Syrian Voices, Policy Choices: A Conversation with Syrian Activists and U.S. Policy Thinkers
In the fifth year of the Syrian conflict, the situation continues to deteriorate with no hope for a solution in sight. Despite the ongoing fighting between pro-regime, rebel, and ISIS forces, among others, Syrian civil society continues to operate on the ground in areas free from government control. Brave individuals risk their lives on a daily basis to provide medical care, education, and good governance to the Syrians who remain behind.
The Keynote Luncheon at MEI's 69th Annual Conference featured Syrian activists Sandra Bitar and Kadar Sheikhmous, fmr. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford, and Deputy Assistant Administrator for USAID Robert Jenkins for a discussion of the conditions on the ground in Homs and Syria's Kurdish regions, and the challenges facing humanitarian relief organizations attempting to help the civilian populations in besieged areas and amidst Russian bombings. The panel was moderated by Rym Mumtaz of ABC News.
Rym Momtaz: Thank you Wendy. It’s my pleasure to welcome our panelists today. The war in Syria is complex, it’s tragic and we have about 40 minutes to an hour to cover it as insightfully as possible, so let’s hope we get there, but we are in luck because our panelists have a really incredible breadth of experience and knowledge when it comes to Syria. Sandra Bitar is a cofounder and board member of the Emesa Organization, a Syrian NGO that operates in Homs and provides humanitarian aid, educational services, they set up healthcare, clinics and schools and they also set up micro projects for women. Kadar Sheikhmous is a cofounder and Outreach Director of Shar for Development, is an NGO focused on enhancing civil society, governance and economic development in predominantly Kurdish areas in Syria. And the team of activists that he oversees runs trainings on journalism, peace building and reconciliation, especially between the Kurds and Arabs. Ambassador Ford, of course needs no introduction, but I will attempt one. He’s the last resident U.S. Ambassador to Syria, he knows the roots of the uprising and its actors better than most, and he certainly isn’t coy about his views and we welcome that. And Rob Jenkins, last but not least, is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Democracy Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. He’s also the Executive Director of the Agency’s task force on Syria, and we thank you for stepping in for Deputy Assistant Secretary Simon Henshaw, who was called to the White House at the last minute.
So here we are, it’s the fifth year of this conflict and it seems to just grow bloodier, if that’s even possible. More than a quarter million have been killed, half the population is either internally displaced or in refugee camps and trying to trek their way out to Europe. It’s a bleak situation by all accounts, and yet a new diplomatic effort is now underway, it started today in Vienna, and before we tackle that, I do want to start a bit with the human element and what’s going on with Syrians themselves in Syria. Homs, the last time it was, it dominated the headlines was during the terrible siege of Baba Amr and now it’s back in the headlines because of the Russian airstrikes, and so Sandra can talk much more about that. And I wanted to start by asking you to give us a bit of an idea of what is, what is it like for civilians today in Homs, especially since the start of the Russian airstrikes?
Sandra Bitar: We work in the besieged areas of Homs okay and imagine this, please try to imagine yourself for a week without electricity in the middle of December with no heat. You can feed your child once a day or once every two days. You have to take shower in a very cold water, you don’t know if the next day you will have food or not and actually the most important thing, you don’t know if you will wake up to see another day. This is the daily life of the people of Homs, and actually it’s not only in Homs, it’s in all the liberated areas that is out of the control of the Regime.
Rym Momtaz: And since the Russian airstrikes has it gotten much worse?
Sandra Bitar: It is a very bad situation, but with the Russian airstrikes it’s become much, much worse. When they started, they started in Houla and they targeted all, all their targets was civilian targets. They targeted a shelter for civilian, one of our team member lost 14 member of his family. When ISIS invaded Mhein the Russian striked the Mhein, they had 100 airstrike attack in one day on that small town and the regime didn’t allow the civilians to flee to his areas, so he push them to go to ISIS area, so they had to go in the middle of desert trying to reach Idlib to have maybe near the border safer, safer place. And during their traveling there was a big convoy of civilians, women and children, the Russian airstrike targeted, targeted them and three children from one family died in that attack. Actually we just preparing our self near the Turkish borders in the Idlib countryside to receive about 2,500 families who flee from Mhein, until we now get 300 families. The airstrikes because a lot of, what occurs for a lot of Syrians to leave their houses. For example, in the western countryside of Aleppo more than 100,000 people had to flee from there to Idlib and when they targeted the northern countryside of Hama, we still don’t have the exact number of the people who had fled from Hama, but we, what we know that in the Idlib countryside you cannot find a room to put a family there.
Rym Momtaz: Can you talk about the conditions when, they’re internally displaced now and they go to Idlib for example, what kind of services exist in Idlib for them?
