Confronting the Crisis in Syria: A Peace-Seeker's Perspective

The on-going conflict in Syria has been called the most serious humanitarian crisis of our lifetime. More than 11 million people have been driven from their homes, more than half a million killed, disrupting civil society and civil discourse across the globe.  For those who are concerned about the increasing militarization of American foreign policy, Syria may be the central place where that is playing out today.  

Those of us committed to the work of non-violence and peacemaking have struggled to sort through the escalating struggles in that region, searching for a grounded vision of good outcomes and a path to reach that goal.  My own path through this thicket has involved much reading as well as listening to the voices of many Syrians, including those of our Syrian Christian partners. In sharing my thinking, I start here with main conclusions, then present the background reasoning leading up to those conclusions.  

It appears that, among the many factions currently actively engaged in the conflict in Syria, there is no single group with any political, diplomatic or military authority which reflects our hopes for a tolerant society in Syria, where all voices can live in respectful acceptance of differing points of view.  Picking any one of the current contenders, seeking to provide them with the authority and power they would need to “win” in that conflict, is a fools errand.  It is precisely the attempt by various outside powers to do that, especially through the provision of massive amounts of military force to support one or another of those factions, that has led to the escalation of the conflict and which continues to fuel it in ways that generate untold suffering.  In that framework, the conflict could only be ended by one faction vanquishing all the others on the battlefield.  That is an invitation for us to participate in Armageddon.      

The alternative approach suggested here is built around the idea that our goal as Americans must be to stop the conflict through an escalation of diplomatic efforts to achieve a cease-fire, combined with the withdrawal of all outside military engagement.  The combination of those two, even if only imperfectly realized, is what is needed to provide the space needed for Syrians to engage in the serious work of finding the compromises required for a political solution.  It is not for outsiders – and in particular, not for us – to seek to impose our vision on that process.  In fact, it is the continuing effort by many foreign interests (including the United States) to do that which has fueled the escalation of the war and has led to the immense suffering that has accompanied it.   

Along side these efforts to influence US government policy in the region, three other areas of work are also of great importance.  We must:

•    Provide direct assistance to those suffering as a result of the conflict: those displaced within Syria and in the region, as well as refugees farther afield.  We must work to increase the numbers of refugees admitted to the United States and the level of support offered to them once here.  The current mood of discussions in our country threatens their security and well-being here.    

•    Build contacts to encourage and learn from those in the region who are doing the hard and dangerous work of reconciliation, often in smaller groups and in localized areas, even in the midst of the conflict.  Our encouragement can be immensely important to their ability to continue their work.

•    Do the hard work of informing all Americans, especially those in the pews of our churches, about the true nature of the conflict there.  These are complicated and controversial topics, very poorly understood in our country.  We must seek to speak with a clear voice here.

Here is some of the background and reasoning that leads to these conclusions.  

1) The regime first of Hafez Al-Assad and then of his son, Bashar, historically established a secular state which has generally been tolerant and supportive of Christians and of many Muslims, including those with a variety of different interpretations of Islam, as long as they did not challenge the Assad regime itself.  But for those who did challenge the regime’s absolute power, it has been vicious and brutal, using intimidation, torture, and mass killings.  Barrel bombs on civilian concentrations and hospitals and threats of annihilation for those who challenge its rule, such as those seen most recently in the fight over Aleppo, are not at all out of character.

2) While the opposition to that regime at the start of the "Syrian spring" included many moderate voices urging the Assad government to temper their actions, those voices were quickly (within a few months) joined and overwhelmed by others who were much more radical.  While some of these were Syrian, many were from outside the country.  These have generally had a goal of imposing a narrowly defined understanding of Islam on all those under their rule.  There were several competing visions among these different groups, and the conflicts between them were often as fierce as those between them and others.

3) A further factor here has been the Kurds, whose military has been among the most effective in fighting the various groups opposing the Assad government, and particularly the Islamic State.  But the Kurds  also have their own goal of establishing control of tracts of land where they could operate as a separate Kurdish state, an outcome which is strongly opposed by many Syrians (as well as by the Turkish government).

4) In this situation, there has been much talk in the American media about "moderate" voices: those who seek an outcome where diverse groups can each practice their own faith and live lives of mutual toleration, without seeking to impose their own views on others.  The United States has insisted that its military assistance is supplied only to such groups.  From what I have been able to determine, while such “moderate voices” surely exist in Syria, they have had very little influence either in national political dialogs or on the battlefield.  Some of the so-called "moderate" opposition groups have come to support the Assad government, since they see the alternatives as being even more dangerous and intolerant.

5) The foreign-fueled militarization of the conflict has moved the society sharply away from any outcome based on toleration of diversity.  In the field of battle, the on-going availability of weapons to each of the participants reflects the dream of each that, with enough military clout, they would be able to gain a knock-out victory which would enable them to impose their views on everyone else.  This in turn has led to a parallel fear that, if they are the losers in such a battle, someone else would impose their own version of truth on them, so they feel they must build their own military strength to prevent such an outcome.

It is this military-based struggle, depending heavily on foreign arms and foreign fighters, which has been imposing such major suffering on the people of Syria, while also leading to major disruptions in other countries around the world through the influx of refugees and the civil strife that ensues as others are drawn into the conflict on their own soil.

In that situation, the first goal for all friends of Syria must be to exert every effort to STOP THE FIGHTING.  The most realistic way to achieve that objective involves working with other regional and international actors to establish a cease fire in Syria.  This needs to include not only the Americans and the Russians but also representatives of Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, Turkey and other European countries.  Such a cease-fire should not be made contingent on resolving all differences and grievances or agreeing on a final polity but should be understood as a “halt-in-place” of all hostilities, while negotiations continue about the long-term future, facilitated when needed by the international community.

Realistically, such a cease fire is not likely to be achieved as long as outside interests continue to pour large amount of military resources into the fight, with each seeking to reinforce their client’s position.  This means that, along side the work of establishing a cease fire, there must be a parallel commitment by outside parties to de-escalate the supply of military support by the major suppliers and their surrogates in the region.  Again, this must involve many different countries, of which the United States is a major one.  If we were to make a firm commitment to cease our supply of military support and make a strong effort to block all transfers of our weapons to others, that would seriously weaken the justification that others have offered concerning the need to match our supplies, to keep their patrons from being over-run by those whom we support.  Clearly, this change in our supplying patterns must be combined with a parallel diplomatic push to get others to match what we are doing.

The main goal in taking these two steps together – a halt to the fighting, and a cessation of outside military support to all participants in the conflict – is that, taken together, they would provide the space for Syrians to undertake the negotiations which must be at the heart of any real move towards resolution of the conflict.  It is clear that those will be difficult negotiations, involving people who have been bitter enemies on the battlefield and who have sharply differing visions of the desired outcome.  Yet it is not for outsiders – any outsiders, including the United States  – to seek to impose particular outcomes on those negotiations.  That outside intervention has been the path which has led to the years of conflict which Syria and other countries in the region have suffered.  Many Syrians have said that they can work through such negotiations, if they are given the opportunity to do so among themselves, without outsiders seeking to determine the outcome.  Difficult as this path may be, it is hard to see any other that will not simply perpetuate the suffering.    


The reasoning presented here generated discussion which led to the drafting of a letter prepared by the Syria-Lebanon Partnership Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which was subsequently sent on behalf of the network to President-Elect Donald Trump  

Four articles have provided particularly helpful information and approaches to this topic: