Syria's Assad seeks PH help

By Pia Lee-Brago, The Philippine Star

Posted at Jan 31 2013 07:39 AM | Updated as of Jan 31 2013 03:46 PM

MANILA, Philippines - As bodies continued to pile up in the bloody civil war in his country, Syrian President Bashar Assad has turned to the Philippines for help in finding a “political solution” to the conflict.

Reliable diplomatic sources told The STAR last night that among the solutions being explored are asylum for Assad in the Philippines or financial help for drained Syrian national coffers.

Assad’s regime is also eyeing Manila as intermediary with the United States, the European Union and the Arab League, according to the sources from several foreign embassies in Manila.

The sources said Assad’s trusted political and media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban arrived in Manila last Sunday and was escorted to Malacañang the other day by a ranking official of the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

Several other DFA officials were present at the meeting with President Aquino, the sources said.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario confirmed the meeting and that a political solution to the two-year-old Syrian conflict was discussed. Del Rosario did not elaborate.

"Dr. Shaaban, who has been most instrumental in expediting the repatriation of our folks from Syria, had asked to personally deliver a letter from President Bashar Assad to our President,” Del Rosario said in a text message to The STAR. “During their short meeting, she discussed a proposal for a political solution in Syria."

He said President Aquino “expressed his gratitude for (Shaaban’s) assistance to date, with a request for her continuing help for the over 3,000 Filipinos remaining for possible repatriation.”

As armed conflict in Syria escalated, Assad’s regime had waived penalties for cancellation of job contracts and allowed the repatriation of thousands of Filipinos working in the areas worst hit by violence in that country.

Ninety percent of Filipinos working in Syria are undocumented. The 3,000 who have refused to leave say they are treated well by their employers.

Del Rosario went to Syria on Sept. 4 last year and personally negotiated with Shaaban and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem for the waiver of penalties and fees for the departing Filipino workers.

Syria had agreed to the Philippines’ request for the waiver of exit visa requirements for Filipinos sheltered at the Philippine embassy in Damascus. Assad approved an immediate waiver without preconditions.

Last year, the Philippines abstained from voting on a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution extending the mandate of an independent panel probing abuses in Syria.

The resolution was adopted by the 47-member council by a vote of 41 to 3, with three abstentions. China, Cuba and Russia voted against; India and Uganda joined the Philippines in abstaining.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, established in September 2011 by the Geneva-based council, reported that the scale and frequency of gross human rights violations in the country had significantly increased, with indiscriminate attacks against civilians occurring daily in many areas of the country.

Most of those killed since the uprising against Assad’s regime began have been civilians.

The council has strongly condemned the “continued widespread and systematic gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” by Syrian authorities and the government-controlled militia known as the Shabiha.

It also condemned the “increasing number of massacres” taking place in Syria, and requested the commission to conduct an investigation.

The council stressed the need to hold those responsible to account.

In the report presented, the Commission said it had found reasonable grounds to believe that government forces and members of the Shabiha had committed war crimes, gross violations against human rights and crimes against humanity.

Violations conducted by government forces include murder, summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, violations of children’s rights, pillaging and destruction of civilian objects – including hospitals and schools.

Anti-government armed groups have also committed war crimes, including murder and torture, the panel found. In addition, children under 18 years of age are fighting and performing auxiliary roles for anti-government armed groups.

The panel said a confidential list of individuals and units that are believed to be responsible for violations would be provided to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.