Sandra Bitar: Actually nothing. People are sleeping in filth, under trees and winter is on the doors. Some NGOs trying to provide them with some blankets, with some tents, with hygiene kits, it’s, it’s, it’s a huge disaster that the NGOs cannot cover all the needs alone okay? And to make it worse yesterday there is a report that the Russian airstrikes dropped phosphorous bombs on Idlib countryside. So the Idlib countryside right now, where all the IDPs going, trying to find safer place, okay right now is, have been attacked by a phosphorous bombs. So and we are actually talking about no fly zone or safe zone for the civilians, okay since 2011 and until now nobody is responding. Then we can see the huge number of refugees who had to flee to Europe, crossing seas and also a lot of them unfortunately drown in the sea and I, actually I think everybody knows the famous photo of Alan, the Kurdish little child who drowned when, while he was, his family trying to take him to a safe place. So why we have to let people to leave their country, why we cannot have a safe place for them inside Syria? Then we see okay we have refugee crisis, how much we have to, how we should respond to this, it will cost a lot, it will not cost a lot, so there is a lot of negotiation about this, okay but to be honest, it will be much cheaper to have Assad and 200 member of his Regime outside Syria, it will be much cheaper and easy, easiest to be, operate, than having million of refugees.
Rym Momtaz: Can you also talk about the women in Syria today because we hear about how they continue to keep; they keep the communities going when the men are dying or fighting, or what’s going on with that? And I’m wondering if you can tell us more about what they doing in their communities, what are you doing to try to help them or what is the, what are the aid donors trying to do to help them sort of sustain their communities for the day after when the war is done?
Sandra Bitar: There is a lot of programs regarding the empowering women, some of it, it’s to teach, trying to teach them languages, computer skills and other things. But actually right now, who runs the life in Syria are women. Men are fighting, it’s women who have to take responsibility about bringing food to home, taking care of the children, taking care of the injured people, so yes they are doing a very, very great job, they’re keeping life in this miserable situation inside Syria. Actually one of our programs was to, to support widows in Houla, it’s to provide a cow for a widow so she can make cheese from it, sell it and have some profit, but she had to give a part of this profit to another widow. We, we planned for this program in this way to build a network between these women so they can support themselves, they can build like a kind of a network between themselves to support each other. But unfortunately the Russian airstrike come and we had to stop this because it is very hard to run away from the shelling with a cow after you and actually the people right now are searching for, for food and they have time to, or ability to, to feed the cow.
Rym Momtaz: And my last question to you is, we’re talking about Homs in particular, what is it like for civil society there, is there a civil society in Homs today? And what are the, what is the situation of the relationship between the various different communities, whether it’s the Alawites, where there’s a big part of them in Homs, or the Sunnis or the Christians, how is that going on right now, given what’s happening?
Sandra Bitar: First I want to thank Middle East Institute for these great chance to bring us here just to tell the people of D.C. here that it is not only Regime and ISIS, okay? There is also the civil society who work very, very hard and nobody knows about them. In Syria right now there is more than 1,300 NGOs that are working on the liberated areas, providing services to the people of Syria, nobody hear about them, nobody is trying to hear their voices. I will go a little bit away from your question, but actually because it’s one of our requests because when Ambassador Ford was responsible about the Syrian file we had a regular meeting with him and his wonderful staff, we, we felt that our voices are reaching the Administration. Right now nobody is meeting with the, especially the representative of U.S. government, nobody meet with the civil society at all or with the activists, they are meeting only with the politicians and with the armed group. Okay with all respect for both sides, but who may, who, who do the greatest and most hardest work in Syria are the civil society and who are connected with the misery and pain of the people in Syria are the civil society. So I wish that after our visit we will see something different in this relation and we will see more close relation with, with the civil society. Regarding the sectarian, sectarian things in Syria, I just want to raise something, look we had, and in Houla it’s the Alawites; it’s the Alawite villages who are helping us to smuggle food to inside in Houla. So I think the media is exaggeration in this okay, it’s not a civil war, it’s a revolution. We started a revolution because we wanted a democratic state, we want respect for the human rights, we want dignity, this is what is it. It is a fight the Regime pushed it to be a war. It is a war between people who want democracy and dignity and human rights against a regime who keep killing the people…his people just to maintain on his chair, on, in his power. It’s a war between Iranian militias and Syrian, it is not a civilian war. You can find a lot of Christian, Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Syrian activists among us, working with us, they have also their own NGOs, we always cooperate between each other and help each other and there is a solidarity between others.
Rym Momtaz: I see Kadar, you know sort of nodding in approval and I want to bring you into this, this part. Tell us more about what’s going on in the autonomous administration right now in the north of Syria and, and what is happening between the Kurds and the Arabs? We hear a lot that there’s a lot of mistrust, there’s a lot of antagonism, they can’t work together, what is actually going on?
Kadar Sheikhmous: I’ll tell you a little bit of story of mine. I have a young cousin, he’s 21. I have a cousin who is 21, he was arrested by ISIS in December last year and he was released in this September. I asked him one question, his name is Mousodaqi, he was a reporter. I asked after this horrible and horrific experience that you have noticed and you have lived through with all the torture and beheading of other activists, would you still go on your work? And he told me that not ISIS, not any other boogeyman would prevent me from what I want. This applies to all the guys and activists who are being in this fight since 2011 and long before that. As a group we have been working in the cause 2004 uprising and trying to finding another track between Kurds and Arabs through culture, music, which is pretty much more useful than political ties. Similarly to what Sandra have mentioned, the politicians can shift their alliance, beyond groups, can shift their alliances, but it is only civil society that will ensure to have in turn the representation of the people ((inaudible 19:31) whole community to a liberal democracy and they are the real ally.
