, it’s an intermingled—it’s not just a place where you have, like, a front line where at the outskirts of Ghouta you have fighting groups that are sitting there and they’re combatting with the regime. It’s not like that. These people are trying to protect their families. They’re trying to protect their neighborhoods. There are some brigades that are sitting on the outskirts that are not necessarily from Ghouta, but what the regime is targeting is those people from inside Ghouta—meaning that anybody who is trying to protect their neighborhood or their families is a terrorist.
So this loophole was used in the resolution to bombard and to kill everybody, like, to just take it as a—as a way of giving them the permission. The resolution has given them permission to continue the bombardment on the ground. And it has not made any effect. So what do you do at the Security Council if you come up with a resolution thinking that this resolution is actually going to decrease the casualties on the ground, and it increases it? You need a resolution that completely and totally stops any kind of bombardment on the ground, and that has consequences.
If any resolution is adopted at the Security Council without having any kind of a consequences connected to it, any kind of a mechanisms for compliance connected to it—and I mention specifically Chapter Seven. If it’s not in that realm, then it’s not going to be effective on the ground, knowing the history of what the regime and the Russians are capable of doing on the ground. The Russians have the air power from the air. And the regime has it on the ground with the support of the Iranian militias in the checkpoints in—like in eastern Ghouta.
So what you need is that for the international community to take action, a resolution at the Security Council with Chapter Seven that has consequences that will bring the regime and the Russians seriously a message saying that if you do this, this is the consequence you’re going to get. If that doesn’t happen, I believe that there has to be states such as the U.S., the U.K., France—people who are capable of doing it—to take unilateral action in what’s happening in Syria. This has been used before in Kosovo. This has been used—(off mic). (Laughter.) This has been used before in Kobane.
This has been used also with the coalition of the willing when they attacked ISIS, and they—without even the invitation of the regime they considered this is a threat to the international security. And they came into Syria without having to have any kind of Security Council resolution specifically, per se, and create this coalition to fight ISIS. There are ways in which the international community can take some kind of a limited military action against the regime that gives it a less that if you behave in a certain way—or the Russians—if you behave in a certain way that there will be consequences to it.
This is the only way, I believe, and we believe in the opposition, is that it’s going to bring a credible threat to the regime, to its existential—to its existence, that they will be willing to come and negotiate in good faith. If they keep believing that they’re winning on the ground and they’re going to take Ghouta now, next there’s going to take Daraa. After that, they’re going to go to Idlib. And this happened in Halab last year in 2016—not last year, no—a year and a half when they took Halab, it was the same—Aleppo—it was the same thing. They came in and took it over. And this will keep repeating until they have full control back over the country and there will be no political solution.
BIGIO: So on that uplifting note—(laughter)—I would like to open to questions now. If you could please speak directly into the microphone so that everyone can hear you, and state your name and affiliation. If you want to raise your placard, I can call on any questions that we have. First up here. Yeah, so please, if you press the—
Q: All right. Thank you very much. Thanks very much for the presentation. Really, you began by talking about—
JALABI: Who are you?
Q: I’m Ron Tiersky from Amherst College, which is in Massachusetts.
Really, you began talking about the fact that for Americans, Syria is far away, it’s complicated, it’s difficult for Americans to understand what’s going on. Then listening to the discussion, I think in general that the question of who the opposition is has not been answered. And, you know, I hate to even mention our president’s name so I won’t, but one of—one of the things he said in the debate that was—that was striking was he said people want the United States to support the opposition, but we don’t know who they are. Who are these guys?
So, and my question is kind of an information question, is it possible perhaps for Mariam to talk about the opposition? Who is involved? Who they are? And with respect even to this particular point, for Americans or any group to understand the conflict, there needs to be a face on it. There needs to be a leader or a leadership. And one of—one of the difficulties I think a lot of us have in America is to know who the opposition is, who are the leaders, how can we recognize it? So could you talk a little bit about who the opposition is?
JALABI: I am the opposition. (Laughter.) The opposition was formed right away when the Syrian revolution started. And I understand the confusion that happens because we do not have one face. Syria is a multiethnic, multicultural, multi-religious, multilingual space where all have been oppressed in one degree or another. So when the opposition first started, it had to have representation from within all of the different groups. In 2011—in June 2011 the first serious opposition group was formed in Antalya. And that grew into about 450 people that were representatives of all different sectors and different groups from society from the ground in Syria.
As the—as the revolution grew and as the conflict became a little bit different and a lot of regional powers got involved, the opposition shaped—started to shape a little bit differently, depending on who’s supporting us and who’s helping us, who’s really siding by us. And most lately there was a group that was—I don’t know if you might have heard, just to, like, take away the confusion—is that there was a group that was called the Cairo Group that was formed. And then there was another group that was called the Moscow Group that was formed. And in existence was a continuation of the first initial opposition group, which was called the Syrian National Council, the Syrian National Coalition was created, which is still in function, which I am representing to the U.N. now. And it’s a big group also of a lot of different groups that have come together under this coalition.
