by Judith Bello, September 20, 2019
I was privileged to attend the Third International Trade Union Forum in Solidarity with Syrian Workers and People To Break the Economic Sanctions and in Rejection of Imperial Interventions and Terrorism in Damascus, Syria last week. The Conference was hosted by the Syrian
General Federation of Trade Unions, and I went as a representative of Syria Solidarity Movement (SSM). SSM was able to bring more than 30 people to the conference from the United States, Canada, Palestine and more. People attended from all over Africa, Europe and the Middle East, and from Russia and India. A Syrian British member of SSM was a facilitator at the conference.
In Beirut, I was met by Nasser, a Lebanese Hezbollah member who was coordinating the drivers for nearly 150 people who would be arriving at Beirut airport and needing transport to Damascus. He was a gentleman and bought me a cup of coffee while I was waiting for the next person to come to fill my car.
I was driven to Damascus with Binoy, a Communist Party member from India. He asked me if I knew any communists at home, but I told him being a Communist is a non-starter in the U.S. He was not impressed. Sometimes I feel like living in the United States is living in a political dead zone. It is sunny and clear, but somehow empty. The roads for thought are well defined but off road travel isn’t allowed. Ideas not obviously forbidden, are somehow unthinkable.
I have visited Syria twice before this during the war. This is the first time I didn’t have Hezbollah or military escort from Beirut to Damascus, and my hotel wasn’t in the central city safe zone. Our civilian drivers were Trade Union members from Damascus who had to stop a couple of times along the way and ask directions. There were still many checkpoints as we approached Damascus and especially near our hotel on the outskirts of the city. The Sahara Hotel is comfortable and the weather in Damascus was typically lovely while I was there. It seems like whenever I go there, it is 80° or so, dry and sunny during the day, and in the 60s at night. There is always a breeze so I generally keep the door to my balcony open day and night.
There were a couple of hundred people there to attend the conference, so it was a busy place when I arrived a couple of days prior to the conference and got busier by the hour. We were provided buffet meals at the hotel, and people spent a lot of time networking in the comfortable lobby area.
Later in the afternoon, Amal a Palestinian friend from the West Bank arrived, Rick and Paul from San Francisco CA, and Tim Anderson from Australia. Tim had with him some ‘One Democratic State of Palestine’ Mugs and copies of his new book, “The Axis of Resistance: Towards an Independent Middle East”. He gave away most of the cups and many books to enthusiastic participants in the conference. There were people there, whom I had met before, from Ireland and England, and people I had not met before from Greece, Switzerland and Australia, South Africa and, of al places, Lugansk, a breakaway province of Ukraine. Of course these are just the people I actually had an opportunity to speak to.
The first evening after I arrived, several of us attended an International Trade Exhibition. It was kind of like a State Fair without the rides. There was live music and there were numerous buildings with displays of arts and crafts, farm animals and other local Syrian products. The parking area was overflowing and the Exhibition was crowded with people even at 9 in the evening. Some of us shopped for arts and crafts while others just enjoyed the atmosphere and the opportunity to see a a spectrum of Syrian culture and goods.
The next day was the day before the conference. A group of us requested a driver and a minibus and went to visit Ma’alula, a Christian village in the mountains north west of Damascus where there is an ancient monastery from the second century BC. The monastery is dedicated to St. Tekla, a woman who led the Roman forces to water in the desert. There is a spring there that oozes water to this day. The village, like the monastery, is ancient, with old stone buildings nestled in a narrow valley beneath the monastery on the mountain top. The people there still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Most of the people with us had never been to Ma’alula before, but I had been there in the spring of 2016. At that time the Monastery was still in ruins. In September of 2013, the village was raided by members of Al Nusra Front (Al Qaeda in Syria), Ahrar Al Sham, a home grown jihadi group and the so called Free Syrian Army. The Syrian Army drove them out once, but they returned and occupied the village until until April of 2014. They stayed in a hotel at the very top of the mountain, ambushing civilians and assaulting women. They killed a number of people including the priest from the monastery and his son, and many Syrian soldiers died in the course of liberating the town.
