Damascus ‘peace zone’ at centre of attempts to rebuild Syria’s tolerant civil society

Forum for National Harmony works with all sides to resolve conflict

A Syrian woman and her son in an alley in the Old City of Damascus, where an area covering 12 blocks was declared a peace zone in which no fighting was permitted: Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

A Syrian woman and her son in an alley in the Old City of Damascus, where an area covering 12 blocks was declared a peace zone in which no fighting was permitted: Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Thu, May 16, 2013, 01:00

The Old City of Damascus, the oldest city on Earth, is a microcosm of Syria. Within its walls are Sunni and Shia Muslims, heterodox Shia Alawites, Christians of a range of denominations, Armenians, Circassians who hail from the Caucasus, Palestinians, Lebanese, Somalis, Turkomen, Kurds and Druze.

If Damascus is overtaken by the violence, chaos and anarchy inflicted by conflict on Syria’s other historic cities – Aleppo, Homs and Hama – Syria could fracture, be destroyed as a geographic entity and as a home for the country’s diverse 18 sectarian and ethnic communities.

It is significant that the Forum for National Harmony gathers at Maktab Anbar, a spacious traditional Damascene mansion a short walk from St Thomas’s Gate (Bab Touma), the entrance to the Christian quarter.


Independent state
The mansion was built in 1857 by Mahmoud Qawatli, father of Shukri Qawatli, a politician who presided over the withdrawal of French troops from Syria and over its emergence as an independent state. He served two terms as president.

In the 1880s the splendid building accommodated a secular school that not only was the font of anti-Ottoman protests but also produced many of the leading figures of free Syria. Maktab Anbar, elegant apartments build around a courtyard with a fountain, is now a cultural centre and museum.

A year ago, fighting between young men in the narrow cobbled streets of the Old City prompted a group of Muslim and Christian citizens to step in and separate the combatants.

Priest Fr Gabriel says that an area covering 12 blocks was declared a peace zone in which no fighting was allowed, though this arrangement does not prevent rebels outside the walls from intruding with mortars and attacks.


Family divisions
Gradually

the zone “spread to the whole of the Old City. Now we don’t have problems between us. Our area is representative of the whole of Syria”.

Rafiq Lutfe adds: “You know, we Syrians never used to consider a person’s sect or ethnicity. We felt ashamed to ask about community.”

Rafiq Mardini, an agricultural engineer from Aleppo residing in Damascus, says the conflict has created divisions within families, which he tries to resolve.

“These are the most difficult,” he says.

The forum, which also works to liberate prisoners and abductees, proclaims itself to be non-political and tries to cultivate working relationships with all sides despite hatred and bitterness among partisan factions and individuals.

Consequently, it is seen by some on the warring sides as an “opposition” group.


Tolerance and reconciliation
Proclaiming itself a domestic opposition organisation, Building the Syrian State seeks to promote tolerance and reconciliation through seminars and workshops. As its name suggests, the group aims to build for a post-conflict, democratic Syria.

Headed by former political prisoner Louay Hussein, it has been holding seminars and workshops for young people in Damascus with the aim of instilling respect for all communities and democratic values.

Activist Mouna Ghanem says the group is conducting workshops in Sweida, a mainly Druze city in southwest Syria, and elsewhere. “More and more people are becoming involved in our activities.”