Interview with Kaloyan Metodiev conducted by Hristina Hristova for Memoria.bg; Translated by Borislav exclusively for SouthFront
Political scientist Kaloyan Metodiev returned from a trip to Syria. His return from there was through the airport in Istanbul, and virtually coincided with the attacks there. We offer you his story with his first hand impressions of the situation in Syria. Photos provided by his personal archive.
– Everyone is fleeing Syria, but you went directly there instead! I don’t even know how to begin the questions! Perhaps my first spontaneous question is – Were you in danger? And most of all – why did you undertake this trip?
– I did not sense danger. I had some doubts on the way there, but they were fleeting. I have had a particular position from the beginning of the Arab spring, and for years I have commented on the so-called refugees, the developments with the crisis, the geopolitical dynamics, the effects on Bulgaria and Europe. For me, these are issues of great importance for our country. I think a political scientist needs to gain impressions on the terrain. I was interested in what the political situation is, the situation of the Christian population, the situation around the conflict. I’ve been to other points of tension, so I had no hesitation. When fate gives you an opportunity, it should be realized. A lady to whom I am thankful, opened the door for this to happen.
– You were in Damascus. Please tell us what you saw in the capital of Syria? How is life there? Here we all comment and analyze from a distance, but you’re the first political analyst in the country, to actually go on location in Syria. So I think your impressions are particularly valuable.
– Expectations and reality often diverge. Especially in a place to which very few people visit. We regularly heard so called barrel bombs, there are entire neighborhoods blocked off and no one can enter, almost every junction has military checkpoints, there are traces of destruction but life goes on. I was even surprised at how alive it was. I was impressed that the only hole in a street I saw was being filled with asphalt by workers. My street in Sofia has not yet been paved.
Everyday inconveniences are power and water outages. Water is a very big political issue, and in the Middle East and Africa it is at the top of the political list. Of course, everything is covered in portraits of Bashar Assad. Shutters and concrete guardrails are painted in the colors of the Syrian flag. Propaganda is used to raise the patriotic spirit, which is normal practice in war.
Traffic is a nightmare by European standards. There is no order, but there’s no aggression either. Probably because of the war, the government has slacked on social order. But what we have in Bulgaria, I have not seen neither West nor East. Beatings in the streets in front of families and children, criminal types dominating the transport system. This should be a primary political task. This harassment in Bulgaria must stop. I regret that war time Syria gives me a cause for such thoughts.
– You perhaps had the opportunity to talk to local people and public figures. How do they perceive what is happening in their country? Who do they blame for the war? And most of all – how do they value the intervention of the US and Russia in the Syrian war?
– I managed to talk to local people. They are not happy with the situation, but there is a level of getting used to it – this has been going on for 5 years already. There’s nervousness, which is normal for such experiences – killed relatives, divided families, harsh living conditions, rising inflation, attacks and destroyed homes, etc.
Pro-goverment Syrians (Alawites, Shiites, Christians, Druze, and many Sunnis) rely on the Russians. This is very visible. They constantly praise them. Americans are not liked, at least until they change their policies regarding the Assad regime.
– Is there Russian presence in Syria, particularly in Damascus? Have you met with any Russians?
– To do have a presence. I saw some Russian military members, but I have not spoken to them. If the Russians weren’t here, the regime would collapse in a matter of weeks. These are the realities today.
– What about Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian conflict? Few talk about it, but maybe the role of this organization, funded by Lebanon and Iran is more significant than it seems at first glance?
– Hezbollah intervened during several key moments in the conflict. There are volunteer corps fighting in ground operations. They have an obvious presence in Damascus. They have their military posts in the neighborhood that they control. The regime has apparently given them more rights than the permissible, because it relies on them. They are a state within a state. The problem might come after the war, when it can lead to conflict between the troops of Hezbollah and the government. This is the most common storyline after similar developments.
– Did your assessment of the Syrian conflict change, after being there in person, in “the field”? Who and for what caused this terrible war?
– Of course. I have read and seen much on the subject, but when you go to a place, it takes you another step forward. This war was caused by the combined efforts of Western liberal lobbies and extreme Islamist from the Gulf states. One sells crookedly understood democracy and the latter crookedly understood religion. The effect of this effort for us Europeans, are millions of illegal immigrants on European soil. Terrorists defectors, and Islamists who have infiltrated the uncontrolled flow of migrants. Due to the Arab Spring, we have opened a second front that penetrates Western Europe. Democracy is not a universal dish to be served everywhere. You have to think about the consequences.
During a discussion at a University several years ago, I warned that the Arab Spring would lead to chaos and a mass of immigrants. A colleague with a neoliberal coloration stated: ” People want democracy and we must support them.” The big democrats turned out to be the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Fanaticism in Europe prevents a sober analysis. There’s a lack of real politics.
– Where were you able to go to, other than Damascus?
