A Discussion About Syria With Bente Scheller


"Everything changes as soon as people have the feeling they can actually do something." Middle East Office Director Bente Scheller explains the current state of the war in Syria, and what ordinary people can do about it.

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Today I am chatting with Bente Scheller, the head of The Heinrich Böll Foundation's Middle East office, located in Beirut.  Bente, thank you for taking the time today to chat with me about your visit to Washington, DC.

Thank you very much for having me here.

As I understand you are coming to us fresh off a visit from Brussels, where you met with policymakers to discuss the conflict in Syria.  You’re now visiting the US to continue that discussion. Considering your close proximity to the conflict in Syria, while working in Lebanon, this has been an issue that you’ve followed closely. For listeners less up to date with the conflict there, can you break down briefly the current state of the war in Syria and also explain who the major players are?

It is quite complicated to explain it without a map. But if you imagine Syria, you have four areas of different influence and control. Most prominently, of course, you have the coastal area and all the main cities that are in the West. These are controlled by the Syrian regime. Then we have areas that are east of the Euphrates. That might be much more familiar to a US audience because this is where the US is cooperating with Kurdish dominated Syrian democratic forces to establish control here and establish structures of governance after ISIS was defeated here. You have exclusively Kurdish controlled areas in the northeast of the country and a contested area in the northwest of the country where currently Turkey is trying to push back the Kurds and take control. Then the smallest areas are the ones that are currently controlled by the Syrian rebels. This is around Damascus, it is also a smaller zone in the south of the country, but we have a situation in which the Syrian regime has gained more and more ground. They have been pushing back the rebels and thereby really tried to establish control over the most relevant parts, from their point of view, in Syria.

Thank you for that overview of a pretty complicated situation. During the past few weeks, you’ve been meeting with policymakers and experts both in the US and in Europe to discuss policies in Syria. Do you see any differences in how the discussions are here in the US as opposed to in Europe?

I think in one point they are very similar because of the complexity of the conflict and because of the many players involved for both European as well as US decision-makers and policymakers. It is really a big question of where to start addressing this conflict, where to start trying to solve it. We have seen in international forums - like most prominently the UN-led Geneva process that has been going on since 2012 - we have not really seen any tangible results from it. We also had different conference formats set up by Russia that gave impulses to trying to find a solution to the conflict. But I think, in the long run, none of them so far has been a major success.

And therefore I think both on this side as well as the other of the Atlantic, we have a lot of frustration with a conflict that really is very harmful for Europe. Of course in a very direct way because in Europe there are a lot of Syrian refugees. There is also the proximity to the conflict and to the region that is really being shaken up. So I think European concerns are very directly related to what is happening in Syria, and they would be much more in need to find a solution to have their domestic policy also not too much under the influence of the Syrian war.

However, I think Syria is much more relevant than just as a country in itself. Syria is the place in which international norms and international law is being dismantled. And therefore I think it is something, even though it is geographically far from the US, I see a lot of concern also here. Because now if we allow this to happen, if now we allow Russia, Iran and other really strong players in the Syrian war to do as they please without feeling any restraint, without feeling any limits - I think that is something that really drives suspect to kind of a law of the jungle. And I think even though for the US that it might be much more abstract because it’s not coming to its borders. But I feel that Europeans, as well as US policymakers, are trying to see what to make out of this.

I think both don’t have any solutions, which is a problem. But I think it is good to at least see that it is on the agenda, it is being recognized by some analysts and by experts. And it is a topic where people see here we might have something that is world history being written, and where we should find a way to address it.

So you really mention that Syria is something that at least policymakers are talking about, but there’s also the other side where there’s a sense of fatigue, at least with the average population in the US and in Europe. How can we make sure that this sense of fatigue is something that we can overcome, that people aren’t indifferent to what's going on Syria? Not just with the armed conflict but also with the humanitarian crisis going on there.

I think it really is a pity for Syrian citizens that this is dragging on for so long, and that it's getting, every year, worse. Because of course, people don’t want to see all these images any longer. They think they’ve seen it all and they can’t do anything. So there’s frustration about seeing that something absolutely wrong and really terrible is happening to those who are still inside Syria. It's something that haunts many people. And at the same time, yes, there is this fatigue because people don’t know what to do.

I think we as the Heinrich Böll Foundation see it is one of our tasks to really keep the discussion alive and to motivate people in the West to really believe in Syrians. I think it is fascinating to see that after 7 years of conflict - after the Syrian population has been hit by any kind of weapon that you can imagine, after many people in Syria have been starved, really deprived of medical help and more than half of the Syrian population is displace from their homes - you still see a kind of civic activism. That really is fascinating. This is very different from other countries I have been working in and that hbs is engaged in.

This is what we try to use to bring Syria back to an audience, to show these arguments. They are often very creative people, very creative activists who in this terrible situation who do something extraordinary. So we try to work against this Syria fatigue and I think with these creative measures it works very well.  We also noticed over the past one and a half to two years that everything changes as soon as people have the feeling they can actually do something.

Two years ago we started to support Syrian lawyers in Germany, to bring forward cases against the Syrian regime, against institutions and individuals involved in war crimes in Syria. Germany has this opportunity. If people can’t in their own country seek justice, and if there is no international tribunal, people can bring forward their cases in Germany and have them tried there. Of course this is very expensive, it’s very difficult to do it, and therefore it’s not guaranteed that by submitting these cases justice will be done. But I think we perceive that a lot of attention goes towards this by Syrians who are outside the country, by Americans, by British people. We've had a lot of requests from everywhere to explain what we were doing and how this process could be supported.

So I think that we, as well as other civil society organizations maybe have a chance and also a duty to raise these possibilities and to highlight them. Because they show even though politically it might be a case that is very difficult to solve, we still have opportunities. We can’t just look at policy and policymakers and politics and say, “Well if they can’t do it, then we can’t do it.” But we should really see what we as private citizens can do, and that is quite a lot.

That’s all the time we have today but thank you so much for sharing your work, the work of our foundation, and for bringing your insights to our audience here. Thank you.

Thank you very much.