Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo Describes Situation in Syria at LISD Lecture

The Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, described the increasing violence in war-torn Syria and the impact on Syria’s religious communities at a public lecture sponsored by LISD on Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 4:30 p.m. in Dodds Auditorium, Robertson Hall on the Princeton University campus. Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, Director of LISD, provided comment. The event was co-sponsored with the Woodrow Wilson School.

Mar Gregorios delivered his address shortly after the announcement of a proposed four-day ceasefire to mark the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha. He emphasized the root causes of the Syrian conflict and traced the seeds of violence to government corruption, which inspired the initial protest movements and hopes of change in light of the Arab Spring.

Mar Gregorios provided an overview of the current situation in Syria, describing the spread of violence from the Jordanian border to Syria’s mainland and then coastal cities. He compared the current protests to those from the 1980s, describing the current scene as rife with assassinations, kidnapping, looting, and destruction of public buildings and utilities. The state of affairs in Syria was intimately detailed, with Mar Gregorios asserting that “this violence shattered the democratic country.” He noted that religious foment and force turned many formerly peaceful residents into violent protesters, with numerous quarters and religious sites in Aleppo and throughout the country, including several old churches and mosques, destroyed.

Mar Gregorios described how in Aleppo, which was first attacked in July 2012, there are growing numbers of homeless and those in need of medical treatment but not enough humanitarian aid. He described Aleppo as “a ghost city that feels like a prison,” as people cannot leave their houses, and live without electricity, water, fuel, and food. Offices, schools, and universities there are closed, as are some churches, mosques, and bazaars. Very few people attend services in churches, parents are afraid to send their children on school buses, and residents cannot sleep at night because of the noise of the bombs. In short, the Archbishop said that Aleppo, the largest commercial center and second most important city in Syria, is “completely dead.”

Mar Gregorios also outlined his plan for peace as a multi-step initiative, while emphasizing that the solution to this social and political crisis must come from both within and outside Syria and be mutually acceptable for all parties. He stressed that the initiative of the Special Envoy of the UN and Arab League, formerly Kofi Annan and now Lakhdar Brahimi, for a lasting ceasefire is central to any peace effort, with a return to the normalcy of daily living, as well as promoting increased humanitarian aid to be delivered swiftly and safely including by organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Displaced citizens must be repatriated, and warring factions must go to the negotiation table with representatives from both inside and outside Syria included. The new Syria must create a lasting peace which brings together all the different factions of Syria and represents the full spectrum of the Syrian mosaic. Development of constitutional processes, formation of internal and external policies, resolution of the negative externalities of the conflict (including the unity of the army), the establishment of an accord to prevent the mistakes of the past from repeating, and the promotion of free and fair elections for the new parliament all constitute important priorities for the future National Council. The new president and new constitution, the Archbishop noted, must uphold the interests of all Syrians and create the groundwork for a stable, peaceful, and democratic state.

Specifically as the leader of the Orthodox Christian population, Mar Gregorios emphasized that Christians and Christian leaders in Syria have differing views on the civil war, noting that some support the rebels, some support the regime, but that the majority remain silent. He noted that religious leaders maintain good ties among each other, and that they have one podium together to advance peaceful coexistence as citizens in a pluralistic society. Historically and traditionally religious leaders praised the political authority until March 2011 when, Mar Gregorios said, “the bloodshed changed everything.” Now, messages from the Archbishop and other religious leaders focus on stability, security, prosperity, and national unity, promoting Syria without picking a side in the conflict and with silence about the regime.

Turning his focus to regional and international powers, Mar Gregorios said that he believes that the United States has an important role in ensuring the future of Syria, along with Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. However, the US economic situation and involvement in Libya complicates the US’s ability to move forward, as well as Russia’s potential readiness to accept changes in Syria. In response to a question from an audience member, Mar Gregorios said he believes that there is indeed a way to make Bashar al-Assad step down, preferably through genuine elections supervised and guaranteed by the UN. Israel, he noted, also constitutes an important factor for the region, as there has been a tacit understanding between Israel and Syria for the past 30 years, by which both countries were content with the status quo of stability. Israel seems to be waiting for the next stage before moving forward on an agreement.

During his comment, LISD Director Wolfgang Danspeckgruber reiterated and discussed in depth the importance of Russia and Iran, in addition to the other countries mentioned by Mar Gregorios in his lecture, as key players in the region. Danspeckgruber also outlined in his comments a triad which must be implemented simultaneously and as soon as possible: 1) an effective ceasefire as a necessary precursor to stability; 2) humanitarian relief; and 3) immediate peace negotiations between all concerned. His observations related to a potential role for the International Criminal Court regarding Syria, in much the same way as in the Balkans leading to the ultimate removal of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from power in 1999, received a positive response from members of the audience.

The session closed with the assertion that the international community will not act until it feels it must, a point which may soon come given Syria’s chemical weapons and the increasing likelihood that the prolonged civil war in Syria will have spill-over effects and destabilize the region as a whole.

webcast of the lecture is available online.