When I visited the Monastery of St. Tekla in 2016 with a small group of people and an Orthodox bishop from Damascus, the place was still in ruins. Except for us and our guides, the place was deserted. There was rubble on the long staircase, and there were holes in some of the walls. A priest greeted us in the chapel, an empty room with, mostly damaged, icons arrayed against the walls. There was a hole in one wall and outside was a cement patio with piles of rubble on it. Up a flight of stairs, a large tree branch crossed from behind a wall and became a canopy of leaves outside the narrow hall we observed from. The branch that passed through the balcony was partly charred. The terrorists had attempted to burn it but failed to kill it. In a small room on the side, there was a small hole in the wall with a cup on a string. If you held the cup in the hole, water would condense into it. This was the holy water that St. Tekla had led the Romans to.
We met in this room and the bishop told us the story of St. Tekla and of the recent pillage of the town. The priest had filled a bottle from the holy spring before we came, and we passed it around, each person taking a sip from the bottle. This year, I cold see through the door, group of men in casual dress sitting at a table within.
The Monastery has been restored and tourist buses lined the narrow street leading to the entrance, once littered with rubble. the chapel was restored and the terrace outside it cleared. People sat before an altar in the chapel in folding chairs, and crowded a room with candles to light. Ancient icons hung on the walls. The complete renovation was impressive. The tree no longer showed any sign of damage. The wall that separated the roots from view had been removed and the leaves formed a cascade of refreshing green down the side of the building.
Our bus took us to another church behind the Monastery, and across from the hotel. I had not been here before. Again, there were at least half a dozen tourist buses and groups of people inside and outside the building. The hotel were the terrorists from Ahrar al Sham, the Free Syrian Army and Al Nusra Front were holed up is still in ruins, but the view around it is spectacular. And I didn’t see any security personnel anywhere.
After dinner most of us went to the Old City of Damascus to walk around and visit Vanessa in hotel there. We walked through narrow cobblestone allies with shops on both sides of the street selling pizza and clothing, shoes and antiques. Bakeries, nut shops, cafes and pizzerias were snuggled between clothing and shoe stores and artisan shops. Children played in the road and the narrow cobblestone streets were filled with people even after dark. People were eating pizza and ice cream as they strolled down the winding streets. Occasionally, a car would come and drive everyone to the side of the road as it passed.
With the help of a Syrian film maker who is a friend of hers, we found Vanessa’s hotel. A doorway into a dark foyer led to a pleasant courtyard with a fountain and 4 or 5 tables. We sat for a while and visited with Vanessa and her friends. She had just had a kidney stone removed and was still wearing her catheter but she didn’t seem to be in any pain. Vanessa is a reporter so we talked a little about her recent articles and mutual friends in Damascus. After a while we left so she could rest, and returned through the crowded streets to a main road where our driver would be able to find us.
The conference was held in a conference hall on the campus of the hotel, but not in the main building. It lasted for 2 days, but the main day for presentations was the first day. The first panel was comprised of Syrian officials who welcomed their guests. They described the accomplishments of the Syrian Arab Army and the Syrian people along with their government and critical allies in breaking a massive foreign invasion of terrorism that had overrun the country beginning in 2011. They praised the workers who continued to work, often without pay, under dire circumstances, to keep the country running during this period. People went to work as long as there was a possibility of doing work. Many were killed or injured and lost family members in this war. Today’s success is due to them.
Even though the shooting war is now contained and is winding down, a vicious economic blockade continues to deprive Syrians of the peace and prosperity that is their due. While we were in conference, the Iranian ship that had been held at Gibraltar arrived in the port of Tartous with a full cache of oil. It had sailed all the way around the horn of Africa to avoid further harassment. But this is only the beginning. Syria will need a lot more oil to provide heat for the population during winter. Syria will need to import food as wild fires swept through the best grain harvest in recent history in the area occupied by the United States and their SDF proxies. Syrian manufacturing capability is slow to recover because US Sanctions bar them from getting the parts to repair the machines they bought in Europe decades ago. Workers need tools.
One after another, delegates took to the podium and commended the Syrian people and their government for their perseverance in the face of adversity. There were panels to address, economic sanctions, terrorism and imperialist interventions, the role of trade unions and civil society in overcoming an overwhelmingly biased western (and Arabic) media. Speakers called out economic sanctions for violating international law and called on the necessity of solidarity in confronting imperialist interventions and terrorism. They condemned the hypocrisy of states that claim to be ‘fighting’ terrorism while in fact they are feeding it, and of a press that claims to present ‘news’, but in fact manufactures a facade to cover the reality of war and oppression.
