Firstly, I would like extend my gratitude to all those responsible for my visit to Syria, for the warm hospitality I received while there, and for granting me access to the many facilities and dignitaries, which included none other than his excellency, president Bashar Al-Assad, and his lovely wife, first lady Asma Al Assad.
The whirlwind, five day tour began Monday when we left Beirut and headed to the residence of former Lebanese president Emile Lahoud, a deeply patriotic and sincere man whose passion for Arab independence is evident in every word he speaks.
He detailed how corruption and bribery had infested the political elite in the region, Lebanon in particular, and also revealed how he was twice offered large sums of money, first as the head of the military and the second when he became president, by representatives of Israel and the west, to compromise his country’s sovereignty for the benefit of our people’s enemies.
He also paid homage to three men, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese resistance, President Bashar Al Assad of Syria, and Sayed Ali Khamenaei, spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and emphasized how these great individuals’ leadership was indispensable to shaping the future of the region.
Mr Lahoud is one of the greatest presidents in Lebanon’s history.
A man of unquestionable character who stood firm against immense pressure from internal and external forces who sought to weaken the Lebanese resistance.
Without his stewardship Hezbollah would never have flourished into the elite force it is today; a force that protects Lebanon’s security at home and abroad.
After the visit with Mr Lahoud, we continued on to Syria. Tuesday morning we left our hotel in Damascus and visited a medical center dedicated to the rehabilitation of amputees who had lost limbs defending their country against terrorists.
I was amazed by the resourcefulness of the staff, who were forced to create prosthetic limbs out of scratch for their patients due to the sanctions placed on the country, which even includes such essential medical supplies.
It was gut wrenching watching the patients, most in their early 20’s and even their late teens, rehabilitate with their newly installed prosthetic limbs as they try to regain some semblance of normalcy in their lives, but at the same time, their resiliency was truly inspiring.
Our second trip on Tuesday was to a facility designed to shelter families displaced by war, most of which are families of opposition fighters that are actually battling government forces, one of several established in the nation’s capital, and have fled conflict areas in search of a safe haven.
The mothers are trained in skills that will help them find employment and become self-sufficient, while their children resume their education in classrooms set up in the same facility; some of which haven’t attended school in years in the rebel held areas.
Imagine that: militants fighting their government have entrusted their families’ fate to the government they are trying to topple.
Can one imagine what fate would await the family of a member of the Syrian Army in the hands of one of the armed militant groups?
This clearly demonstrates which side of the conflict holds the higher moral ground and truly cares about the well being of the people and future of Syria.
It was then on to St. Mary’s, a centuries old Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Cathedral in one of Damascus’ oldest neighborhoods.
There we were greeted by his holiness, Mitran Luqa Al Khouri, a warm and delightful man whom I had the pleasure of meeting four years prior when he and Syria’s Ambassador to the U.N., the esteemed Dr. Bashar Al Jaafari, visited my home state of Michigan.
We were given a tour of the sprawling complex, and later we sat down for a bit with his holiness where he spoke to us about the country’s rich history of religious co-existence and tolerance, something this conflict can never erase.
Later that evening, we visited another holy figure, the honorable Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badredine Hassoun, a man I had long admired for the way he’s always disavowed sectarianism and for his emphasis on religious harmony.
I was astonished, and pleased, to hear him profess that not one of the members of the mosques he oversees had joined the ranks of the rebels.
Beyond his spiritually soothing dialogue, though, I found his personality refreshingly uplifting, as his his sense of humor and humility brightened the atmosphere of our gathering.
Wednesday began with a visit to the office of the Foreign Ministry, where we met with met with top aid, Dr. Ayman Soussan.
We were briefed by Dr. Soussan on the difficulties and challenges the ministry was facing in servicing the needs of the many Syrians living abroad due to the unjust restrictions placed on Syrian embassies in many western countries that are determined to undermine the Syrian government’s authority.
One of the many dirty tricks the orchestrators of this conflict are employing to subvert Syria’s sovereignty and punish citizens loyal to their government.
From the Foreign Ministry’s office it was on to the National Cetner for Visual Arts. a facility which construction was completed during the conflict, with the intent of allowing Syrian artists from all over the country to develop and enhance their skills.
All of the supplies and utencils are provided free of charge by the government. The top floor is a gallery where artists’ works are displayed for sale, adjacent to that is a performing arts theater for plays and concerts, while the basement is a workshop where artists create paintings and sculptures, among other types of art.
It was encouraging to see that the government, in the midst of this crisis, was still concerned with and capable of cultivating the artistic skills of its citizens. Lastly on Wednesday, we visited the ministry of Reconciliation, established recently with the purpose of attempting to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
It is headed by Dr. Ali Haidar, a member of the SSNP, something I found to be uniquely refreshing, and symbolic of the government’s sincerety in being more inclusive and ending the Baathist stranglehold on politics, by allowing members of other parties to be part of the future of Syria.