– In the south movement is limited. Islamists and opposition groups control entire areas, and the neighborhood around the airport. There are snipers along the road. I went north of Damascus, to several smaller settlements and the city of Sidnaya. The highway was closed because of snipers, but there were side roads. I went to the Orthodox Monastery, Cherubim. 2000 meters above sea. It was captured by the Islamists for several days. There are traces of the shellings. They vandalized the place quite a bit, setting fire and destroying things. It’s still littered with shell casings, pieces of mines and debris. There’s a military unit composed of local Christians, who now look after it. A huge statue of Christ the Saviour soars above the monastery. There are no monks left there. The place is impressive. It looks ghostly in light of the situation, but these are the realities of war.
– The dechristianization of the Middle East is a very serious issue, especially in light of the fact that today Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world. Before the war, in Syria lived four million Christians, but what has happened to them today? For example until recently in Homs there lived 80 thousand Christians, of which today not even one remains. Christians throughout the region are subjected to persecution, murder, torture … Christians are purged from the Middle East. But what did you see? How do the surviving Christian communities live in Syria?
– According to some sources about 50% of the Christian population of Homs, remains there. One of my goals was to see how Christians live. I was surprised at how many churches there are in Damascus. In the Christian neighborhoods of Damascus and near them in the old town, its evident how much they are tied to religion. These communities (Arabs, Armenians) have experienced whatnot, but have been preserved over the past nearly 2,000 years. To some they may seem radical, but it is their way to conserve. There is something old-fashioned and romantic in their Christianity. In the homes that I managed to sneak a peek at, and in their shops and restaurants, religion is very visible – icons, crosses, biblical paintings, family portraits. In cars, crosses freely hang on the front mirror. Even among the young I observed this affection. At the same time there is the appetite for life – alcohol, loose clothing, vitality. What we lost in Europe, they’ve preserved in Syria. The impression remains that the regime largely protects the Christians and their churches, symbols, and lifestyle. I can not speak for Homs because I did not have time to go there. If the Islamic State comes, the Christians days are numbered. No one else in the Middle East has ever been so barbaric – to kill, destroy, subordinate. Neither Saladin, nor the Ottoman Turks, nor anyone else.
– Before the war Syria had many churches, monasteries, Christian monuments. Many of them have already been destroyed. Did you go into a Christian church to light a candle? Did you feel a relation with those people who are so far away from us, but related by faith?
– Yes, I went in many temples. Damascus is a Christian center. Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Armenian Patriarchate. In the Catholic cathedral “Saint Dimitrios” there was an orchestra of Philippines. They do not hide, they have ceremonies and they rely on their religion.
It is worth to see the monastery “Virgin Mary” in Sidnaya. It was attacked two years ago, but withheld the attack. It was founded in 547 AD by Byzantine Emperor Justinian while he was on his way from Constantinople to Jerusalem. There are medicinal icons there. One of the most sacred places for Christians in the world, but because of the war there are only locals there. They let us see the most sacred places of the abode.
I felt no relation, but I felt pride that there is still this “breed” of people. You know that we in Europe have declined in moral terms.
– What is the attitude of Syrians toward Bulgaria? Before our membership in the EU and NATO, we were friendly countries. Has that changed? Do the Syrians remember about Bulgaria?
– I have no idea in general, but given our longstanding relationship since the communist regime in Bulgaria, it looks to be good. To some extent we have a common historical destiny – the Ottoman rule. For them it was 400 years and for us 500. Apparently Bulgarian wine has left a lasting impression, because I heard about it in several conversations. There are also links in terms of construction, agriculture, and education. Thousands of Syrian students have passed through Bulgarian schools. Many are now part of the various elites in the country – political, intellectual, engineering, etc.
– Did you meet with Bulgarians in Damascus?
– Yes, at least a dozen people who are ethic Bulgarians or are from mixed marriages. And separately with Syrians who have studied in Bulgaria over the years. Its full of engineers, doctors, and dental technicians who speak a wonderful Bulgarian. We have a seriously lobby there. That I can say for sure. I was able to meet with the interim running the Bulgarian mission in Damascus, and who works under difficult conditions, but I think he is doing his duties very well. There is a will for work after the end of the conflict. This time we have to participate in the postwar reconstruction of the country and not as it happened with Iraq, where they (the US) lied to us. The foundations must be laid now.
– Ultimately, do you think the Syrian conflict will be solved? Is there hope for this long-suffering country?
– If God wills it. There is always hope, otherwise they would have raised the white flag long ago. With the change of the political situation in Europe there will be hopefully a change of the balance of power in the conflict. The sooner the war is over and there is a strong central government, the better for the region and hence Bulgaria. We need a second buffer after Turkey, between us and instability.
– On your return to Bulgaria you were at the airport in Istanbul exactly at the time of the attack. Fortunately you are unharmed! But what did you see there, what are your personal impressions?
– Ironically, in just one day I saw wartime Damascus and the European part of Turkey in a bloody attack. I watched from a distance. The Turkish authorities are working on a very high level. They took control of the situation minutes after the attacks. In a few hours everything was organized and peaceful, everything was cleared and returned to their usual way. Their experience shows. But the failure in security is also evident due to the number of dead and wounded.
– Thank you for this conversation.