In 2017, November, under the international community’s support and request that all of the opposition unite under one umbrella and all work together, there has been—the Moscow Group and the Cairo Group were brought together with the other opposition groups—the Syrian National Coalition and the Syrian National Council and a few other groups that are from the ground—into one group that’s called the Syrian Negotiations Commission right now, which its main task is to go to Geneva and negotiate. This group includes everyone who consider themselves opposition. It could be there are some of them that are actually—with all of the differences in what they see in how the transition can happen, they all agree that there has to be a transition happening.
And this includes also an agreement with the rebels on the ground, a lot of different rebel groups on the ground that represented within the Syrian National—Syrian Negotiations Commission, which is formed out of 36 members, and expanded to have 50 members. And they have affiliations with a lot of different groups on the ground. As you can imagine, no country can be built by having—like, bringing 20 people together and just putting them as an opposition, and creating that space where it’s going to be a true democratic transition. Therefore, there are a lot of different groups. There are a lot of different minds that exist in Syria—politically, ethnically, religiously—that needed to be under an umbrella of some sort. And this is the umbrella.
The Syrian Negotiations Commission right now is the highest and most united opposition group that has existed. And it has been evolving and it has become this. So when somebody says, oh, who’s going to replace Assad? Anybody who replaces Assad—(laughs)—out of these groups, I’m hoping, is not going to be doing the atrocities that they’re creating in Syria. Any kind of a new government that could be formed according to the Geneva—I need to go back to the Geneva Communique from 2011 that was agreed to and became a communique with the existence of Russia and Iran and all of the Western countries in presence. They agreed that there will be a transitional governing body that will take over all the executive powers and be formed by mutual consent on both parties, meaning the opposition and the regime.
And this is what we’ve have been calling on. Who’s going to take after the Assad goes? There will be a transitional governing body that will be created by consent on both sides. And this is—I believe is a—is something that has been used before, that has been effective in trying to create peace in peace negotiations where you bring both parties together to the table. But they need to engage in full faith. And this is what we have not yet had yet from the regime.
I hope that answers the question. It’s very prolonged.
Q: (Off mic.)
JALABI: I’m a representative in New York. We have a representative in Berlin. We have a representative in Qatar. We have a representative in Cairo. We have a representative in Istanbul. We have a representative in D.C. We have representative in London, in Brussels. We have—we have—and if you go, there is—I mean, just this is—you can go to the Syrian—a Syrian negotiations commission. You have all of the members. Like, there’s a website. You see all of the names.
ASAD: I mean, we did our homework, sir. We already did. Since 2011, as Mariam explained—I mean, before 2011 we didn’t have opposition in the country, neither civil society. But the question we don’t know the opposition to support, but you know, the one who is destroying the country to stop. So I do understand that people, they need to know who is the right people to support. But, I mean, the other side is very obvious to stop or to prevent this regime to continue doing the same, I mean, to the people. And I do understand, like, you don’t—I mean, people generally—or governments, they don’t trust even the civil society. They don’t trust the media. They don’t—I mean, but this is like—(inaudible)—already the regime and/or Russian work on it previously, I mean, during the last seven years.
And just very small example, the Russian, anyone in the TV—I mean, at least the Arabic-speaking TV, they say, oh, and this White Helmet, they are a terrorist. I mean, whatever. It’s the context. Whatever is the question, they try to say all the time the news coming from Syria is fake, it has been—(inaudible)—in Qatar, and the White Helmet does not exist and they are terrorists. I mean, this is—I do understand the hesitation but, for me, I mean, it’s a little bit depressing when I receive—I mean, not from you directly—but when I receive such hesitation who to support, who to believe, I mean, after eight—already eight years.
BIGIO: We’ve got a number of questions remaining. We’ll try to get to as many as we can. So please—
Q: Hi. I’m Rachel Robbins.
So, Mariam, you’ve mentioned that 50 percent of the population has been excluded from the process and the Syrian regime has not come to Geneva in good faith willing to negotiate. Can you talk about whether there have been efforts by the women in the opposition to reach over to the women who are, you know, supporting the regime to try to have influence—you know, as you have Liberia example. Have there been efforts from the women who want to see their children go to school and grow up and have a normal life to try to bring pressure on the regime?
JALABI: There has been a lot of efforts by women to call for saving—like, creating a solution for Syria on a democratic, pluralistic, human rights, and international law-based. And anyone who agreed to these principles were invited and welcomed to come in to the groups that were created. Some women did not because they could not come to—they did not agree to the democratic and the need for creating a pluralistic government that will call for elections and, you know, change the regime that’s in power for the last 50 years, gone from father to son. There is—that core has not joined. But anybody else, the call has been is that for us—all of us to come together and try to create a solution for what’s happening in Syria.