And I want to say another thing too. I have a good friend in Washington and he tells me we always, in Washington, discuss past wars, I’m here to discuss future wars and how to prevent a breakup of the community. In the light of the recent updates I’ve just been informed 20 minutes ago that a whole city have been liberated from ISIS in the southern parts of Hasakah and Sinjar operation have been successfully conducted, but you know what, they might be, the armed groups might be brilliant and amazing in the battlefield, but I cannot go beyond that. The struggle for governance, the struggle for political representation of these communities is the, the war that, that is now bound by us and to, and the void to fill. Of course…
Rym Momtaz: Allow me to jump in here. We have been hearing for the past year about the exploits of the YPG in that area and it’s gotten a lot of support from the U.S., but we’ve, we’re also hearing of excesses in that part, the autonomous administration, towards the Arab population and the Kurds that aren’t aligned with the YPG and how do you see that being mitigated in a sustainable way so that when and if the Regime changes, you’re not now facing another problem, which is a new quote, unquote oppressive force there?
Kadar Sheikhmous: I’ll tell you this, we have been pushing the YPG long before the United States’ involvement and interaction with the YPG and we forced them to sign the Geneva Convention and been sending messages to them through the child conscription problems that they were having and they are still having and the many violations they are committing, not only towards the Arabs, but toward other communities too, including the Kurdish community more. The, these committees have been living for ages in this area. There are huge dynamics to work out the problems that sometimes a Kurdish family when they have a…I am, my own family had a problem and the guy who resolved it was a Christian guy and same goes to the Arab community too. These people will continue to live, but we’ve pushed the United States back in time to open the door and communicate with the YPG, but as a tool to enhance the presence and bring communities closer to each other. What happened next, and since 2014 our colleague, dear friend from USAID is here, in 2014 there was a decision by USAID to stop the aid for these regions, that has 158 organization, civil society organization, which is ranking number one in Syria in general, only eight of them are working in relief, the rest are working in civil rights, women rights, governance, while we are still facing a problem with all of this research management and also the excessive governance by the armed group. We do need support to push the PYD and its allies to accept other segments of the society, including the other Kurdish parties and the Syrian Democratic Organization, and that could be a way not only to bring stability to northern Syria that is already there security-wise, but also be a tool to bring these community closer to the FSA and the other armed groups to mitigate a war that might breakup. Since the beginning of the revolution there were many lands that were taken by the regime in the ‘60s and were given to other Arab, Arab tribes from Raqqa, not only the Kurdish lands were taken, but also some Arabic tribes lands from the original Arabs in the area have been taken. There was a decision amongst these Arab tribes and the Kurdish political elite in order not to bring that foul now, but leave it later on, down the road, when the Regime is changed and resolve it peacefully.
Rym Momtaz: Can you talk more about these tribes? We rarely hear about them, can you talk more about what kind of engagement has there been with them, has there been any kind of engagement? And what role are they playing against ISIS or with ISIS and with the Kurds?
Kadar Sheikhmous: We have something called the Godfather, it’s not, it’s not translated immediately to Godfather, but when, and this is pretty much in the Hasakah region. When they undergo their circumcision, sorry, if the guy is Kurdish, you’re, the guy that they undergo their circumcision in his lap should be from another community. Mine was from the Harab tribe, my brother was, his so-called Godfather was from the Christian community. This relations still are maintained and they are also leaving their region, leaving a gap, a demographic gap, whether the Kurdish or the Arab or the Syrian, not because there is no stability, but there is no work and no development. These regions have been underdeveloped for 50 years, east of the Euphrates, Raqaa, Deir Ezzor, and Hasakah have been underdeveloped and this, the resources of this region have not been managed properly. Now what people feel is, what they blame, some of the Kurdish community, is blaming the other Arabs on that, but not all of it. While still the discussion, I can share a photo with you but unfortunately there is no slide here, a while a group in Amuda have done a coexistence campaign and on the, on the wall there was a wri…some slogans and writing on coexistence, Kurdish, Arab and Syrian. A while ago our, my own executive director was passing by and he seen an “x” on the word Arab. This problem might have been only on the wall now, but we are afraid of that and might not only, not only be restricted to the YPG members, other segments of the society. While the political elite understands the fact that we cannot have a democracy in one place in Syria and forget about the other. If there is no strong collaboration between civil society of all the components, we cannot save only the Kurdish community and then see, because the failure of the representation in the Arab Sunni community in Iraq was so costly that everyone was affected, same applies to Syria and that’s not only the case. It’s also the failure in some places and some policies by the Iraqi government dropping all of these arms and these funds to ISIS, that we as Syrians have suffered from, more territories in Raqaa, Deir Ezzor, and Aleppo have been taken over and even including Kobani, have been affected because of these arms, that’s one.
We should also acknowledge the fact that, I can tell you another thing, during the Kobani crisis, before that there were some children, Kurdish children from Kobani, arrested by ISIS, four months later I’ve met some of these young kids and they were turning and if not working with another organization to try to get them back to rationality, they could have been exterminated. The ones who led ISIS attack on Kobani were Kurds; we should take that into consideration too. We are afraid of the rise of some fascist movements, as a backlash to the war on ISIS. We need to be supported as civil society because we will create alternative to Assad and ISIS and so long that there is no representation and more authorities to the local level in all of Syria, not only the Kurdish regions, the problems will continue to escalate. What we can do as civil society is only keeping these disputes and these conflicts on a political level, hopefully that one day our politician will be better and do better job.