Late in the day, I was given a chance for a brief presentation. I had brought with me 3 large bags full of hospital supplies in my luggage. I didn’t have my speech with me (Everyone had told me I would not be speaking on the first day) but
I introduced myself as a member of the Board of Syria Solidarity Movement and a member of the United National Antiwar Coalition Administrative Committee. I said that I did not want them to think that I don’t believe Syrians can provide their own medical supplies, but rather as a gesture in defiance of the sanctions, and perhaps to help in a small way, that I was presenting these supplies to the Workers’ Medical Center on behalf of the organizations I represent. I told them that some of us in the United States are working hard to find ways to restrain our aggressive imperialist government, but it is slow going. However, the one thing that has done the most to halt imperial aggression is the steadfastness of the Syrian People. I wish we could do more, faster, but I am extremely moved by the power of the will of the Syrian people.
On the second day of the conference, attendees were invited to a meeting with President Bashar Assad. There was some back and forth on where we would meet but eventually we were taken in buses to the Presidential Palace. The President shook hands with each of us on the way in, and again on the way out. He gave a talk for about half an hour that focused on worker solidarity and the promise of better days in the global economy. He praised the delegates for their participation, and reflected on the steadfastness and loyalty of the Syrian people to their country. He said that the heart is useless without the blood vessels that carry nourishment to the far parts of the body. He said that the day when an emerging economy must chose between compliance and austerity or defiance and sanctions is coming to an end. He talked about the emergence of a multipolar political world in which no one country would control global economics, and the need for workers to be in solidarity across the emerging network of trade flows. It was a positive and upbeat speech that looked to a bright future for Syrians and for workers.
Following his speech, the President opened the floor for questions. At first there were numerous individuals who rose to express their solidarity with the Syrian people and their admiration for the President. There were also some questions about Syria’s immediate economic future and regarding his optimism. At the very end, Max Blumenthal asked a question about the ongoing war. He asked why it was that Israel repeatedly bombed parts of Syria, but the Syrian Arab Army did not retaliate. The President responded as follows:
He said that Syria has a pretty good defense system that protects them from Israel air strikes for the most part. He said that direct tit for tat retaliation could escalate rapidly into a deadly war while the Syrian Army is currently busy fighting a war against terrorism and mercenaries paid by multiple foreign assailants, of whom Israel is one. So, he said, for now they are busy fighting Israel (Israeli proxies, that is) on the ground. After that war has been won, they will see what happens next.
After the session with the President, the conference slowly wound to an end around 4pm. In the evening there was a banquet outside by the pool.
In the morning, some people joined a planned trip to Ma’alula, and others went to the Souk in Old Damascus. I sat in the lobby and wrote an article before lunch, and spent the afternoon networking. Paul Larudee and Rick Sterling of Syria Solidarity Movement had arranged to provide some material assistance to poor families in villages outside of Homs, and they spent the day traveling to meet with them. They were very excited to be able to do this and the prospect of adopting these families to provide more support in the future.
I ran into an old friend who has recently moved to Aleppo from Canada. In the evening, we took a walk in Old Damascus in the same area where I was the first day I arrived. He said that people are mostly secure in Aleppo, and beginning to rebuild in the areas devastated by the war. He had moved back to look after his elderly parents who live in the part of Aleppo that was always under government control and so had missed much of the violence that occurred in the areas occupied by al Nusra and ISIS soldiers. I remember when he visited his parents a couple of years ago, he wrote back that some of the city landmarks were badly damaged and business was not ‘as usual’. Now he has moved back to stay, and is looking for properties to buy. He says the prices are very high even for damaged locations. Capitalism is apparently alive and well there.
The Workers’ Medical Center
By morning, the hotel was rapidly emptying as we all said one goodbye after another. I had to get my act together as I was invited to go to the Medical Center and present the hospital supplies I had brought there. We traveled to central Damascus with my bags. The representatives from the Czech Republic rode into town with me. They were heading back to the souk to do a little more shopping before time to leave. The young man was fluent in English. He said that he got a really good deal on a suit the day before and was hoping to buy another one. One of the westerners on the trip also bought a suit for a very good price.
