Dr. Widad Akrawi was interviewed by the Iranian journalist Mr. Kourosh Ziabari (KZ) about the current situation in Syria and the US consideration of military intervention. Dr. Akrawi emphasized the massive human cost of the prevailing crisis in Syria and underlined that the conflict has radically influenced regional security and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, making any global attempt to regulate the illicit trade in conventional weapons out of reach. “I have to admit that the sight of the refugees and their children has left me sleepless many nights. I am deeply saddened every time I see that people of all faiths who lived peacefully side by side are no longer tolerating each other. The brutality and misconduct they face daily is unimaginable… With their struggle to survive, comes all the horrible memories that will follow them for the rest of their lives…” Dr. Akrawi added. She characterized the crisis as a “humanitarian tragedy of historic proportions,” before urging the international community to do whatever possible to bring the crisis to an end in a peaceful and diplomatic manner.
KZ: What do you think is the U.S. policy for the future of Syria? Is Washington trying to maintain the current crisis and instability in Syria in order to disintegrate the central government and realize its plans for Balkanizing Syria?
Widad Akrawi: Before answering your questions, I would like to emphasize some major points. Firstly, we in Defend International would like to express our concern over the humanitarian tragedy in Syria and urge the international community to be proactive in alleviating it peacefully. What we have been underlining during our meetings with diplomats is that, in the middle of the political and diplomatic discussions, politicians must remember the civilians who are waiting for a peaceful solution to this crisis. We must reveal the massive human cost of the prevailing crisis in Syria, and this must be at the core of every present and future discussion. The Syrian people has suffered enough from the current armed conflict, and the last thing they need is an escalation of the conflict. The only light at the end of the Syrian tunnel is to give peace a chance. We call on countries to help all communities in Syria so that they can engage in a constructive dialogue that would hopefully resolve the conflict peacefully, leading ultimately to reconciliation and real reforms. We hope that the world will assist this population in this time of need.
Secondly, we welcome the current positive signals for giving diplomacy a chance. We are aware that Syria, by joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, will not be able to resolve the armed conflict that has been raging for two years, causing more than 100,000 deaths, displacing millions of people and increasing the danger of epidemic crises and malnutrition. However, this is the first step in the right direction.
Thirdly, we in Defend International condemn the use of Chemical Weapons under any circumstances, because it violates International Law. At the same time, any unilateral military attack against Syria, without the approval of the United Nations Security Counsel and without a direct threat against the country, would also be in violation of International Law. Also, if the crisis is resolved peacefully, the Syrian government must realize that the Syrian people will not accept any violations of human rights or international agreements, and to be able to survive, the government has to keep its promises on comprehensive reforms, including free and fair elections.
I must remind you that I represent an NGO devoted to peace, democracy, diplomacy and human rights. So, the views expressed here may reflect the policy and position of Defend International. Regarding your first question, which is politically sensitive, I would like to say that the current armed conflict in Syria has deteriorated the human rights situation in the crisis-hit country. To view these issues objectively we have to admit first that every country, including Iran, has its own geopolitical and economic agenda. There is no doubt that the current crisis in Syria has brought the entire region into a state of turmoil, uncertainty and instability. It is well-known that in all wars, those who suffer the most are the civilians; the children, women, the elderly, those with disabilities and special needs and those with chronic or serious health conditions. A government change may not help the region and may increase suffering significantly, mainly because of increased sectarian violence or unpredicted political, social or other dynamics within the region. In light of what is happening in Libya and Egypt, I call on the United States to carefully consider any direct or indirect intervention in Syria.
KZ: What’s your viewpoint on the U.S. mass media’s coverage of the crisis in Syria? The unchanging theme which can be found in their reports and analyses of Syria is that the government of President Assad is killing his own citizens, has restricted social freedoms and is not willing to take part in negotiations with the opposition; however, they never talk of the U.S. sponsorship of the rebels and Al-Qaeda fighters. Is this media coverage fair and balanced?
WA: With regards to the dependent media coverage in general, it is usually biased, reflecting the political views of finanaciers and/or the readers. This is true not only when considering the Western media outlets, but also the rest, including the countries that otherwise call themselves neutral. For example, during the Iran-Iraq war, when the Iraqi regime used Chemical Weapons against the Kurds in the 1980s, the entire world was aware of that; however, at that time Iraq was not yet considered a threat and therefore the media accused mostly Iran of using Chemical Weapons against Kurdish cities. And yet, very shortly after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the mass media changed its view about the use of Chemical Weapons in the late 1980s, and some of them went even further and for the first time called it a genocide of the Kurdish people. Another example is the “Battle of Damascus,” which started in July 2012. Since the very beginning some media outlets stated that thousands of the “Free Syrian Army” infiltrated Damascus and that the Syrian government would fall within days. After weeks of fighting, the army was still in control of the city and the Syrian government is still in power.