Rym Momtaz: Well speaking of the political level, I’m gonna bring in Ambassador Ford. Today Round two of Vienna kicks off and I wanted to get your read so far on this new process.
Amb. Robert Ford: Okay first Sandra mentioned that we were worked with a wonderful team on Syria and a number of them are here, and I just want to point out Khalood Kandil, who worked with me on Syria and is now working on United Nations issues; Ruth Citrin, who worked at the State Department and also National Security Council is here and helped. Rob Jenkins did invaluable work and we’ll hear from him in a minute and David Staples from the State Department’s NEA Bureau is also here and we all worked together in Syria. If you have any criticisms may I politely suggest that you direct those toward Khalood, David and Ruth and I’d be delighted to hear any praise.
So with respect to Vienna, I don’t mean to ruin your desserts, but let’s be honest, it’s time for analysis and not hope. Analysis is not the same as hope. The fundamental differences between the outside players are not resolved and the fundamental differences among Syrians are not resolved. And I have seen no indication, I want to underline that, seen no indication that the Russians have moved an inch. Everything I see the Russians saying publicly, in 2015 I heard them say publicly, in 2011 and 2012, and if you don’t believe me please ask Ruth, Khalood, and David because they, we were all working on this back then. Same thing with the Iranians, if anything I think the Iranians have ratcheted up a notch both rhetorically and certainly on the ground, as have the Russians. So if we’re thinking of a political process where people are going to come to the table and make serious compromises, those who are against the Syrian, what Sandra calls the Syrian Revolution, I see no sign of compromise. Within Syria itself, I see nothing from the Syrian regime that suggests that they’re prepared for serious compromise. The Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister was just in Moscow and Tehran and said there will be no transition government, flat out about it. And let’s be honest, you cannot have an election in Syria in a year or in eighteen months. I was in Iraq for three different elections and we had the United States Army there to help provide security, transport, etcetera. It was incredibly difficult, the United Nations election team did superhuman work and the United States Military, the United States civilians under the Embassy, did superhuman work, we will not have that kind of support for an election in Syria in 18 months. How would you even begin to register people to vote when half the population has been displaced, how would you even begin to do that? So and I’m not even talking about the four secret police services and their history of messing with elections. So I think what I see in Vienna is a lot of hope, frankly the meetings yesterday, the preparatory meetings for the big meeting tomorrow, they’re already arguing about the process that would explain the process. So I’m not hopeful at all.
Rym Momtaz: But what’s the alternative to Vienna?
Amb. Robert Ford: There isn’t an alternative to Vienna except what we’re gonna see, which is more fighting. I, many people in this room I’m sure have met the former Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, have you see what Adel is saying? He said it in New York during the United Nations general assembly meetings, he has said it since those meetings, Assad must go, either politically or militarily, that is a powerful statement and I don’t think Adel is the kind of man prone to vitriol and those of you who have met him during his time here in Washington I think would agree with that. When he’s taking such a tough line, that suggests to me that he is reflecting some kind of decision within his own government. And on the other hand, the Iranians are saying absolutely Assad cannot go, the state will collapse if he goes, the Russians say the same thing. So this is just, the fighting is just gonna go on, if the Russians bombing, the Assad forces made some gains to the east of Aleppo, they were able to relive an airbase that had been under siege for three years, which is a victory for them. But on the other hand they’re losing ground to the southwest of Aleppo in the province of Hama, the Syrian armed opposition is actually moving slowly south along the Syrian equivalent of I95, the spine, the highway that connects all the cities, population centers, of western Algerian, sorry western Syria. And so I just see this fighting go on and on and both sides escalating.
Rym Momtaz: Well can we talk about the, the factions and the opposition on this side, whom you know quite well, what is your assessment of them at this point? One of the declared goals of this second round of Vienna is to sort out who’s quote, unquote a terrorist and who isn’t and who should be invited to the talks and who shouldn’t be, what’s your take on that?
Amb. Robert Ford: I think this is a bizarre exercise. First of all, I don’t understand how foreign countries can choose the Syrian opposition’s representatives to talks where the opposition delegation presumably must deliver the armed groups to any agreement that you would eventually achieve, if you could achieve an agreement. So by excluding armed factions, that are very powerful on the ground, if you exclude them up front, and I’m, that is what the Russians and the Iranians are trying to do, how then is an opposition delegation in Vienna supposed to then deliver a ceasefire? I am not suggesting that the Islamic State be invited to Vienna, obviously and I am not suggesting that the Al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front, be invited to Vienna, they’re not interested in ceasefires anyway and they’ve been very public about it. There are lots of other armed groups, including Islamist armed groups, that are in a sort of a gray zone, and I certainly agree with what the British Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, said the other day, there are a lot of people in that gray zone, some of whom we do not agree with at all ideologically. And yet they have big influence on the ground because they’re big groups, I mentioned these battles along the Syrian equivalent of I95, they are at the forefront of those battles and if you want them to participate in a political solution process, you want them to accept a ceasefire, one way or another you’re going to have to include them in the negotiations for that. Otherwise, if you exclude them upfront, I would almost bet and I’d be interested what Sandra and Kadar think, I would almost bet they will reject the process upfront and I am not at all sure that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia would put pressure on them to stop fighting, that’s not clear to me, especially looking at Adel al-Jubeir’s rhetoric.