So anybody who’s agreed to that is very welcome and has come. And there’s so many women organizations that have been formed. There’s the Syrian Women’s Network who Rula and I have been part of, and which has been formed since 2012. There is the Syrian Feminist Lobby. There is the initiative that was built by the U.N., and with—(inaudible)—like, in collaboration with women group organizations that, they’ve come together and created this, and brought in a lot of women from all different sorts to create a group to see, like, if there is a solution to be had.
However, I do want to mention and say is that when we’re talking about women, we cannot assume that women do not have the same political affiliations and the same political views as men do. Women are not essentially—and by nature, yes, maybe we don’t carry arms in the same way, but we have as many diverse political opinions and ideas. And bringing everyone to the table is—does not happen. Does not happen for women. And when you bring them, it becomes stalled because there is no way for us to move forward for somebody who wants to support the regime and somebody who wants to change the regime, if that answers your question.
Q: I’m Judith Bruce.
About a year ago we had Dr. Rima Mortada here from the AUB team, who was working with the—looking at the conditions of the Syrian refugees, special influence on the young women—emphasis on the young women and adolescents and all. And I’ve been following this quite closely. And I’ve got two questions. One is, just it is difficult to get news that is believable. I believe you. (Laughs.) Who should we watch? What should we watch? I obviously have a lot of friends in the region.
The other is just an observation looking ahead from experience, for instance, in Bangladesh and other places, where in that case civil society, as we were discussing, began getting mobilized in some ways that actually were revolutionary for the world at the end of the day. And we tracked at one point the difference between Egypt and Bangladesh and the numbers of civil society organizations and the scope they were getting. And after their war of independence—some different features because they didn’t have anything like the diaspora you’re dealing with—but nonetheless they had formed sort of execution cells, not even just point of view cells, but groups that delivered services—health services, education services—as governance units, because that’s what sort of governance is.
So within the opposition now, if one wanted to support the development of units that not only in whatever setting—external settlements inside the country—are delivering core services that later then are transformed into an active city society, where could you make that investment? How could we invest effectively right now short term for resilience and long term for recovering with, you know, equality and delivery of services?
BIGIO: Who do we listen to and where do we invest?
ASAD: Well, from my perspective now acting—speaking as activist, for sure all civil society organization because they already have been a focus on the work. And then also they have, like, short term vision and long-term. And investing with the civil society means—I mean, the political groups already—they can reach to—I mean, to sources. But civil society, they have been surrounded and have been isolated in Syria and then in the neighboring country, and now slowly moving to Europe with a very hard condition to work and send—I mean, for example, sending money to Syria or even to Turkey now it’s, like, cost me, as a director of Syrian female journalist network, one day because there is a lot of paper. And I don’t dare to do it through with the bank, because the bank they will come behind me.
Anyway, I mean, just a slightly kind of difficulties I’m going through, even I’m living in Netherlands. I think investing in civil society means for the future at least we will not face the same moment in 2011 when we had a space open to go to street, to organize ourselves, but we don’t know—we don’t have any experience. Like, we started to gather 10 people, and then 100, and then 1,000. But it was very easy for the regime me—we didn’t have any tools, any techniques to, as in Egypt has happened, to protect ourselves and to protect our message. So from my perspective I think—and, of course, media, it’s part of the civil society in Syria. And investing in this field, I mean, it will—it will feed back to the country in the future.
JALABI: If I may just also add one comment. There is so much of the support that happens—to civil society—that happens through the big INGOs. Like, it happens through the U.N. And so much of the overhead that goes to the big corporations, the big conglomerates of, like, the INGOs, I think one little advice I can give when helping civil society on the ground is to go for have—to have the funds go directly to them. That way, less money will have a lot more impact on what could be done on the ground.
BIGIO: Question? If you press the button in the middle.
Q: All right. Roy Licklider from Rutgers and Columbia.
Look, the key—you said it, something has to change on the ground. That’s going to mean force. And Chapter Seven means us, realistically, OK? The United States has tried—recently tried this twice in Afghanistan and Iraq. In one case we intervened in a civil war, in the other one we caused one. The results were not happy for us or, I think, for them. It’s not clear to me why—well, A, I think it’s politically impossible, candidly. But it’s not clear to me why intervention in Syria would lead to a different outcome. (Laughter.)
JALABI: Every case is different. And we see what happened in Kosovo. It brought people to sit and negotiate. And what happened—I want to remember Shayrat. Shayrat was—the airport of Shayrat when Trump took office. And maybe it’s the only thing good that he’s done so far. (Laughs.) That when he—when he bombed that airport, it actually stopped the regime from using chemical weapons and extensive weapons for almost three months. And then it started escalating again, slowly, because what the regime and the Russians do is that they see the will of what the international community or what the U.S. can do, and they test it little by bit, bit by bit, to see how far they can go with it. And then it hits a point where they feel, OK, like, you know, it’s actually now that it’s OK. And we can keep going further. And they do that.
