[Editor’s Note: Robert Chelhod is Syrian living in Aleppo who works for AMU (Azione per un Mondo Unito – Actions for a United World), an NGO associated with the Focolare Catholic lay movement. Born in Aleppo to Catholic parents. Chelhod moved to Lebanon when he was 3, where he came into contact with the Focolare movement. He returned to Syria as an adult to start a Focolare community in Aleppo. He spoke to Charles Camosy about the situation in Syria.]
Camosy: you say something about your background with the Focolare and specifically the Focolare in Aleppo?
Chelhod: I got to know the Focolare Movement in Lebanon in April 1980 during the war [Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war]. I was invited to a day meeting organized by the Focolare with the theme “God is Love.” When I saw this great title written at the back of the stage, I said to myself either these people are crazy or there is a deep reality about it. This is how my adventure started that completely changed my life. Believe in the love of God, and to love God, I must love my neighbor.
During the war, I got involved with the young people of the Focolare, in the different social actions that we carried out in favor of people in need. Ever since I was a young boy, I had the desire to give my whole life to God, and so I decided then to leave everything to go to Italy, to pursue my religious and social training and thus to become a “focolarino.” After Italy, I returned to Lebanon, I lived through other years of war and then in November 1990 we opened the first men’s Focolare center in Aleppo, Syria. I stayed there until 2008. These were the best years of my life! I could contemplate with my own eyes the work of God in many people.
There is so much confusion about and, frankly, ignorance about what exactly has happened in Syria in recent years. Can you give us the broad outlines of a quick history lesson about what has happened there in recent years?
Syria has always been a developing country. Economic life changed rapidly before the war. Syrians are good, simple, cultivated people, but above all hardworking but in recent years, they have learned to fight. In 2011, Syria reached its economic, social, and health peak, and had no external debt.
To understand what has happened in Syria since 2011, one would have to know the entire history of the Middle East since the end of the First World War. It is a complicated story, but at the same time quite simple. The Western powers wanted to break-up the Ottoman Empire during and after the First World War. They did this by partitioning and weakening the “Arab” countries of the Middle East in an arbitrary way that almost guaranteed fighting would occur. Since then, members of various ethnic groups have been killing each other on a daily basis.
The strategy sought to breakdown stable “totalitarian regimes” as they used to call them, and to replace them with western-style democracies. As a result, the partitioning, the exploitation of natural resources, and the arms sales have contributed to many wars, to the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and to destroying infrastructures. The “Arab Spring” (or rather the Arab Fall) attempted to complete what had not yet been achieved or concluded by this dismantling of the Middle East and it failed.
Can you say something about current sanctions and embargo and the effect they are having on the Syrian people?
The embargo against the governments in question is one of the biggest failures in history. One cannot change a country’s policy, or governance, by imposing sanctions on civilians. Above all, the embargo should be imposed on arms exporting countries. Without weapons, there would not have been war in Syria, and elsewhere. We have to shout this truth aloud everywhere; otherwise, we are just cowards and fatalists.
The superpowers thought that by imposing sanctions on Syria, “the regime” would fall. They were mistaken and continue to be mistaken. The embargo has brought the Syrian economy to its knees, and it is the ordinary people who are paying the price, not the politicians or military leaders. Syria cannot sell oil and cannot buy oil. For this reason, we do not have sufficient electrical power to restart industries.
We still have to queue, wait our turn for over 1 month, to have natural gas for our domestic needs. Because of the lack of raw materials of all kinds, the cost of living is super high. Syria was a first-rate industrial country, but because of the sanctions local production is minimal. Goods are expensive and insufficient to meet local demand. Low supply and high demand means that all products are very expensive.
Before the war, Syria had a thriving pharmaceutical industry manufacturing the most sophisticated drugs, but not anymore. Now, drugs are expensive and insufficient for local demand. Half if not more of the hospitals have been destroyed, but how can we rebuild and reopen them without raw materials and machines? The pharmaceutical industries and hospitals cannot recover as long as the sanctions persist.
The sanctions prohibit bank transfers from outside Syria. Syria no longer receives cash. The NGOs working in the field received the money from Lebanon, but since October 2019 and following the economic and banking crisis in Lebanon, most of the humanitarian and social projects are stopped, many social workers no longer receive their wages, and healthcare for families in need is at a minimum. Syria needs money from abroad to get back on its feet, many parents living abroad cannot send money to help loved ones, nor can benefactors around the world support local NGOs doing excellent social work.
How can the Syrian people survive with the combination of an ongoing war, the breakdown in infrastructure, the decimation of the pharmaceutical and other industries, the limited availability of medicines, the decimated hospitals, the onerous financial and banking controls, the sanctions and the embargo, and the inability to do business and work as a result?
Against this backdrop, the COVID-19 pandemic has reached our land. The Syrian people face the potential for a catastrophic loss of life even beyond what we have experienced through all these years of war unless the West takes action now to allow us to defend ourselves against this pandemic. Few if any other countries face the pandemic under conditions of war, sanctions, and an embargo.
I understand that the Focolare are working on an appeal for the relief of the sanctions and embargo. What specifically are you doing to make this happen?
To tell the truth, the idea was born spontaneously between an Italian woman and myself. I contacted different people from Focolare who operate in the social, political and humanitarian fields. In Focolare, we always work in groups of at least two or three, because we believe that God is present among those who love him and that He enlightens them for the decisions to be made. After the consultations, we launched the appeal.
We did not want to get into different policies, but just to issue a humanitarian appeal. We sensitized the members of the Focolare all over the world, and individuals, groups, and associations wishing to collaborate and support this appeal. Our hope is that many people including those in positions of influence will join this appeal directed to the leaders of the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations to grant temporary relief so that we can acquire the medicine, materials, and equipment necessary to fight the corona virus.
What would you say to skeptics who believe that relief from sanctions will mostly benefit a murderous regime which cannot be given this kind of legitimacy?
As I said before, sanctions should primarily be imposed on arms exporting countries. Skeptics must know that it is the root cause of armed conflict in general. Let us accept the excuse of the desire to do away with “totalitarian regimes” and to establish democracies by imposing pressures of all kinds. I think that the politicians in power in these countries with “totalitarian regimes” will find the means, even despite the sanctions, to obtain all that they need or want. They do not care about these sanctions. Do not the countries that impose the sanctions know this by now?
There would be other ways to change the policy of a country, but not through economic sanctions. Work for dialogue between the different factions in conflict, respect the freedom of peoples to determine their own future, and above all prohibit any sale of arms to the parties to avoid any armed clash.