This week the world’s diplomats have once again gathered in Geneva, determined to help secure Syria’s future. This year’s negotiations mark five years since I sat at that same table as part of the 2012 Syrian Opposition delegation, and seven years since the beginning of the civil war.
Syria is the place I call home. It’s where I went to school, began my career and raised my son. I have dedicated my life to promoting democracy and human rights, including defending political prisoners tortured under Assad and exposing the regime’s brutality. In 2012, I was forced to flee Damascus with my son after being threatened by the regime, crossing borders and seas to finally reach safety in the UK.
The UN Peace Talks come just days after President Putin met Assad face to face, the first time they had met since Russia’s military intervention began. Sending shivers down Syrian spines, Assad thanked Russia for its backing “on behalf of the Syrian people”. The two men hugged for the cameras as the Russian president boasted that victory was near.
But for Syrians like me, who still believe democracy is a right and not a dream, there is no legitimacy in any statement from Assad and his allies. Victory cannot be written in civilian blood: the conflict has already claimed up to half a million lives, left one million Syrian children orphaned and displaced half the prewar population from their homes. To me they are more than numbers, they are my family, friends and fellow Syrians.
A choice between the barrel bombs and chemical weapons of Assad’s military and the beheadings, rape and torture of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is no choice at all.
The implication that victory is near is delusional. Assad and the Syrian regime must be held to account for their crimes, and so must the armed fighters whose brutality has matched that of the very dictator they pledged to replace.
Victory will only come when Syria enjoys true democracy. That means we need to believe in the justice of international institutions and the compassion of our international friends to help us negotiate for a freer Syria.
Seven years ago the conflict began with the arrest and killing of peaceful Arab Spring demonstrators who wanted three very simple things; political change, fair elections and a say in the kind of constitution they would live under. We cannot give up on their ambitions.
I have seen first-hand just how important the talks are for uniting those who believe in positive change. I was the director of media for the Syrian Opposition delegation in 2012; we went there armed with fierce courage and ambitious hope.
Despite the suffering that still plagues Syria, I am optimistic. While the Syrian regime is once again stalling progress at every turn with the help of Russia, I am confident that international determination to see progress will not retreat. It is clear that the regime does not want peace nor is it serious about reaching a fair solution. While Russia uses Syria as a pawn in their game of chess, countries like the UK, where I live, remain committed to achieving peace and seeing a sustainable future for the people of Syria.
If the world remains united in the stance that Syria deserves better than Assad and better than terrorism, I hope we will get the ending we deserve.
Real victory will be declared when Syria is a sovereign state, with democracy and human rights at its core. A new constitution must be created by the Syrian people which includes the participation of all segments of society, the protection of minorities and the full representation of women. We must also ensure the safe return of refugees and the release of prisoners unfairly detained under Assad. This requires a review of the legal system and most importantly the establishment of free and fair multi-party elections. Syrians must be free to choose their leadership.
Delivering this vision may not be straightforward, but it must not become a mere fairy tale Syrians tell their children. I refuse to tell my son that Syria’s destiny is to be trapped in an indefinite war. It will require a break from dictatorship, and instead, cooperation between Syria’s warring factions and between international players. We must do all we can to create the conditions for this to happen, working within the realm of reality and learning from the mistakes of the past.
And what next for Assad himself? I do not believe his self-proclaimed victory is sustainable. First, the balance of power has changed: the regime’s army has shrunk to less than half, its resources have been depleted, and many of their supporters have been killed. Second, acceptance of Assad’s survival and a return to the status quo is not only unacceptable to ordinary Syrians, it may also be unacceptable to Europe and the United States. After all, a full acceptance of the “victory” of the Russians and Iranians would not only imply the defeat of the Syrian opposition but all those who want to see a democratic Syria.
We must end the conditions that have enabled terrorists to infiltrate and a dictatorship to persist. These conditions fuel anger and extremism. It is likely that over the coming weeks Russia will continue to hint at victory as Assad tries to “spin” his way back to power. Anyone who cares about Syria must reject this.
A choice between the barrel bombs and chemical weapons of Assad’s military and the beheadings, rape and torture of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is no choice at all. If the world remains united in the stance that Syria deserves better than Assad and better than terrorism, I hope we will get the ending we deserve.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.