Considering all these lessons from the past it seems reasonable to conclude that media coverage of any event that takes place anywhere in the world is likely to depend on several factors that are closely related to the interests of the powerful countries and the economic or geopolitical interests that are at stake.
KZ: Can we interpret the efforts made by the United States, its Arab allies in the region and some Western powers to destabilize Syria part of a larger-scale scheme to destroy and undermine the axis of resistance against Israel? Is the United States after furthering a colonial agenda in the Middle East by weakening Syria and empowering Israel?
WA: I would like to reiterate here that we in Defend International are focusing on peace and human rights issues in the MENA (Middle East and Northern Africa) region. Having this in mind, we are constantly analyzing the events and political developments in the region that might in one way or another affect the human rights of its citizens. However, we are very keen to keep our distance and maintain our impartiality.
To address your specific questions, I have to say that the majority of countries (including Iran) that have taken part in the discussions on Syria, whether it was within the United Nations or outside, they have had their own agendas and their own objectives in mind. It is not a secret that the USA is a close ally of Israel. Likewise, it is not a secret that Syria, by supporting Hezbollah, is a close ally of Iran and has played a major role in what you call “the axis of resistance against Israel.” Whatever the agendas of both sides, hidden or otherwise, the current crisis is a humanitarian tragedy of historic proportions; it has radically influenced regional security and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, making any global attempt to regulate the illicit trade in conventional weapons out of reach.
We are one of the first NGOs that have expressed concern regarding the fact that the “politics of Syria” are dominating the political scene, which has overshadowed the suffering of its people. I have to admit that the sight of the refugees and their children has left me sleepless many nights. I am deeply saddened every time I see that people of all faiths who lived peacefully side by side are no longer tolerating each other. The brutality and misconduct they face daily is unimaginable, and only those who have had similar experiences would know exactly how they feel and the hardships that accompany wars. Not only children, but also adults are scared for life. With their struggle to survive, comes all the horrible memories that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Some have witnessed how people have been brutally beheaded and massacred. Others have to live with the reality that their daughters and sisters have been kidnapped, rapped, or sold into prostitution. Some parents cannot afford to provide the basic needs for their children. The majority of the Syrian people are facing death from severe malnutrition or opportunistic infections. The lack of treatment for non-communicable diseases, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, is another concern for us because we know that many individuals cannot function day-to-day without professional medical attention, but they are left without proper treatment.
KZ: Why have some Arab allies of the United States in the Middle East joined the forces fighting the government of President Assad? Syria is an Arab country, and the Arab nations usually don’t betray each other. Why has the Arab League suspended the membership of Syria and such countries as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are taking part in the efforts aimed at sabotaging the security of Syria?
WA: I must say that I disagree with you! We have a number of cases that illustrate the possibility of Arab countries taking different sides depending on their regional ambitions and on the (inevitable) struggle for power in the MENA region. One example that comes to mind is the Iraq-Kuwait war. Aiming to further their nationalistic interests, the countries (e.g., Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) that regarded themselves as leading Arabic countries in the region joined the military intervention led by the United States and Europe against Iraq. When it comes to the current Syrian crisis, the sectarian differences (Shia versus Sunni) may has become the main reason for joining the coalition against the Syrian President.
KZ: The Human Rights Watch has accused the Syrian armed rebels of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Only in August, 190 civilians were killed by the armed opposition forces in the Lattakia province. Why don’t the international organizations take action to prevent these war crimes from happening and condemn the extremist rebels?
WA: As far as I recall, Human Rights Watch, after conducting its investigations into the alleged chemical attacks in Syria, concluded that ”available evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government forces were responsible for chemical weapons attacks on two Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013,” suggesting the use of a weapons-grade nerve agent, most likely Sarin. (http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/09/10/syria-government-likely-culprit-chemical-attack)
To answer your question, I have to note that, being a human rights defender and peace advocate for over 20 years with experiences from different prominent human rights organizations, it is almost impossible for an international organization to prevent war crimes from happening. Right now, we know that various groups and fractions are fighting inside Syria. Neither the NGOs, nor the United Nations, have the capacity to investigate, for example, the use of Chemical Weapons in Syria; the only organ that is capable of doing that is the OPCW. One reason is that the governments have been slow to acknowledge the NGOs’ involvement in such issues. Despite that, some NGOs (e.g., Green Cross International) and civil society representatives (e.g., academia and research institutes) do get involved in practical efforts to eradicate Chemical Weapons.
