Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

'No one in Syria likes violence...But people know there is no going back'

This image made from amateur video purports to show smoke from intense shelling in the Tel Chehab area of Daraa, Syria.(AP Photo/Shaam News Network SNN)
This image made from amateur video purports to show smoke from intense shelling in the Tel Chehab area of Daraa, Syria.(AP Photo/Shaam News Network SNN)
Smoke rises after a bombing in Deir El-Zour, Syria (Deir Press Network/AP)
A Syrian man holds bullets he picked from a wall in a damaged house in town of Atareb outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo)
ShelterBox has postponed its work in Syria because of worsening violence in Lebanon
Syrian soldiers investigate the scene after a bomb attached to a fuel truck exploded outside a Damascus hotel in Syria (AP/Sana)
In this Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 photograph, Syrians on a motorcycle pass by a destroyed shop in town of Atareb outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
In this Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers hold their weapons during clashes with government forces in at the south-west district of Salah al-Din in Aleppo, Syria. Syrian troops launched a ground assault Wednesday on the besieged northern city of Aleppo, but activists said rebels forces were fighting back in a battle for the country's largest city that has raged for more than two weeks. (AP Photo/Alberto Prieto)
In this Sunday Aug. 5, 2012 photo, a couch is seen in a damaged room in a destroyed house in town of Atareb on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo)
This image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Monday, July 30, 2012, purports to show Free Syrian Army soldiers standing near a military tank in Anadan 16 kilometers (10 miles), from Aleppo, Syria.
A Syrian boy stand in the rubble of a destroyed police station at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria July 29, 201
A Syrian boy looks at the bodies of nine Syrians on a truck after they were found dead in an open field and taken to the town of Anadan outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
In this Monday, Aug. 6, 2012 photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter waves from the top of a destroyed army tank in the town of Anadan on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
In this Sunday Aug. 5, 2012 photo, destroyed shops are seen in the town of Atareb on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
In this Friday, July 27, 2012 photo, armed Syrian rebels stand beside a destroyed Syrian army armored vehicle in Homs, Syria. It has been a difficult two weeks for the Syrian government with rebel assaults first on the capital, Damascus, and then on Aleppo, as well as several high-profile defections and a bomb that killed four top security officials. (AP Photo/Fadi Zaidan)
In this Friday, July 20, 2012 photo, destroyed Syrian army armored vehicles are seen in Aleppo, Syria. It has been a difficult two weeks for the Syrian government with rebel assaults first on the capital, Damascus, and then on Aleppo, as well as several high-profile defections and a bomb that killed four top security officials. (AP Photo/Fadi Zaidan)
In this Tuesday, 24 July, 2012 photo a destroyed Syrian tank is seen in Idlib, Syria. It has been a difficult two weeks for the Syrian government with rebel assaults first on the capital, Damascus, and then on Aleppo, as well as several high-profile defections and a bomb that killed four top security officials. (AP Photo/Fadi Zaidan)
In this image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Monday, July 23, 2012, a Free Syrian Army soldier reacts during clashes with Syrian government troops in Aleppo, Syria. The Syrian regime acknowledged for the first time Monday that it possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and said it will only use them in case of a foreign attack and never internally against its own citizens. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video) TV OUT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CANNOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT, DATE, LOCATION OR AUTHENTICITY OF THIS MATERIAL
In this image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Monday, July 23, 2012, a Free Syrian Army soldier reacts during clashes with Syrian government troops in Aleppo, Syria. The Syrian regime acknowledged for the first time Monday that it possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and said it will only use them in case of a foreign attack and never internally against its own citizens. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video) TV OUT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CANNOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT, DATE, LOCATION OR AUTHENTICITY OF THIS MATERIAL
In this Sunday, July 29, 2012 photo, medics help a wounded man at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. The U.N. said 200,000 Syrians have fled the embattled city of Aleppo since intense clashes between regime forces and rebels began 10 days ago. The government forces turned mortars, tank and helicopter gunships against rebel positions on Monday, July 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Turkpix)
In this Sunday, July 29, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers are seen at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. The U.N. said 200,000 Syrians have fled the embattled city of Aleppo since intense clashes between regime forces and rebels began 10 days ago. The government forces turned mortars, tank and helicopter gunships against rebel positions on Monday, July 30, 2012. Arabic writing on the truck reads, "the movement of Islamic bombings is from the writings of Sheikh Ibn Taymiyyah." (AP Photo/Turkpix)
People carry a body of a person killed in clashes in Aleppo, Syria, Friday, July 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Alberto Prieto)
In this Sunday, July 29, 2012 photo, medics help a wounded man at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. The U.N. said 200,000 Syrians have fled the embattled city of Aleppo since intense clashes between regime forces and rebels began 10 days ago. The government forces turned mortars, tank and helicopter gunships against rebel positions on Monday, July 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Turkpix)
