By Denis Bright
The Christmas Spirit has returned to Damascus, Syria after years of internal conflicts. Even the Voice of America (VOA) acknowledges the positive changes without nostalgia for the need for more NATO assistance for the training of special forces to assist pro-Western Syria Rebels and Kurdish enclaves in North Eastern Syria.
Even the weather forecast for Christmas Day in Damascus is quite reasonable for mid-winter.
The upbeat comments from the VOA are also endorsed by the Catholic News Network:
Damascus (AsiaNews) – Syrian Christians hope for “a Christmas of forgiveness and reconciliation”, embracing “the whole country, non-Christians included”. Without a new culture, one that doesn’t forget the wounds but goes beyond them, it will not be possible to build “a future of coexistence,” said Fr Amer Kassar, of the Church of Our Lady of Fatima in Damascus.
Speaking, to AsiaNews, the 40-year-old Syro-Catholic diocesan priest described the beautiful atmosphere in the capital as preparations get underway to welcome the birth of Jesus, like “before the war”.
In homes, streets and churches “we are getting ready for Christmas” in a context that is, “on balance, quiet”. In Damascus, people hope “to spend this period in peace and serenity”.
Parishes are crowded and lots of people are taking part in the celebrations. “Many people are in the streets. We are preparing ourselves with prayer and works, decorating streets and homes.”
The economy is not stable, the priest noted, and things are hard. Families cannot afford many gifts, least of all expensive ones, but just being able to experience Advent and attend services quietly “is worth a lot. We can enjoy ordinary things, eating and dressing up; luckily these are not in shortage supply.”
What is needed “is a step towards reconciliation, like between the countries and peoples involved in the Second World War, even if for Syria and Syrians it won’t be easy.”
For the first time in eight years the streets of the capital are decorated and alight for the festivity. Memories of the shelling from the rebel enclave in eastern Ghouta, east of the capital, are still strong, but so is the desire to move forward.
Musical bands are preparing to fill the air with harmony and sound, something that has not happened for some time. The proclamations of the so-called great leaders of the earth are a distant echo, like US President Donald Trump’s latest announcement that the Islamic State had been defeated. The impact of his words remains an open question, but the White House no longer seems interested in removing Bashar al-Assad.
“Celebrating Christmas after eight years of war without fear is a great achievement,” Fr Amer said. “For a long time, the faithful had had to give up celebrating because of the fear of rockets and mortars.”
In far-off Washington, President Trump has fast-tracked the appointment of Patrick Shanahan from 1 January 2019 to supervise the withdrawal of US Special Forces from Syria within the next 100 days despite howls of dissent from some NATO allies.
The speed of decision-making from the White House makes a farce of news reports in the latest online edition of the US Military Times:
The U.S. military will begin putting observation posts in northern Syria to help Turkey secure its border from the threats wandering through the war-torn country.
The move could prevent skirmishes in areas near Turkey’s border from distracting U.S.-backed fighters from their mission to defeat the Islamic State. The build-up, though, could draw the ire of U.S. lawmakers, some of whom view the mission in Syria as drifting away from the original goal of defeating ISIS … ISIS is largely relegated to a pocket of land near the Syria-Iraq border. Fighting there has been exceptionally difficult, as it is one of the last places the terror group still holds territory, and they are determined not to lose it.
The U.S. has also had difficulties keeping one of its most lethal contingents of the Syrian Democratic Forces — the Kurdish YPG — from abandoning the fight against ISIS in order to head north where they clash with Turkish military and proxy forces.
Turkey and the Kurds have a long history of conflicts. Turkey considers YPG fighters an offshoot of the Kurdish PKK, a U.S. State Department-recognized terror group.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, have consistently praised the YPG for their role in winning back swaths of territory from ISIS, buoyed by U.S. air power.
With this cross-sectional mandate and outside military assistance from Russia and Iran, the small enclaves controlled by ISIL and its allies are simply not going to expand. The best that Jihadist can hope for is to disarm and seek repatriation back to Iraq and more varied countries of origin. The larger pro-Western rebel groups in Northern Syria can be expected to negotiate some qualified autonomous status within Syria.
Beyond the strategic war games of NATO allies to prolong the conflict in Syria, the welfare of 20 million people is at stake and their plight can be improved by bilateral and NGO support. All major NGO donors are listed on the Caritas Syria Facebook page.
Foreign military intervention in Syria principally with financial support from Saudi Arabia to rebel forces has had a devastating effect on the economy of Syria as shown by the data from Trading Economics:
Spring 2019 will provide opportunities for new cultivation of Syria’s Mediterranean crops. Syria’s oil industry can be boosted by oil and gas supplies from adjacent Iraq.
Even at the height of the military conflicts a year ago, the New York Times Online noted the importance of tourism for Syria’s long-term economic recovery:
Before the country’s conflict began in 2011, Syria was home to an array of tourist landmarks, from Aleppo’s citadel to the Roman-era ruins of Palmyra, and the travel sector was a major part of its economy. Many of those sites, however, have been badly damaged or destroyed entirely by the ongoing war. The widespread insecurity throughout the conflict has meant most governments advise their citizens against travel to Syria.
The country is hoping to change that. Officials from the tourism ministry attended the Fitur International Tourism Trade Fair in Madrid on Saturday in the hopes of attracting visitors back to the country.
Such hopes are dashed by defensive installations at Damascus International Airport after the cessation of most international commercial flights since 2012.
The Jordan Times Online (23 December 2018) notes uncertainty about continued US surveillance of Syria’s largely peaceful borders with both Jordan and Iraq in 2019.
Reuters noted some positive developments at the border crossing from Jordan to Syria on 15 October 2018:
JABER, Jordan/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The border crossing between Jordan and Syria opened to people and goods on Monday after being closed for three years, reopening a route that used to carry billions of dollars of trade for countries across the region.
As the federal LNP cranks up its media offensive for the 2019, it pays to be pessimistic about these positive developments in Syria. Ironically, the Prime Minister’s Media Release (21 December 2018) is already outdated by the pace of developments in Washington:
Both the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan and the Global Coalition to Counter Daesh in Iraq and Syria continue to deny terrorist organisations safe havens in which to plan and export terror attacks across the globe, including to the Indo-Pacific. We cannot be complacent about this threat, including the threat of resurgence by Daesh.
With our international partners including the United States and NATO, Australia will continue to provide security, humanitarian and development assistance in the region.
Australia last month reiterated its ongoing commitment to support Afghanistan’s transition to stability and self-reliance and welcomes recent progress towards a political settlement. Like our coalition partners, Australia recognises there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.
Surely, the scare campaign in support of more military solutions becomes irrelevant if the Syria Government is confident enough to run its own campaign against ISIL without any threat to the lives of NATO special forces.
The appalling role of Saudi Arabia through its support for terrorist operations has endlessly prolonged the civil wars across the Middle East Region from Yemen to Kurdistan with the support of state-of-the-art military technology exported by NATO countries. It’s time for Australian to speak out against such excesses and restrain from arms exports to a brutal regime that recently sanctioned the murder of dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in Turkey.
Denis Bright is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in advancing pragmatic policies compatible with contemporary globalisation.