Rym Momtaz: Well isn’t that an in-built contradiction in the Vienna Declaration where they’re talking about trying to figure out who’s a terrorist and who isn’t, but at the same time they want a nationwide ceasefire, you were just saying that these important Islamist groups are in some of the most difficult and crucial parts of the country, so how do you reconcile these two things?
Amb. Robert Ford: I can’t, I mean I’m just being analytical. The Russians, I’ll be very frank, I love being retired, I could like say what I think.
David use to like, over there, he’d be like, don’t say that. The Russians submitted a list of 38 names of Syrian opposition people that they would accept and many of them are extremely honorable, very decent and very smart people. But I gotta tell you they do not control the armed opposition and they cannot deliver the armed opposition in a ceasefire, not one name on that list. So if we’re gonna be serious, we gonna have to find a way to bring armed group representatives, one way or another, into the process.
Rym Momtaz: But I’m still not hearing sort of an idea of how, how do we stop saying it’s a mess and it’s complicated and it’s not gonna get better and how do we start the beginning of getting there?
Amb. Robert Ford: I’m not sure it can be done, I wouldn’t want to give this, I wouldn’t want to give you, Rym, and I wouldn’t want to give our friends and colleagues here at lunch, the sense that this can easily be done or that it can be done at all, it’s not clear to me that it can be. I think historically in these kind of bitter, internal conflicts, not just Syria, but lots of other places, in a sense the two fighting sides have to get tired of fighting and I don’t see that at all yet in Syria. And so until those sides are willing to actually make serious compromises, it’s not clear to me that we can actually get a deal.
Rym Momtaz: I want to bring in Sandra and Kadar to this and see, hear your reactions to what Ambassador Ford is saying, because you’re, you know you’re trying to sort of maintain hope on the ground and if I were you I’d be hopeless right now.
Sandra Bitar: We don’t have another choice. We don’t have another choice. It’s our country, we will stay there, look my cousin died under torture in one of the regime detention centers. His, what, what do you want me to tell to his three children, your dad died for nothing? No we still want a democratic state, we still want human right respect, we still want dignity and we will still keep in this until we achieve this, but actually I just have a comment, we keep talking about Nusra and ISIS, what about Hezbollah and the Iranian militia, okay? They started making massacres in Houla, in Karm al-Zaytoon, they first who start using knife and beheading the heads and cutting the throats. They didn’t do it in front of the cameras and they didn’t target the western people, okay so for this they are accepted? I just keep listening and hearing only about Nusra and ISIS and some Islamic groups, what about the other militias, why nobody mention them?
Rym Momtaz: And Kadar?
Kadar Sheikhmous: I do believe that democracy is inevitable and all of what happened is only delaying the process, peace might happen, but what kind of peace will we have? If we do not transform this problem and this war into sustainable peace we’ll keep running in the same square and so long that people are not represented from all walks of life in the governance and bring the governance into lower level in Syria, I still see no hope, that’s one. The second, so long that the support for the armed groups is not in line with, with pushing for stronger civil society that together, never believe that a fighter today in Syria from the moderate groups is someone who is vicious, who wants to kill or go on a shooting spree, these are ordinary people, no one wants to be a warrior for a hundred years or ten years, they want to go back, they want to have their own homes fixed. Maybe all of these people, millions have left Syria, but guess what people are reluctant to change their (inaudible 41:10) how about changing their houses, will be stuck with our homes, we’ll build it again and I see no future for Assad, even if he stays in power, tomorrow there will be another problem. And what brought ISIS today will bring another boogeyman tomorrow.
Rym Momtaz: Rob, I want to bring you in and talk about the refugee and the IDP crisis. The goal for next year, according to Secretary Kerry, is to resettle about 85,000 Syrians to the U.S., since 2011 if I have my numbers correctly; the U.S. has resettled about 2,154.00, if I’m not mistaken.
Rob Jenkins: Just Syrians.
Rym Momtaz: Just Syrians, yes. So how are we gonna get to 85,000 Syrians in the next year, how does that work?
Rob Jenkins: Well first thank you very much. I apologize if I get teary eyed, I share something with Congressman Boehner, when I talk about Syria. And it’s an honor to be here next to a bureaucratic hero of mine, Robert Ford, but also anyone who’s a civil society activist right now in Syria is a hero, so it’s, it’s an honor to be here.
So for the last two years we have average about 70,000 refugee resettlement cases in the United States. The United States resettles more than all other nations I the world, refugees. So what Secretary Kerry and the President have outlined is that 70,000 number that we’ve done in FY15 will go up to 85,000 next, this current year in FY16, and then 100,000 total the following year, which is a 40% increase in two years. That is for refugees all over the world. For this year the level that we’ve selected for Syria, in just this next year, is 10,000. We have to belie…remember that while this crisis has been going on four and a half terrible years, usually it’s much later that we start resettling refugees. What we always want to do is keep them in the countries of first asylum first, because then they have a greater chance of one day going home, only later do we then look at resettling them longer term. So the fact in the last years there’s only been several thousand Syrians is actually ahead of the curve of what we’ve usually done. But the President, given the current situation in Europe, has given us I would say a stretch goal, which we are ready to meet, of increasing that by 15,000 additional people this year to 85, that target.
