Brutality of conflict in Syria laid bare

‘Brutality of conflict in Syria laid bare’
by El Hassan bin Talal | Dec 11, 2013 | 20:14

As Christmas approaches, the continuing violence in Syria casts a heavy shadow over the region of West Asia and North Africa. What began as a call for Syrian unity has become a metaphor for hatred and violence. On top of over 120,000 killed in the conflict, the latest United Nations estimates place the number of internally displaced Syrians at 6.5 million, with a further two million fleeing Syria to seek refuge in neighbouring countries and
Europe. However, these numbers ignore the toll the ongoing conflict has taken on human dignity and security in our region. 

In the first days of this month, with the beginnings of a harsh winter gripping the Levant, the brutality of the conflict has once again been laid bare. Multiple kidnappings of civilians — 12 nuns, two Spanish journalists and four Syrian activists, including prominent human rights lawyer, Razan Zaytouneh — have brought home the increasing disregard for innocent lives. As extremist forces gain prominence in Syria, civilians have become mere pawns in the political machinations of violent actors.

Although the alleged kidnapping of 12 Greek Orthodox nuns from the Mar Taqla monastery in Maaloula have been denied as rebel attempts to “protect” them from air strikes, more than a week later the nuns have still not been released. The holding of the nuns in Yabrud raises concerns about the treatment of Christians and other religious minorities by the Syrian rebels. Moreover, the destruction of churches in Maaloula — an ancient Christian town in Syria where some residents still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus — echoes the wider devastation of Syria’s great religious and cultural heritage. This desecration of holy people, sites and relics is a tragic reflection of the compassion and human dignity lost in the bloody war of attrition currently taking place in Syria.

Kidnapping and targeting of journalists is an unfortunately common occurrence in war-torn Syria, which Reporters Without Borders has named the most dangerous country for journalists. Since the conflict began in March 2011, at least 25 journalists have been killed, and as many as 80 citizen journalists and bloggers have disappeared. The two Spanish journalists currently held by the Al Qaeda affiliate, ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Al Sham), were taken in September, although their story has only recently been made public. It is estimated that there are currently many more journalists being held in Syria whose kidnappings have gone unreported. 

Zaytouneh’s disappearance, along with three other Syrian activists, has been attributed to an article she published earlier this month in which she blamed ISIS for more than 90 per cent of the recent kidnappings in rebel-held areas. Although no group has yet claimed responsibility for her disappearance, it appears likely that it was engineered to silence Zaytouneh’s outspoken denunciation of the extremist opposition. If Syria is to someday emerge from this conflict with a hope of unity, a precedent of political repression of civilians cannot be allowed to take root.

It should not need to be said that the kidnapping or targeting of civilians, regardless of political, religious, or ethnic affiliation, is contrary to all international human rights laws and norms, as well as to human dignity and security. I call for the immediate release of all kidnapped civilians within Syria and for the end to the violence that is destroying a country rich in culture and heritage. 

With millions of Syrian children affected by the civil war in Syria, we risk losing a generation to violence and extremism. In doing so, we will lose our culture, history and identity, as well. Human dignity must be elevated above politics. We must set aside religious, national and regional differences and unite in a dialogue to bring peace and stability.
The writer is chairman of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.