But generally speaking, both humanitarian- and human rights organizations are often unable to operate safely in war-zones, and they sometimes are not allowed to be present locally. In most cases, NGO representatives are not permitted to pass through checkpoints controlled by various armed fractions. In other words, NGO team members may not be permitted access to investigate properly, because the areas where the alleged crimes had been committed are usually shelled by armed forces equipped with conventional weapons. Many human rights activists, journalists, peace activists and others who have been involved in documenting such crimes have been abducted and many have been killed.
We in Defend International have condemned every act of war crimes and all crimes against humanity; we are constantly reminding the government(s) and the extremist rebels of the importance of respecting human life and to follow International Humanitarian Law during armed conflicts. In this context, we encourage all NGOs and civil society representatives to work together with the governments and the UN and to play a central role in eradicating the weapons used to violate human rights, thereby reinforcing their belief in human rights, peace and disarmament. They should continue documenting the use of Chemical Weapons along with advocating for their swift destruction.
KZ: The U.S. double standards on the issue of terrorism is questionable. It opposes terrorism when its interests are jeopardized, and supports terrorism when it deems necessary. It’s exactly doing the same in Syria. It’s supporting the rebels and Al-Qaeda terrorists, because they fight the government of President Assad, one of the main adversaries of the United States in the region. How is possible to justify this dual-track policy?
WA: It is not an easy task to define what “terrorism” is and we in Defend International and many other international NGOs have had our discussions regarding the terrorism laws that are practiced in the MENA region and the rest of the world. We in Defend International take a strong position against any support to violent groups or regimes. Essentially, many counties, including Iran, call any group that opposes their central government a “terrorist group” and they may be willing to violate basic human rights along the way in order to diminish their threat. Countries usually call this their right to self-defence, to live in peace and security, and this right is enshrined in the United Nations Charter. Nevertheless, the Charter does not give countries the right to violate human rights or manufacture and stockpile lethal weapons that may end up in the hands of rebels in the absence of proper regulations. Sometimes, if two countries have bad relations, they might collaborate with each others’ opponents in the pursuit of economic and geopolitical interests. Unfortunately, this is very common in the political arena nowadays.
It is difficult to justify having double standards, no matter who use them and for what purpose. Human rights cannot be tailored to suit specific situations. Grave violations of human rights must not and should not be ignored under any circumstances.
KZ: What’s your prediction for the future of conflict and violence in Syria? Is the international community determined to bring the crisis to an end in a peaceful and diplomatic manner? In this path, are you optimistic about the Geneva 2 conference?
WA: No one can predict the future, but I am usually optimistic. We have just witnessed a remarkable month for international efforts to find a diplomatic solution for the Syrian crisis. We do hope that the international community will continue doing whatever possible to bring the crisis to an end in a peaceful and diplomatic manner. Yesterday, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) entered into force for Syria, thereby Syria became the 190th State Party to the CWC. This, in itself, is a major step in the right direction. Now that the Syrian government collaborates with the OPCW to dismantle and, by 2014, destroy its stockpile of Chemical Weapons, a military attack is not likely to take place and if it happens it will be met with much criticism. Syria’s accession reinforces the importance of upholding the international norm against the use of Chemical Weapons and that the OPCW is the international framework through which such weapons should be eradicated. These developments have even put more pressure on the countries that haven’t yet ratified or acceded the CWC, or have failed to finish dismantling their stockpiles.
Furthermore, Syria’s accession is extremely important, not only for the future of this country only, but also for the victims of Chemical Weapons in Syria. If the information available offer sufficient proof that there are victims of use of Chemical Weapons, emergency measures of assistance should be taken to help them.
In addition, an international conference on Syria, if successful, would mark another milestone on the path to building peace. We in Defend International have had very busy years, lobbying and advocating for peaceful pathways and for humanitarian disarmament. We hope that the international community will arrange a Conference for Peace in Syria, and we hope that the Syrian government and all its opponents will collaborate constructively to demonstrate that their overall objectives are humanitarian and regional peace rather than politically motivated. There are of course challenges that need to be addressed. However, peace is possible and peace is achievable, if we have the will to make it happen.
Dr. Widad Akrawi
Malaga, 15 October 2013