Rym Momtaz: I mean we’re talking about 10,000 to come to the U.S., which is a country with more than 300 million people, you just mentioned the countries of first refuge, a country like Lebanon with four million people has more than almost now 1.2 million refugee, Syrian refugees, in Turkey there’s 2.5 million, in Jordan there’s about 700,000 and Europe is taking in also more than, more than, tens of thousands. What role is the U.S. playing in order to alleviate that, given the burden that these countries are taking on?
Rob Jenkins: Thank you. Yesterday Secretary Kerry gave wonderful speech at the U.S. Institute for Peace; the venue was not picked by chance. And he outline what we have been doing and what we will continue to do as a government in the face of the crisis in Syria. The first thing is we will continue to lead the International Coalition to Degrade and Defeat ISIL. At the same time we will continue and now elevate and invigorate our diplomatic efforts and that’s why, Anne Richard, who was originally gonna be here today, and you were gonna get her, she’s in Vienna today meeting in those working groups that Robert Ford just spoke about, and the Secretary will be there, he’s there now and the meetings are tomorrow. And third we’re gonna continue to work with our partners in the region to ensure that ISIL does not get gains in any more neighboring countries and that doesn’t spread. Now all those things are mutually supportive. If you make a gain in one of those areas you’re gonna increase your chances for success in another area. Meanwhile we’re gonna continue to be, do what we’ve been doing for four and a half years and this is a story that I think the American people need to know more about. Four and a half years of crisis and we have provided as the U.S. government, all of you as U.S. taxpayers, 4.5 billion dollars in assistance, about half of that is inside and half of that is for refugees outside. That is a massive amount of money and a massive amount of assistance; it’s by far the largest contribution to this disaster of all the countries in the world, right? So right now, and every single month, about 5 million people, 5 million Syrians, inside the country, receive assistance. That’s food; those are the blankets that IDPs are getting as about 150,000 IDPs since September 30th, the Russian bombings started. They’re receiving food; they’re receiving blankets, over 200 different medical facilities that are supported every day. Our partners tells us that on average about every two or three days a barrel bomb hits another medical facility, they are being targeted by the Assad Regime. As soon as they’re hit, they reassemble somewhere else and dozens and dozens of aid workers, Syrian aid workers, heroic aid workers, have lost their lives and continue to do that every day, with American dollars. Now that’s not enough, right?
We are working as much as we can, constantly with other donors to try to get rid of the gap between what is needed and what is provided. Right now the UN appeals are only about 45% met at the end of the year and the gap just keeps getting bigger. We can’t buy our way out of this crisis and no amount of assistance is going to end it, that’s why Vienna’s happening. I would not want to disagree with Ambassador Ford and I’m not gonna sit here and say it’s all gonna be bright and cheery and we’re gonna have a great agreement in the next few days, but we are talking now, we have got to do something. If not this, then what? To get people around the table, 20 different entities now will be there tomorrow, to get them around the table and begin a process to whittle away, because peace is elusive, but it’s critical and what Kadar said, that at some point this is going to end. We can’t do it with assistance alone, but in, on top of the humanitarian assistance a few weeks ago Deputy Secretary Blinken announced an additional one hundred million dollars of assistance, not humanitarian assistance, but additional assistance to the moderate opposition, to civil society, to local councils, to provincial councils, that’s on top of the 500 million dollars our government has done over the last four and a half years. Does it reach everyone? No. Is it enough? No. Is it important? It’s critical. At some point there are going to be other players besides Assad and besides ISIL, we’re gonna need these opposition activists, we’re gonna need those local councils who are so brave and work every day and continue, every day, with the barrel bombs, that continue to build a society from the bottom up.
Rym Momtaz: Thank you. I’m gonna open it to questions from the audience, if you could please stand up and introduce yourself and I’ll take a few questions and then the panel will answer. Yeah please go ahead. And if you want the question to be answered by someone specifically, please do specify.
Female: Okay. Hi I’m Rose Sahouri, I also am a board member with UNICEF, so I’m thankful that you highlighted some of the humanitarian crises, that was really important and I’m also happy that you ended with the note on peace. I think that the only way that you can actually help Syria is by ending the conflict, that’s really the only solution to ending the crisis that you highlighted. I also wanted to point out that there’s so many differences, even within Syria, so there’s no, I wouldn’t say that there’s one single faction of agreement, which is why we have a conflict, and you’re right that until the parties get tired of it, tired of fighting, it’s not gonna end. Which is why Vienna is so important, which is why I think our leaders need to push for Vienna and less push for more fight and arming of these groups because it’s true, as we’ve seen in prior wars, whenever one ends there’s a new ISIL, there’s a new one and it’s always worse than the prior one and I don’t think that ultimately more arms and more fighting and more funding of that will bring peace, it just seems completely contradictive. But so as hopeless as it may be, I think that the push for peace needs to be the right way because in our conflict, which is an adult conflict, the ones who are suffering are the children and I really just don’t want to see more pictures of Alan Kurdis on beaches where they should be playing. So I appreciate the comments on peace and I, I hope that our leaders are fighting for that.
Rym Momtaz: I’m gonna, yeah I’m gonna take a group of questions if it’s possible, just go ahead. Go for it.