Dr. Haidar emphasized to us the need to find a speedy solution to the conflict due to the death and destruction that occurs on a daily basis, something I wholeheartedly agree with. I contributed to the dialogue by mentioning Lebanon’s civil war as an example.
In 1979, when the death toll was only 50,000, a solution was proposed that all sides of the conflict in Lebanon rejected.
In 1991, when the death toll had reached 200,000, the same leaders that had rejected the original proposal agreed to the Taif agreement, which pretty much mirrored the original proposal.
Thus 150,000 died unnecessarily due to stubbornness and arrogance. Thursday marked the highlight of the trip, as in the morning we headed to the office of his excellency, president of the Syrian Arab Republic, Bashar Al Assad.
On a personal level, president Assad was in high spirits and exhibited several wonderful characteristics that define and distinguish his personality.
Among them was his attentiveness to those in his presence and a knack to make them feel respected.
He also possessed a warm sense of humor which allowed everyone to feel at ease. Lastly, he exuded confidence and appeared very self assured, yet at the same time very humble.
He did not appear to be a person who believes he is entitled to rule, but rather a resolute leader fulfilling a responsibility to his nation and people.
President Assad briefed us on the status of the conflict and fielded questions from members of our group.
The most intriguing issue he addressed was Russia’s role in the conflict. The president insisted that Russia was unequivocally in support of the Syrian government and was in no way working with the west to subvert Syria’s sovereignty, something many observers accuse it of.
Although he did admit that due to Russia’s role as a world leader and super power, it is obligated to act at a more measured pace than its allies in the battle.
After a brief break, we headed to the presidential residence where we met Syria’s first lady, Asma Al Assad.
A charming, mild mannered and unassuming lady whose humility was omnipresent. Throughout our encounter with her it seemed she was as interested in our personal lives as we were in hers.
She detailed the challenges of raising children of prominence in as natural of an environment as possible.
She also inquired about our ability, living in the west, to teach our children the Arabic language and instill in them our native culture, something that I know from personal experience is a difficult task.
The last day of our tour was a retreat from the formalities of the previous engagements as we visited the mountainous village of Sednaya, with its historic, centuries old churches, and caves that trace their roots to the earliest existence of mankind.
It was sad to witness how the conflict had left its scars on even the most sacred of places. One of our stops in Sednaya was to a sprawling, mountaintop complex that included a church, a small seminary, housing for the staff and a recently erected, 30 foot tall statue of Jesus with the Virgin Mary kneeling next to it.
This strategic locale was a target of the rebels in surrounding villages about two years ago. The scars from the battle were clearly visible.
Our local chaperones briefed us on the details of the battle, and how the town’s defense force had repelled an attack by the rebels in which over 130 enemy combatants were killed by only a handful of fighters, while only losing one martyr.
One of the local gentlemen guiding our tour, “Tony” (I will only reveal his first name), once finding out that I hailed from south Lebanon, confided in me that Hezbollah fighters had later joined the battle of Sednaya and fought valiantly to defend the village.
He pointed to one of the outlying villages and directed my attention to a mosque with a blue dome, and told me how the locals informed the Hezbollah fighters that this mosque was being used as a weapons storage depot by the rebels.
The men from Hezbollah refused to bomb the mosque, although they easily could have, and proceeded into the battle for this particular village, losing four martyrs as a consequence of not bombing that mosque and depriving the rebels of their arms cache.
At that moment, I had never been more proud of my heritage.
These men of honor had so respected the sanctity of that mosque that they were willing to sacrifice their lives rather than bomb a place of worship, while the cowardly terrorists who claim to be fighting in the name of God had violated this sanctity by using a mosque as a weapons storage facility.
Another story revealed to us that bears mentioning is of the rebels bombing a nearby mountaintop that contained sophisticated satellites and monitoring equipment which gives the Syrian military advanced warning of any flights that emanate from Israel.
Within minutes of this equipment being bombed, Israeli fighter jets bombed sensitive Syrian military positions, further proof of the rebels’ unequivocal collaboration and coordination with the Israelis. All in all, this was a memorable and enlightening journey.
I can state in complete confidence that Syria will survive this crisis with its government, sovereignty and territorial integrity in tact.
I observed a country that despite five years of debilitating war, still has fully functioning institutions, a resilient populace which rejects the notion of having foreign entities decide their fate, and, most important of all, stout leadership that refuses to bow to arrogant powers and will not abandon their country and its people in its most dire need.
Syria is more than just a country, it is a 10,000 year old civilization whose greatness and spirit endure in its people and culture.
Those who seek to destroy her are mere infants in comparison. What Syria lacks in military might it; its allies, more than compensate for in tenacity and savviness.
Although its scars run deep, they will heal and witness the demise of those who inflicted them.
About the author: Abbas Bazzi is a Lebanese-American businessman that currently resides in Michigan. Born in Bint Jbeil during the height of the Lebanese Civil War, Abbas was wounded by an unknown gunman outside of his home at the age of 7. Abbas is an avid reader and political commentator.