Interview with Father Paolo Dall’Oglio on the Syrian Crisis

In this interview, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit priest who spent 30 years in Syria leading the restoration of a 1,000-year-old monastery, working on interreligious dialogue, and becoming an outspoken and now exiled critic of the Syrian regime, discusses the ongoing crisis in Syria.

Father Paolo describes a regime that not merely lost its legitimacy during the conflict, but that was also not the right solution for keeping the Syrian harmony. “It has been using the Syrian mosaic as a justification for the regime, but it is a bad justification.”

Discussing the escalation of violence and expanding civil war in Syria, Father Paolo highlighted the importance of diplomacy and non-violent action. “That’s why I was for the Arab League initiative and the Kofi Annan initiative,” Father Paolo said. At the same time, he maintained, “we have to recognize that the people in the end had the right to defend themselves.”

Most importantly, however, Father Paolo stressed that the United Nations needs to assume responsibility, because of the risks to the population a further escalation and continuation of the violence poses to Syrians. “The problem is that, until now, the fight is to take or to keep Syria. The West wants to take Syria, and Russia wants to keep Syria. The Arab Sunnis, they want to take Syria, and Iran wants to keep Syria. This is a bad fight.”

Therefore, Father Paolo said, “we should come together with the idea that Syria should be a neutral country – like Austria after the Second World War, not siding with each of the four parts that were fighting there – and trying to be Syria for all the Syrians.”

The interview was conducted by Jose Vericat, Adviser at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript:

Jose Vericat (JV): Father Paolo, thank you very much for coming here to the International Peace Institute. You were expelled from Syria earlier this year after three decades in the country. Can you tell us what happened?

Father Paolo Dall’Oglio (FP): The monastery and myself, we had been acting in the past twenty years for inter-religious dialogue and, more consistently, for the building of a civil society on grass[roots] level for sustainable development and also sometimes even fighting some cases of corruption in the church and in the society. We had been active in regional projects for a culture of peace, like the Abraham Path initiative. And all this brought us to some frictions with the power, with the regime, and by 2010 our activity was completely frozen. The inter-religious dialogue, cultural activities, even environmental issues were completely frozen or forbidden. Then by March 2011 my residence was blocked, so I was not able to come out of the country. Otherwise I would not be able to go back.

When we started with the reconciliation initiative, asking for freedom of opinion and expression as conditions for reconciliation action in the country, my presence came to a big difficulty. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked my bishop to send me out of the country. Then there was a reaction of the people. And so there was a kind of a deal. But during those last months of violence and repression and massacres, I was not able to stay silent anymore, and I wrote an open letter to Kofi Annan, the old [Secretary General] and chief of the initiative of the UN and the Arab League. And this went to the end of my stay, and under pressure, my bishop asked me to go.

JV: In many ways the current crisis wasn’t a surprise to you. In summary, what were the main causes that led to the crisis?

FP: Many people thought that Mr. Bashar al-Assad, with the help of his wife, a very well-educated person, would be able to be the protagonist of the democratic mutation, translation into full democracy for Syria. In fact, the regime was already ideologically empty. The Ba’ath ideology came to the end of its motivations and values. [It] was a clear failure as a project. So far the Syrian regime was more and more just an association of family interests.

And the liberalization of the country from the previous socialist structure, without democratization, facilitated the mafia trend. And so, in spite [of having] more democracy, we have had less state, less consistency, less respect of the law altogether. So the change didn’t come. And the growing of tension: people asking for rights, people asking for the change. The tension was very high in the last years already. The repression on human rights activists, on politicians asking for freedom, was already very strong. So the Arab Spring has been the occasion for the explosion of the situation and also to show this new protagonist, the youth, the Arab youth, an incredible, marvelous protagonist that is the fruit of the big values rooted in families if the society that has been coming up with this astonishing, great expression of political awareness.

JV: However, since the protest started in early 2011, there has been a very sharp militarization, particularly in the most recent period. Do you think that this has been a mistake? Do you think that it could have been avoided?

FP:  The problem is that Syria has been used as the conflictual space for regional and international tensions. First of all, the Sunni-Shiite tension, the Iranian-Gulf nations tension, and also the Russia and NATO new Cold War, or Little Cold War. Syria is paying a high price for these tensions that have paralyzed the action of the United Nations that should have protected the Syrians from the wild repression of the pacific revolution of the Syrians. From the first day, the repression was of absolutely non-proportioned and immediately violent. The use of terror and torture has been systematic. The jailing of innocent people has been absolutely universal. And it’s not astonishing that soldiers that have been ordered to fight and to use their weapons against their own people just went away to create a free army to defend the revolution.

So, I believe in non-violent action, and I believe in international non-violent action. That’s why I was for the Arab League initiative and the Kofi Annan initiative, but we have to recognize that the people in the end had the right to defend themselves.

JV: Are we headed for civil war now, do you think? If it’s not already a civil war, are we headed for a deterioration into a sectarian war?