In this image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Tuesday, July 24, 2012, a Free Syrian Army solider fires his weapon during clashes with Syrian government troops in Aleppo, Syria. Turkey sealed its border with Syria to trucks on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 cutting off a vital supply line to the embattled nation as fighting stretched into its fifth day in the commercial capital of Aleppo. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video) TV OUT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CANNOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT, DATE, LOCATION OR AUTHENTICITY OF THIS MATERIAL
In this Tuesday, July 24, 2012 photo, a damaged Syrian military tank is seen at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. Turkey sealed its border with Syria to trucks on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 cutting off a vital supply line to the embattled nation as fighting stretched into its fifth day in the commercial capital of Aleppo. (AP Photo/Turkpix)
In this Tuesday, July 24, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers are seen at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. Turkey sealed its border with Syria to trucks on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 cutting off a vital supply line to the embattled nation as fighting stretched into its fifth day in the commercial capital of Aleppo. (AP Photo/Turkpix)
Smoke rises from buildings in Homs, Syria (AP/Shaam News Network via AP video)
Free Syrian Army soldiers chant slogans in Idlib province, northern Syria (AP)
Free Syrian Army fighters swim in a pool on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, June 12, 2012. On Tuesday, Syrian forces pelted the eastern city of Deir el-Zour with mortars as anti-government protesters were dispersing before dawn Tuesday, killing several people, activists said. The offensives were part of an escalation of violence in recent weeks that has brought more international pressure on President Bashar Assad's regime faces over its brutal tactics against the opposition. The U.N. accused the government of using children as human shields in a new report. (AP Photo)
In this image made from amateur video released by Shaam News Network and accessed Monday, June 11, 2012, purports to show smoke near a mosque from Syrian government forces shelling in Rastan town in Homs province, Syria. Syrian troops attacked a central, rebel-held town with helicopter gunships Monday and shelled other restive areas across the nation, activists said. The aerial assault targeted the strategic river crossing town of Rastan, which has resisted repeated government offensives for months, the activists said. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video) TV OUT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CANNOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT, DATE, LOCATION OR AUTHENTICITY OF THIS MATERIAL
This citizen journalism image released by Sham News Network taken on Saturday June 9, 2012, purports to show anti-Syrian regime mourners carrying the coffins of Syrian citizens killed in shelling by Syrian troops, in Daraa, Syria. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, tens died in heavy pre-dawn shelling on Saturday in Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. (AP Photo) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS CITIZEN JOURNALIST IMAGE
This citizen journalism image released by Sham News Network taken on Saturday June 9, 2012, purports to show anti-Syrian regime mourners raising their hands as they carry the coffins of Syrian citizens killed by Syrian troops, in Daraa, Syria. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, tens died in heavy pre-dawn shelling on Saturday in Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. (AP Photo) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS CITIZEN JOURNALIST IMAGE
In this image made available on Tuesday June 12, 2012 smoke rises from a residential area of Talbisah in Homs city Syria Saturday June 9, 2012. (AP Photo/David Manyua/United Nations )
This video image taken from amateur video and broadcast by Bambuser/Homslive shows a series of devastating explosions rocking the central Syrian city of Homs, Syria, Monday, June 11, 2012. Live streaming video caught the devastation during one of the heaviest examples of violence since the uprisings began over a year ago. ( Photo/Bambuser/Homslive via AP video) MANDATORY CREDIT: BAMBUSER/HOMSLIVE
A shell is seen in a street at a residential area of Talbisah in Homs city Syria Monday June 11, 2012. (AP Photo/David Manyua/United Nations )
In this image made available on Tuesday June 12, 2012 smoke rises from a residential area of Talbisah in Homs city Syria Saturday June 9, 2012. (AP Photo/David Manyua/United Nations )
Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, June 12, 2012. On Tuesday, Syrian forces pelted the eastern city of Deir el-Zour with mortars as anti-government protesters were dispersing before dawn Tuesday, killing several people, activists said. The offensives were part of an escalation of violence in recent weeks that has brought more international pressure on President Bashar Assad's regime faces over its brutal tactics against the opposition. The U.N. accused the government of using children as human shields in a new report. (AP Photo)
This video image taken from amateur video and broadcast by Bambuser/Homslive shows a series of devastating explosions rocking the central Syrian city of Homs, Syria, Monday, June 11, 2012. Live streaming video caught the devastation during one of the heaviest examples of violence since the uprisings began over a year ago. (Photo/Bambuser/Homslive via AP video) MANDATORY CREDIT: BAMBUSER/HOMSLIVE
This video image taken from amateur video and broadcast by Bambuser/Homslive shows a series of devastating explosions rocking the central Syrian city of Homs, Syria, Monday, June 11, 2012. Live streaming video caught the devastation during one of the heaviest examples of violence since the uprisings began over a year ago. (Photo/Bambuser/Homslive via AP video) MANDATORY CREDIT: BAMBUSER/HOMSLIVE
Syrians look at a destroyed military tank at the northern town of Ariha, on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria
A Syrian boy carries a toy rocket launcher during a protest on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria (AP)