Male: Thank you, Rabin Pasha, I am a founder of MYE Dreams, that’s M-Y-E for Middle East Young Entrepreneurs Dreams, and I’m originally Iraqi Kurdish, came to this country as a refugee when Iraq was having similar issues in ’96. I want to first of all thank both of you coming from Syria and sharing these stories of hope and people actually building and rebuilding Syria, which is so critical. And in a place like that, you know you think about it when the state has failed, and the state had already failed it’s people, it’s a civil society that is providing the governance, it is a civil society that’s providing the services, that’s building the institutions. And while one part of the coin, and I can’t speak so much about that and I won’t, is the political piece. I think you know maybe if we could hear a little bit more about and every time I go to these events and about the Middle East, I always watch out for the word, youth and young people and you know we talk about countering violent extremism, we talk about all the despair and we talk about governance and violence and one of the things that I think would be so critical to hear and talk about is how we can prevent some of these in the future by working and targeting young people. I mean these people have been going through so much trauma even right now and the issue is not just necessarily ISIS, it’s not just necessarily what’s going to be happening next, but how do we build up a new narrative of hopes and dreams, at least at the same time that we’re rebuilding civil society institutions and trying as much as possible with the political factors, most of it outside of our hands.
Rym Momtaz: Thank you, if you can pass the mic behind you and…
Female: Hi, Margaret Rodgers, I’ve worked on a number of USAID projects in Iraq. I’m thrilled to hear from the civil society representatives, my question in the news I only read about extremist hardline militias, but I want to know are any of these groups fighting on behalf of democracy and the other goals that you’ve discussed at length?
Rym Momtaz: Thank you and one more over there, in the back?
Male: Thank you very much; my name is Mohamed Abdullah, I’m a human rights activist from Syria. I want to thank you very much for brining Sandra and Kadar because nobody really presents Syria as much as these two guys presents the (inaudible 53:18 multiple words). I have two questions, very difficult ones for both of you.
Rym Momtaz: And keep concise.
Male: Concise. Kadar mentioned, the fight for governance in Syria, who’s filling the vacuum? I think this is entire story here because when the fighters liberate a town or village, it’s quickly being filled by Nusra, ISIS or an under group that doesn’t really represent civil society, the revolution effects or values or the demands where people fought for or protested for at the beginning. Fighters are preserving their seats on the negotiation by de facto because they can basically damage any ceasefire and we have to talk to them as Ambassador Ford’s analysis mentioned, how we can bring the civil society to the debate. Assad is there, the Baath fighters are on the table, the civil society who can contribute positively is missing.
And my second difficult question is, you presented really good cases about coexistence and how people living together and how Alawite community versus Arab Kurdish communities working together, however, honestly the stories being highlighted in the media as Haran Aloush putting the Alawites in cages and put them on the top roof of buildings to be bombed. About the Kurdish committing ethnic cleansing when they fight ISIS, according to Amnesty International, and honestly the level of tension between Kurdish and Arab activists fighting over Amnesty International report was really intense to the level make me really suspicious and hopeless when I talk about the coexistence and working together between communities. My question, what can we do to highlight the good version of the story? Thank you.
Rym Momtaz: Thank you. I’m, we’re, we have five minutes left so I’m gonna turn to the panel and have them try to answer. So youth, democracy, who’s fighting for democracy from the armed factions? Governance, how do we bring in the civil society to the debate and how do we highlight the known tension between the various communities? Sandra?
Sandra Bitar: First of all regarding the how to fill the empty places, it’s when we liberate area, unfortunately ISIS and Nusra should, they don’t have this bureaucratic way to write a proposal, concept note, having approval than to submit to have money so you can provide this. And actually until we didn’t have any fund for emergency respond when liberated area we have it to immediately go and respond to that place. Actually they have full bags with U.S. dollars and they can fill this thing, so it will be one of the ideas actually to have a fund for the emergency response immediately. And the second one…?
Rym Momtaz: Empowering…?
Rob Jenkins: That, that now exists and there is now a plan for getting equipment and supplies immediately into liberated areas, things are sitting now in Turkey, in warehouses, but I do take the point that we have bureaucracy, that’s my job, I’m a passionate bureaucrat, but we try to keep it to a minimum [chuckles].
Sandra Bitar: Thank you, how much minimum? Minimum on one…
Rob Jenkins: Still more than you probably would like [chuckle].
Sandra Bitar: Regarding the use education, then education, then education. Actually we are facing this problem more than ten million child in Syria have not gone to school for more than four years. And in the neighboring countries, because of lack of money, the parents cannot send their children to a proper schools and actually today I just asked to have such projects in the neighboring country to have a proper, decent schools with no ideology for these children because actually yes we are so worried about our future regarding this. We need a proper education for these children because they are the future.
Rym Momtaz: Kadar, on highlighting the tensions…yes?
