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Bahia Mardini

Syrians deserve better than a choice between terror or dictatorship

'We need a ceasefire that stops the bombing and allows access to humanitarian aid' [AFP]

Date of publication: 4 May, 2018

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Comment: In Syria, democratic elections are still something we can only dream of, writes Bahia Mardini.
People across the UK this week had the chance to take part in local democratic elections. Lebanese and Iraqi voters too, will have their say in elections later this month. But the right to express an opinion on how your country is run is something no one should take for granted.

As a Syrian, I have never experienced what it means to cast my vote, knowing it will actually count.

That is because in Syria, democratic elections are still something we can only dream of. Instead, Syria has lived under many years of brutal dictatorship.

Like his father before him, Bashar al-Assad does not allow Syrians to vote freely because he is afraid that if people were free to choose, they would not choose him. There are also reports Assad is preparing his teenage son to inherit the presidency, just as he did from his own father.

The many happy memories of my country I once held dear have been drowned out by the grief brought by Syria's years of suffocating war and terror. And it is this that led me to dedicate my life to campaigning for better human rights.

Indeed, better human rights includes defending political prisoners detained merely for speaking out against the regime. I defended Ahmad Ali Hussein al-Masalama, for example, who died after being tortured in 2005, as well as Jihan Amin, a female human rights lawyer detained during the Arab Spring.

Extremism thrives when people who are desperate believe they have no real choices

Like most Syrians, I have prayed that this war might have been brought to an end long ago. As a member of the Syrian Opposition UN delegation, I know all too well the complexities of negotiations, and what it like to try desperately to reach an agreement.

Late last year the world's diplomats gathered in Geneva, determined to help secure Syria's future. But once again, the regime refused to engage. This was frustrating but sadly came as no surprise: For years the Assad regime has blocked all attempt at dialogue.

Russia not only props up Assad through military force, but by enforcing this diplomatic wall of resistance. This included vetoing investigations into the use of chemical weapons, meaning it was weeks before investigators were allowed into key sites in Douma.

A Syrian woman holds a child and runs for cover following Syrian government air strikes on the Eastern Ghouta
rebel-held enclave of Douma [AFP].

Activists on the ground testify that Russian military police entered Ghouta and tried to destroy evidence that might prove the regime used chemical weapons against civilians.

For many Syrians, the airstrikes were therefore a sad, although perhaps necessary last resort.

But coalition strikes are no substitute at all for the real prize: Democracy.

It is still, therefore, of vital importance that we continue to use the diplomatic channels available to us. In the coming weeks, diplomatic leaders will once again meet to try and negotiate a solution, this time, in Kazakhstan's capital city, Astana.

It is expected that these talks will include representatives from the Syrian Opposition, the Assad regime, Russia, Iran and Turkey.  While previous attempts have not brought the change so desperately needed, the talks remain a window of hope.

Read more: Where will Idlib's civilians go when it too, is swallowed by Assad?

We need to agree a real ceasefire, one that stops the bombing and allows humanitarian aid to reach those in need of food, water and medical supplies. We must work towards the full implementation of the Geneva Declaration - including a comprehensive transitional body with executive powers - and we need to secure justice for families who have suffered, and hope for those young enough to dream.

In this time of immense suffering, many people ask me what they can do to help.

My first response would be not to feel disheartened and not to stop caring.

Syrians deserve better than a choice between terrorism on one side, and dictatorship on the other.

Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon all have elections this year and while we can argue that these countries still have a long way to go, my hope is that in the near future, it will be Syria's turn to have its say.

After all, extremism thrives when people who are desperate believe they have no real choices.

This is why violence will never be the answer, and why the fight for democracy remains so important.

Russia not only props up Assad through military force, but by enforcing this diplomatic wall of resistance

It is after all, the people's demand for democracy which triggered the revolution to begin with.

I still believe a democratic Syria will be a reality in my lifetime. Achieving democracy must be our ambition, and that is why we cannot afford to give up.


Bahia Mardini is a human rights campaigner and the founder of Syrian House, an organisation dedicated to helping Syrians in the UK access information and support. 

She specialises in human rights and democracy in the Middle East and was a media consultant in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and was the director of the media office of the opposition delegation in the peace negotiations in Geneva 2012.

Follow her on Twitter: @BahiaAlMardini1

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff  

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