The young Czech representative asked how conditions were for young people in the United States. He asked about educational opportunities and jobs. I told him that a college education is very expensive now, and no longer guarantees a good job. Many are paying off their loans while working at low paying retail jobs and such. I asked how things are for young people in the Czech Republic. He shrugged and said that the problems there are the same. Young people are depressed.
The government area in central Damascus has kind of the same feel as central Washington DC. Large buildings with fancy entrances behind trees lining relatively wide streets. I was taken to the headquarters of the General Federation of Trade Unions, and went from there with a couple of pleasant women who, unfortunately, did not speak much English, to the Workers’ Medical Center, actually the nearest location of the Medical Center which has several locations around the city of Damascus. I didn’t ask if they are also in other cities.
At the Medical Center, I met with the Director, Dr. Anas, who spoke fluent English and my escort from the GFTU Office and a few other people in Dr. Anas’ office. We went through the bags, emptying the contents onto his desk and other table space in his office. After a coffee break with chocolates, Dr. Anas gave me a tour of the center. They have general triage, a dental area, an area where they can diagnose gastroenterology problems, an eye surgery unit, and I think he said a cancer unit. Big problems and major surgeries are referred to a hospital.
Dr. Anas studied medicine in Syria, and later polished his English working in an U.S. hospital. The dentist I met also seemed to speak English. In the dental area, they had a couple of chairs, and there was one dentist with a patient when I came through. In the gastroenterology area, they had a machine to do colonoscopies and another for ultrasound. I had noticed a few years ago when I was in a hospital in Iraq that they use ultrasound for many of the tests that are done in the US with barium Xrays. It worked well for me so I assume it is a reasonable choice. It seems to rely more on the skill of the operator in a less structured environment.
They have a pretty sophisticated eye lab with equipment to measure the cornea and the retina, to test the pressure for glaucoma, and they do lots of lasik surgery. The latter at first surprised me. But then I realized that glasses are a big expense, a lifetime burden, for poor people. Lasik surgery frees one from this problem for life.
As we walked from one specialty area to another, we passed through waiting rooms, each with 6 or 8 people, seated around the outside of the room. Dr. Anas said that at this one location they see more than 100 patients per day, and each of the others does the same. They charge a small fee for services, but do not turn people away. He said that the Medical service as a whole is self supporting and does not receive government subsidies as it is a project of the General Federation of Trade Unions.
On the way home
I returned to the hotel in time to eat lunch and prepare to leave. The trip back to Beirut was interesting, but long. There were, again, numerous checkpoints, especially around Damascus. But these were basically a slowdown. In general, the driver would show his credentials to a young man standing by the road, and we would be waved through. This is the network that keeps people safe in the city. Along the road, the mountainous scenery was breathtaking. Crossing the border into Lebanon took some time. First we had to stop and enter a building to confirm we were leaving Syria. Then after driving a ways, we had to enter another building and go through a longer process to get our transit visas to go into Lebanon.
Through all of the time we were in Syria, I didn’t see a single billboard on the road, and there were few gas stations either. Between Syria and Lebanon, there was one billboard with a picture of a smiling President Bashar Assad. On entering Lebanon, we first passed through a busy town with a lot of gas stations and what looked like car lots and all kinds of other small businesses. As we passed out of the town, there was one commercial billboard after another, so close together that at anyone time you could see several of them on your own side of the road. It was a significant change from the open countryside in Syria.
We took a different road to the airport than I had traveled before. It was big modern freeway, an outer loop / beltway around Beirut if I were to guess. And then I found myself back in the jarring world of the airport. I thought I had plenty of time, but when, after an hour of waiting I got to the front of the line, I was told that I was in the wrong line and sent to a desk with no line. There I was told that I was ‘too late’. ‘But I’ve been in line for an hour!” I said. And finally I passed into the gate and onto my flight.
On the 5 hour layover in Cairo, I sat with a Syrian Canadian woman and her 2 small children, a preschooler and a kindergartner. She had traveled 10 hours in a cab from Aleppo to Beirut to catch the flight (the same one I was ‘too late’ for). She had taken the children to visit her parents in Aleppo. Her mother was ill, and had died the night before she left on the journey home. More than anything, she seemed exhausted. The children were subdued and she was constantly trying to warm them in the chilly room outside the gate.