Kadar Sheikhmous: Shortly, Rabin, we’ve just started a project in agriculture in A’-Mouda and we’ve seen other positive in ask questions, requests by the local businesses to copy that model. Today the migration is caused by war; tomorrow’s migration will be caused by economic reason. The reasons, and we need, we need desperately, focus on how to properly use the resources at hand and bring hope for these people because it’s labor that makes people progress and prosperous and eventually lead a political change and if that is not happening we’ll see ISIS, frankly, that’s one. The second question for Mohamed, you know Qamishli area, only Qamishli area hosts 700,000 IDP coming from Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. I mean your family have being living there, you know the situation so. What you see on Facebook, frankly all the fighters on the ground don’t have time…
Male: (inaudible 58:47 multiple words)
Kadar Sheikhmous: Yeah and, and people do not have that time to go into these discussions because they are more focused on things like education, things related to electricity and water and guess what, the Internet, all of our families have been scattered through the whole, five or six continents and all need good Internet. No Arab or Kurdish or Syrian will say no to good electricity, to good water, to good business opportunities and better education. And not only inside Syria, but in the surrounding countries reason number one for peoples’ departure, towards is the education of their children. My own brother-in-law, who have been living through the war and was doctor and treated the FSA fighters, YPG fighters, and the civilians for free, he left couple months ago because of my own little nieces and nephews, just for their education. But guess what, people will get back, that’s my personal hope. My mother and father studied abroad and they got back and my brother in Germany who’s now preparing for peace because he’s already bored and wants to get back.
Rym Momtaz: We have one more minute for Ambassador Ford if you want to jump in on this?
Amb. Robert Ford: Actually I’d like to be quiet and let them talk because I find what they say riveting so other comments from Sandra and Kadar?
Rym Momtaz: Anything else?
Sandra Bitar: Actually yes I just want to say regarding the peace process or the political process, I just want to mention that in Syria we felt safe for one week, only one week in Syria and that after President Obama gave a very real threat to the regime and actually we had no fly zone within that week, it all what needed, a real threat. So if we want to push for a political solution to build the peace in Syria we need to push, we need a real threat for this regime still feel that he is powered, nobody want to put him down, so for this he, why should negotiate? One week, we had one week without any air strikes, without any shelling, without any battles and that after the real threat from the President Obama.
Kadar Sheikhmous: One thing I want to add.
Kadar Sheikhmous: We, we cannot crush the insurgency for ISIS and other groups by only killing, we need to address the root cause, we need to change the mentality that brought Assad in the first place and brought ISIS and Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden have been killed, but guess what, Al-Qaeda is expanding. It’s us on the frontlines of this fight, we need help.
Rym Momtaz: Well I thank our panelists and I thank you for staying a bit over our time, there’s a panel about to start so we have to wrap up here, but thank you so much.
Transcriber: Ruth Frank (505/440-9096)
Amb. Robert S. Ford
Senior Fellow, The Middle East Institute
Active now as a scholar and university lecturer, Robert Ford served for 30 years in the State Department and Peace Corps, concluding his career in 2014 as the U.S. ambassador to Syria. He served as U.S. ambassador to Algeria (2006-2008), deputy ambassador in Iraq (2008-2010), senior political advisor to the U.S. ambassador to Iraq (2004-2006), and deputy chief of mission in Bahrain (2001-2003). Ambassador Ford held postings in Egypt, Turkey, Cameroon, and in Algeria during its civil war. He was awarded the Presidential Honor award for his leadership of the embassy in Damascus, and the Secretary of State’s Distinguished Service Award, the department's highest award. In 2012, he received the annual Profile in Courage award from Boston’s John F. Kennedy Library for his defense of human rights in Syria. Ambassador Ford has appeared on CNN, PBS, MSNBC, Fox News, NPR, the BBC, and Arab networks, and has been published in The New York Times and Foreign Policy, among others.
Activist and Board Member, Emesa
Sandra Bitar is a board member of the Emesa organization, a Syrian NGO which provides humanitarian aid and educational services in the city of Homs. Since the onset of the Syrian civil war Bitar has aided those affected by violence and helped organize food supplies and day camps for children in the besieged city. She has been a leader in organizing and conducting campaigns to promote human rights, democracy, and political pluralism in Syria and is a spokesperson for those living through the revolution in Syria, particularly for Syrian women. She is based in Gaziantep, Turkey, and travels regularly to Beirut for her work with Emesa (the name of Homs in ancient Greek).
Co-Founder and Public Relations Director, Shar for Development
Kader Sheikhmous co-founded and represents Shar for Development, an NGO that focuses on enhancing civil society, governance, and economic development in predominantly Kurdish regions of Syria. During his final year at Aleppo University, Sheikhmous joined the efforts in the Syrian uprising as a civil society activist producing social media content, including YouTube videos and chants, for peaceful protests. In 2011, he co-founded and served as the English spokesperson for the Union of Free Syrian Students, which organized students at Syrian universities nationwide. Sheikhmous was selected to participate in the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program for political and economic leadership as well as the International Republican Institute’s Rising Star Program in Prague. He is currently working in Hassakeh in northeastern Syria on civil society organizing, peace building, and journalism workshops to bring together Arab and Kurdish participants.
Rym Momtaz (Moderator)
Foreign Desk Assignment Editor, ABC News
Rym Momtaz is an assignment editor on the foreign desk at ABC News. She specializes in coverage of Syria and Iraq, in addition to terrorism, from lone wolf attacks in the U.S. and Europe to larger scale terror attacks in Africa and the Middle East. Before joining ABC News, she served as the special assistant to the permanent representative of Lebanon to the United Nations during Lebanon’s tenure on the UN Security Council (UNSC). During that time, she was on the team that negotiated the two UNSC resolutions that authorized military intervention in Libya in 2011. She has won an Emmy award, and was part of the ABC News team that won the 2014 and 2015 Murrow Awards for overall excellence.