| INTERVIEW WITH PROF. DR. ELIAS SAMO, PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ALEPPO
The questions regarding what is happening in Syria in real terms and how the Syrian issue can be solved have been the ones most wondered about in the recent months. In an environment, where getting information is extremely difficult, having an outlook from the inside becomes more important. Therefore, the statements of Prof. Dr. Elias Samo, who is currently Professor of International Relations at the University of Aleppo, on the developments in Syria gain more importance. We talked to Samo, whom we found an opportunity to talk with during the Valdai Forum in Russia, about the current state in Syria, the Syrian Christians, about what kind of solution he offers for the problem, and about Turkey's Syria policy.
Interview: Hasan Kanbolat, Oytun Orhan
ORSAM: Would you please introduce yourself very briefly?
SAMO: My name is Elias Samo. I am from Jazeera Mesopotamia, from the governorate of Haseke. My home town is very small on the Syria-Turkey border. You know that the border between Syria and Turkey, two Muslim countries, was the German railroad track that was built during the 1st World War. I think it was called Orient Express. So my hometown is right on that railroad track that separating from Turkey. I grow up in that area, and then I went to America; I made my university education there including my PhD. I am professor of International relations. Now I will retire, and then will focus on conferences and writings.
Can you give some information about the Christians in Syria?
About 30 years ago, Christians in Syria were 15-20 percent. Today this number is decreased because of the immigration. I am against immigration which is unfortunate for Christians. I am talking about all Christians including Arabs and Armenians. Today they are less than %10 of the population in Syria, maybe around %5. They immigrate to all over the world, but mostly in Sweden, France and America. In the past Latin America let them to immigrate, but today it is USA and Canada. In USA, there are Christians Syrian communities, mostly, New Jersey, Los Angeles and Michigan. In Canada, they live in many places. It is very unfortunate that Christians want to leave Syria. We are from Syria originally before Judaism, Christianity and before Islam. We were there. We are hoping that the things will settled down; you see when you have instability as in Syria today, the minorities gets harmed; they look for security. So they are leaving Syria. But I hope it would be possible to stop immigration of Syrian Christians to other countries. In order to stop immigration, you have to give them hope and let them feel that they belong and they can work make money, their children will be safe and can take education. You have to make them hopeful from their future. The government should all these. I don’t want Syria and beyond Syria, the whole Arab world to lose their Christian citizens, because it is not good for the image of Islam. I tell my Muslim friend that if in the region there would be more Christians, Islam will perceived as tolerated religion from outside. Vice versa, the West would think that Islam is untolerate and Christians could not live within a Muslim society. Islam as a religion is very tolerates, but all Muslims are not tolerated as their religion. I hope that Muslim would encourage Christians and ensures them to live in their country. It is bad for Islam not having Christian population.
Concerning the current developments in Syria there are two arguments. The Syrian regime argues that there are armed groups and gangs who are violating the security of the country while the opposition claims that they are only civilian people who are suppressed by the Syrian regime very brutally. But at the end, there is no reliable information on what is happening in Syria. So what can you say about the situation in Syria?
The number one victim of what is happening in Syria is the truth. Each side feels that they have the right of monopoly of rule. But we have a political resistance, political opposition, a silent majority and some criminal elements. Regime perceived them as terrorist; it is true that today we have criminals who make the life difficult for the people. I live in Aleppo; my son is a student at American university of Beirut. He has to use bus to travel. Before, he went from Aleppo to Beirut in six hours safely, but now I cannot let him to go by bus. I have to put him to an airplane from Aleppo to Beirut which cost me a lot of money. As professor I cannot afford so much money. But I have to do this, because it is not safe travel from Aleppo to Damascus, Hum or other cities in Syria. So there are some criminal elements in Syria today. But having said that Syria criminality is not exclusive for Syria, every country has criminals who tries to take advantage of political discourses, we go back to the situation in Syria rather that the criminals. There is regime that is basically political leadership and political structure. I think that what is happening in Syria is because of opposition and international pressure from states, international media, Arab world, Turkey. And I think that the regime starts to modernize, and I am very happy from that. I wish that the regime would start its modernization and reforms much earlier than today, in 2000s, when his father passed away. But it is never so late; late is always better that never happens. The regime now starts to remake the political system, a new constitution which is based on human rights, democracy, secularism, citizenship, equality and others what we call civil society will adopt in very soon. But on the other side, we have opposition. The first problem of the opposition is the division of it. Second problem is that they don’t trust the system and reforms. They argue that the reform promises have been spoken by the regime for last 10 years, since Beshar Assad became president. And the system has not applied any reform. Today there are reforms because of pressure. I hope that the reforms at the end would institutionalize and that we would have not only a new constitution but also new parties, new media and election laws. But besides all these, they must be effective and operational, and then we can be on the way of reform.