FP:  This is an important discussion in Syria. My position from June 2011, so for fourteen months, is that the civil war already started. And the two phenomena go together. There’s a twin reality: the revolution all over the country and the civil war in the west where the Sunni villages and quarters in Homs, for example are contrasted by the villages or part of the town that are mainly Alawites, with other minorities.

So in this context, obviously, the situation of the Christians becomes unbearable because [they are] blocked between the two conflictual actors and this is a disaster for the community. Most of the Christians go away or are obliged to go with the militias. So, it’s a terrible situation.

So, [there is] revolution all over the country, repressed by the violence of the regime, and the civil war, ongoing in the west. The risk is also a condition of civil war for the Kurdish area; so we have big risks.

JV: Are each minority and the majority headed for mutual extermination?

FP: For the west of Syria and some parts of Damascus, this is a real risk. So we need the UN to come in immediately and assume the responsibility to protect the civilians and to forbid this kind of massive massacres. This should be acted [upon] immediately, asking for the practice of responsibility of the United National altogether. Outside of that, I see just a revolution, heavily repressed. The regime is falling and going in pieces. But obviously as much as the international community is not able to help the revolution to go the end and the fight continues. So then there are massacres and crimes from the regime toward the population. The population is shelled in their towns and so there are war crimes against people that are committed by the regime itself.

JV: Has Syria always been so divided in sectarian terms? Can we talk about different confessions uniformly either for or against the regime?  

FP: Certainly not. We have Alawites and Christians in the revolution, together with Kurdish and Druze and all kinds of Sunnites. Sunnites are very many kinds. The Sunnite is not one kind. There are Sufi people, Muslim Brothers, moderate people, liberals, Sunni Muslims, Salafite, extreme Salafism and Qaeda people. All this is too much to be called just Sunnis. This should be kept in mind.

Syria has a vocation of being a place of harmony and reconciliation between different groups. That’s why I address the international community and the Syrians, saying we need Syrian-Syrian dialogue, especially to fight back this idea of the Shiite-Sunni contraposition. It should not happen. Syria is a place for harmony, for all the Muslims and Christians. There were many Jews living in Syria, in Damascus, in Aleppo. And so Syria is a project of harmony, should be kept as such, and promoted.

The regime was not the right solution to keep the Syrian harmony. It has been using the Syrian mosaic as a justification for the regime, but it is a bad justification.

JV: Aren’t we seeing that most of the rebel fighters, most of the rebel fighting has been carried out by Muslims – it appears to us through images of different types of media? And then there’s a phenomenon of extremist Muslims fighting in Syria. Do you not think they are taking the idea of the revolution hostage?

FP: The Syrian people are religious. Even the Christians did not go to the manifestations to participate. They will go to the mosque on Friday in order to start from the mosque when they come out. This is the styling of the revolution in Syria because the Muslim attitude of holy fight for values that you are ready to die for is certainly the pattern of the Syrian fight. But I would not say, at least not in the beginning and until now, that the revolution is the hostage of the Free Syrian Army.

The Free Syrian Army is a way, and it’s explicitly declaring the will to be in the service of a civil, democratic, pluralist Syria. And if there have been, as have been recorded, some war crimes from parts or a little group inside the Syrian armed reaction to the regime, this is a fact and obviously should be healed. But I don’t see it as the overall [issue].

If the international community stay watching then there will be more extremists in[volved], and some parts of Syria will be under their power and the risk for minorities will be enormous.

JV: You say that the international community has more to do and should intervene, but wouldn’t that be counterproductive in many ways? Do you have a specific proposal for the United Nations and international community to intervene? A lot of analysts argue that just as many people would get killed.

FP: Many people have already been killed, and more would be killed because of the un-responsibility of the United Nations. The present regime is not legal anymore. Whatever considerations should be drawn out, and the United Nations should help to create an intermediate government, and with the presence on the ground in order to forbid the population to fight each other in terms of civil war.

The no-fly zone is not enough. It can be a solution for Aleppo because in Aleppo there is not a risk of civil war on the ground. But elsewhere the no-fly zone by itself is certainly not enough because the civil war will go ahead without helicopters. So we need more responsibility.

The problem is that, until now, the fight is to take or to keep Syria. The West wants to take Syria, and Russia wants to keep Syria. The Arab Sunnis, they want to take Syria, and Iran wants to keep Syria. This is a bad fight. We should come together with the idea that Syria should be a neutral country – like Austria after the Second World War, not siding with each of the four parts that were fighting there – and trying to be Syria for all the Syrians. And so a Syria of harmony, for harmony in the Middle East.

JV: Lastly, I’d like to ask you about the latest alleged defection of the Prime Minister. Do you think the regime is crumbling? Do you think it could fall at any time?

FP: The regime, yes. But this will not stop the war. The state of the regime can be destroyed, falling apart, but the regime as a mafia of power will try to fight until the end or they will withdraw to the mountains west of Syria.