And when I call for intervention, or action, I want you to remember also 2013, when President Obama said—put the red line on the use of chemical weapons. And when the regime used the chemical weapons, and there was the threat of bombing, the regime and the Russians, like up in arms. They did everything they could to come to an agreement to remove all of the chemical piles in Syria. They came, like, right away to negotiate and to agree to not have to be bombed. So sometimes it’s not even the actual action itself. Sometimes even the credible threat—that, in itself, is a weapon. When you put a red line itself is a weapon.
And a limited move—like it happened in Shayrat—a limited move, a limited enforced action on the ground will—I am not saying you go—like, I don’t like to see what happened in Raqqa happen in any other parts of the world. I mean, we haven’t maybe heard what happened in Raqqa, but Raqqa was destroyed completely by the coalition forces. And there has been, like, over I don’t know how many thousands of people that were killed—casualties, the collateral damaged that happened by the international community. So the U.S. has already been involved. The U.S. was involved in Kobane. The U.S. got together, like, in Sinjar, to save the Yazidis, to save the Kurds. So any kind of credible threat or action—limited action—from any U.S.—from the U.S. or their partners will force the regime to at least come to faithful negotiations to the table. And that’s all we’re asking.
We believe in a political solution. But that political solution will not happen when you have the balance so shifted on the ground. So is there anything that could be done on the ground that will push the Russians to truly—and I believe the Russians do want to—(laughs)—get out of this quagmire that they got in. So they do want to—they do want to see the willingness, the leadership of some other country to take force and to negotiate. And if we’re talking politics, Russia’s interest in Syria is connected to a lot of other interests in the region, and other geopolitical issues they have with other powers in the world. So what’s going to happen is that if they can bring this regime to negotiate in faith at the table, we can come up to some resolution—a political resolution that will get Syria out of the deep—the deep hole that it’s in right now.
BIGIO: I think we have time for a quick question and a quick answer if we want to take one last.
Q: OK. Howard Stoffer, U.N.
I served in the Security Council. And you know, with the Russians having—being a permanent member, they’ll veto anything that’s not in their interests. But my question, in the interests of time, you started touching on some of the issues I wanted to raise. Even if you could reach an agreement with Assad and negotiate something, you’ve still got the Russian interests there seeking a military presence. And of course, you’ve got Iran. Iran’s not going to agree to anything. So at the end of the day, you’re going to have a regime run by Assad, there’ll be no opposition, it’ll be whatever the Iranians want to see. And unfortunately—I say this with great, you know, great unfortunateness—that that as a result there might be an Iranian buildup in Syria, and then you might have a regional war, if the Israelis feel threatened.
So I really—I don’t see what the opposition—I think the opposition needs to be reaching out on a much broader front and talking to the Iranians. and talking to Hezbollah, and talking to the Russians and the Europeans, the Americans, and Japanese, and see what’s possible. And of course, that’s not a fair question at the end, so if you don’t answer it, I just leave you with those thoughts. (Laughter.)
JALABI: I do want to mention something about Iran. Iran just is extending its second credit to Syria. They had given $22 billion to Syria, and now they’re extending the second one. And one of their conditions is actually to move a lot of the infrastructure and the work and the industries that are in Syria into Iran, and also to have monopoly over a lot of the biggest industries that are happening in Syria. And that’s their—kind of the payback that they want.
However, when we’re talking Iran and Russian interests in Syria, what I want to stress by back is let’s think about Ghouta and the people that are getting bombed right now, the people that are getting displaced from their homes, the women and children that are sitting in shelters. I know this is coming across as, like, normally I’m asking you to behave, like, working with your emotional maybe part, but really in the end if we don’t respect human rights, if we don’t respect every citizen in the world equally, we are not going to arrive to a political solution that might benefit the interests. Like, we Syrians don’t have any issue with working with any government, with any people around us, or the regional powers, if it is in the benefit of Syria—if it’s a win-win situation for all.
And that could be negotiated. Once we have some kind of a deterrent that a government cannot have the impunity—which, giving example, by the way, to a lot of other nations in the world. And as we see—I mean, I’m not going to go into the whole other issues, like, how nationalism and isolationism, and, you know, the right-wings have, like, tendencies, philosophies have been winning lately. But there is a chance for us, through Syria, to teach or give an example to bring back the issue to human rights and international law. And that a rogue government, such as the Assad regime, cannot just—with impunity just do whatever they will, with the support of allies in the world, without having consequences, without having a world order.
BIGIO: Please join me in thanking Rula and Mariam. (Applause.) Thank you all for joining us today.