I can categorize the opposition into two main groups: maximalist and minimalist. The maximalists want everything. They argue all or nothing. The minimalists are opposition who can cooperate with the system if it sees that the system is really serious about change. I wish that the maximalists lower their demands and expectations and start to think like Syrians. Syrians are pragmatic, rational, deal makers. Aleppo and Damascus are thousands years centre where trade had been done. In these cities, for centuries sells and buys which bring compromise have been continued till today. This is the nature. You will give a little bit; you will take a little bit. To make a deal two sides have to lower their demands. I hope that the maximalist opposition will give a chance to the system, they say that they gave many chance before. Well but today it is obvious that the system is very serious on reforms and changing. The fact that we have a constitution and in this constitution the Article 8 which gave the Baath Party to rule the country for ever, is removed and in place of it, we have multiparty system. I think that this is a step forward. So I wish that the maximalist and minimalist opposition would unite and come together by lowering the maximalist demands and give a chance to the system. We have been living under this system for 20-30 years, so we can afford more 3-4 months for the change peacefully by protecting our country’s integrity. Because I worry that the demand of maximalists on bring down the system will lead bringing down the state. Syria may be fragmentized. During Ottoman rule we had vilayets; vilayet Damascus, vilayet Aleppo, Sahel and the coat and Druze. After the 1st world war these parts were united under one state, and we whole want to keep it united. And the demise of the political system could mean the collapse of the state. If it divided once, it won’t be easy to reunite it again. I hope that the rationality will unite the parties in the benefit of good will. And I hope that the international actors would help us to settle the conflicts in Syria in peaceful manner.
If there won’t be a peaceful solution are there any risks especially for the minorities in Syria?
A minority seek always security. I like to quote a nice American telling; “Tell me how you treat the minority in your country, so I will tell you how civilized you are”. From this, I can tell you that Syrians are very civilized as a minority member. As a Christians in Syrian I have equal rights like other Muslims. Christians well treated, they feel that their home is in Syria and our roots are in Syria. We don’t feel any kind of suppression or discrimination from Muslim majority. We are doing very well, but unfortunately Christians have emigrated from Syria. I always tell Christians not to immigrate and call Muslims to help Christians to stay in Syria.
I hope that the instability and crisis that we are going through out, will be settled soon, because the sooner it settled the sooner Christians will gain self confidence and sense of security and forget about immigration.
You live in Aleppo and everybody thinks that Aleppo and Damascus’ stance will shape the future of Syria. What is latest situation in Aleppo?
I was in Aleppo last week. For the first time we had two large explosions. We have had some minor ones or threats, but we have not witnessed such things in Aleppo, but we had two major explosions in Friday against government building. This creates the feelings of fear, instability, disturbance for maybe 48 hours, just on Friday and Saturday. After two days, the things went back to normal. The life in Aleppo turned back to normal. Some suburban areas around Aleppo have some small disturbance but in limited scale. Nothing is similar what happens in Hama or Homs in the past.
What do you think about Turkey’s Syria policy especially after the Arab Revolutions?
It is not possible to generalize the Syrian people’s feelings. I had categorized Syrians into three parts; the regime, the opposition and in between, silent majority. They are silent, so we don’t know how they feel. But we had been lived four hundred years together with our neighbors. So, there are very good feelings about Turkey. When the relations between Syria and Turkey have been improved, there is no need for visa between two countries. My daughter and friends crossed the border and many Turks came to Aleppo. But of course now, it is stopped. Also, the regime is upset about Mr. Erdogan’s attitude, because they think that he is very pushy, and intervenes to the internal affairs of Syria. On the other hand, the opposition, especially the Maximalists is very happy with what Mr. Erdoğan has been doing, because he is helping them in their cause. So there is no uniform attitude. As I said the people of two nations will remain friend, and respective to Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Beshar Assad.
* This interview was made on February 18, 2012 in Sochi, Russia where the Valdai Forum was held. The interview was conducted by ORSAM Director Hasan Kanbolat and ORSAM Specialist Oytun Orhan.