The Syrian general opened an envelope and upended its contents on his desk.

Out spilled his army’s messages to the people of Damascus and Hama and Aleppo and Homs and Deraa. “We have a special department with analysts who write these,” he told us. “We give every chance to the people.” And so the generals do, if you trust these little flyers, rectangular sheets of paper – some illustrated with smiling children, others with grim faced gunmen -- dropped by helicopter over the streets of Syria. The general smiled at us. “Do you see how much trouble we take?” I had heard before of these little strips of paper – how they had cascaded down on the Palestinian Yarmouk camp in Damascus and on Homs and Aleppo – but I had never seen them, least of all in such profusion. Each was signed ‘the Administration of the Security Forces.”



They ranged from the banal – “Brother citizen, help us get rid of the criminal gangs by cooperating with the security forces” – to the sophisticated. This, for example, is the Syrian army’s message to all armed men: “The security forces have the will to restore security and stability to all the regions of our precious homeland and will not permit the wasting of innocent citizens’ blood. Time is vanishing, so take advantage of this chance: drop your weapons – as many have already done – and remember that the government is as merciful as a mother is to her children.”



If this evocation of maternal care does not appeal to President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents, Islam might -- though the word ‘Islam’ does not appear in the texts we were shown. “Think with your mind, religion is love – religion is tolerance. Religion does not call for killingLet’s work together according to religious instructions, not at the call of criminals.”



And if you are approaching Syrian troops, here’s a little note you might like to have to hand, a ‘safe passage’ paper that can save your life. “When approaching a checkpoint, make sure you are not holding any kind of weapon. While doing so, approach slowly and make sure your chest is not obscured by anything suspicious. Hold this bulletin in one hand while putting the other on top of your head.” ‘Anything suspicious’ is clearly a reference to a bomb strapped to the chest of a suicide bomber. Yet other papers suggest that armed opponents of the regime “take advantage of the special treatment granted to you by the authorities.”



The problem -- and Syria’s army is wise enough to understand this – is that the violence of the present was planted long ago, and there are many in Syria who remember with great bitterness just what kind of ‘special treatment’ has been granted to their relatives over the past years. Indeed, the day after meeting the general, I sat down to tea with a middle-aged Syrian who wanted to tell me why he hated the regime. He was a mildly-spoken person who met me in a down-town Damascus café, his voice almost drowned out by the screech of birds from an aviary attached to the wall.



“My brother was part of the (Muslim Brotherhood) revolution of 1980 and even my family didn’t know this,” he said. “Then one day the ‘mukhabarat’ intelligence men came in three cars to arrest him. Nobody knows where they took him – not even till now, 32 years later. Official documents said my brother was alive, but in 1996 we got some news from ex-prisoners who said they had seen my brother, and that he had been hanged or shot in Tadmor (Palmyra) prison. For me, the revolution started a long time ago, when my brother was arrested. Now my revolution is getting bigger.”



Without shooting, without arms – this man’s revolution, he told me, would be non-violent. “There is nobody in Syria who likes violence. What happened is that if you have a balloon and keep putting a lot of air in it, it will explode. When the people started to protest last year, the government used force to stop them and arrests -- and drip, drip, drip – there was an explosion.” The people, this man said, “got outside of silence” – in itself a remarkable expression – and “started to use a little bit of violence against the government.” Now these people would never return to their homes, he said, “because if they go home, they will die at home, one by one. That’s why they know this is the end. They have taken the decision never to return back.”



But would he accept a truly democratic parliament with real elections even if Bashar stayed, I asked? “We have known this government for 40 years. You cannot trust them to give you the correct temperature during the day. Democracy and violence don’t meet together. My reply to you is this: No. No. No. No. No. No. No.” Even the army leaflets don’t repeat themselves this much. But his words were as adamant as any leaflet.

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