I have nothing but admiration for the struggles of ordinary Syrian people who have lived through this terrible war, and continue to suffer from shortages due to U.S. economic sanctions. I also believe that their President has done everything in his power to support the people, to avoid exacerbating the conflict, to recover the Syrian economy and provide for all the people who remain under his governance. The lies in the western media make this perspective hard to see, but when you see and talk to people in Syria it is clear.
After my 3rd visit there, I have experienced various aspects of Syrian society and Syrian life, and although I have toured some of the special sites, there certainly not all of the ones I would like to see. And I have met people from various walks of life, but not everyone I might like to interview. Throughout the Middle East and the developing world in general, people are wary of the United States but not necessarily hostile to U.S. people. They are less isolated in their own communities than we are, and more likely to be friendly and open with other people who cross their paths. I suppose people who are interested in power, first and last, gravitate to the west where they can find justification and support for aggression. But others just come here because they have nowhere left to go.
Those who stay home or return home, find themselves in a new world. I don’t just hope the President’s optimism is accurate, I believe it because the ideas he expressed reflect my own thinking. I wish more people could see Syria and the Syrian people as I have. I say this even as I am aware that there have been vicious attacks on some of the actual union people from the United States and Canada. There was also a twitter storm which hasn’t entirely died down yet against the people in a friendly photo we took at the conference. To understand the absurdity of the outrage and ridicule directed at us, one would have to see the context.
Over 200 people from around the world, mostly affiliated with trade unions, attend a trade union conference, along with some press. It is an important assertion of worker solidarity and an opportunity for international exchange and networking. Of them, less than 10 people from the US and Canada are singled out and identified as tourists, people who don’t ‘get it’, dupes, self aggrandizing ‘vultures’ by people in the west who have never been to Syria, and by spokespersons for the Syrian ‘opposition’ who have lived in the U.S. for many years. The misguided twitterati attacked young people like Yasemin Zahra who came out of compassion and curiosity to learn what is happening in the world. They attacked popular reporters Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek who have made careers of telling the truth on the ground everywhere they go. They attacked activists like myself and Ajamu Baraka.
Western Trade Union representatives came under attack by the press at home for expressing solidarity with the Syrian people and calling for an end to the sanctions that cause them to go without vital aspects of healthcare, manufacturing capability and even heating oil for the winter. One CBC reporter, after attacking Donald Lafleur for supporting the ‘brutal Assad’ with his presence, referred to the Sanctions as ‘the best tool we have.’ Tool for what purpose? Is there any benefit to the Syrian people the sanctions could possibly bring? Is the purpose still to get rid of Assad? If so, that doesn’t support the people. They, in a large majority, support him. Will it help them to sell off their assets to neoliberal oligarchs? Shall we ask them to trade their sanctions for austerity? Will that show ‘solidarity’ with the Syrian people? Trade union people, ones that are able think independently, know better.
I don’t want to stretch this too thin, but really! People support the original revolution in countries like Syria, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Then when they see the government that resulted from the original revolution isn’t perfect, there is no utopia, a society is vulnerable, the left liberals and faux socialists turn and support a right wing counter-revolution that seeks to destroy the fruits of the original revolution they supported. How can anything survive long enough to develop in this environment. Revolution is a transition. You’ve got to give evolution a chance.
Hands off Syria!
End the Sanctions, End the War on Syria
* Featured Photo: This photo set off a firestorm on twitter. It’s just a nice photo of (mostly) westerners who know each other at the conference. Left to Right, Back to Front, I don’t know who the woman in the hijab is but she is talking to Amal Wahdan, a Palestinian activist from Ramallah. After that, we have Rania Khalek Grayzone/RT, Max Blumenthal of the Grayzone, Tiffany, Anya Parampil of the Grayzone, Rick Sterling of SSM, Judy Bello of SSM/UNAC, Ajamu Baraka of UNAC/BAP, Mpho Masemola of South Africa, Yasemin Zahra an organizer with Labor Against War, Roger Harris, Paul Larudee of SSM
Judith Bello is a member of the Board of Syria Solidarity Movement, and on the AC of United National Antiwar Coalition. She moderates this blog as well as Upstate Drone Action and The Deconstructed Globe. She just returned from the conference in Syria where she joined other members of Syria Solidarity Movement, and she has been to Syria twice before.