An Update on the Conflict in Syria

As we move into 2018, the nature of the conflict in Syria continues to evolve. The question arises as to whether the overture currently working its way towards the next General Assembly is still a valid position statement for our denomination. What follows is an overview of the on-going conflict, leading to an affirmation that the overture as written still provides an appropriate affirmation of our vision for the way forward.

In recent years, our media has told us that the US government’s main stated goal in Syria has been the defeat of ISIS. We are told that much of that work has now been completed. What remains is seen essentially as a “mopping up exercise,” subduing remaining ISIS-related rebel forces and establishing firm control in the areas now under non-ISIS control. The collapse of a “caliphate” has meant the dispersal of “true believers”, who will need to be challenged, confronted and overcome across the globe. That is recognized as a serious challenge, but one which is in many ways separate from the question of the future of the conflict in Syria.

In Syria, NPR reported on Jan. 1, 2018, that, west of the Euphrates River, the defeat of ISIS has largely been a result of actions of military forces of the Syrian government and its supporters (Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah). East of the Euphrates, that result has come about largely as a result of actions by what is described in our media as “America-supported forces,” which includes Kurdish fighters and members of the “Free Syrian Army”. According to this line of reasoning, the major challenge in Syria now involves finishing the job of defeating the remnants of ISIS and sorting out the roles of all the remaining contenders. In that sorting out process, a central question concerns the future role of the Assad government.

If that’s the main story line in our media, there are several significant points to add.

There are some geographical areas that don’t fit that narrative. A major one is the enclave around Idlib. The Syrian government has facilitated the transport of those who challenge their power to that province, in exchange for conceding contested territory. The enclave around Idlib now seems to be a hot-bed of a diverse set of opponents of the Assad regime: ISIS, Al Nusra, and other Salafist groups considered to be “terrorists” by the government. Abutting Turkey, this region is a messy one with potential for lots of further killing before it is sorted out.

The situation in Idlib province is impacted by actions taken in “deconfliction zones,” areas where opponents of the government have been surrounded and pressured to surrender or be killed. What goes on in such areas is often described as reflecting the work of negotiation and diplomacy, allowing for food and medicine to be brought in and for those enclosed there to be moved to the Idlib province. In practice, that process has been problematic in conception and in implementation, with much suffering along the way and much destruction left in its wake.

Two further inter-related issues concern the roles of Turkey and of the Kurds. With regard to Turkey, it seems that (so far!) they have switched sides twice in the conflict. When fighting broke out in 2011, Erdogan first condemned Assad, saying that he had to go. He later indicated that he was ready to accept the idea that Assad could stay on as leader of Syria. In late December of 2017, he reportedly has reversed himself again, indicating that Assad would have to go. Those changing positions have had a major impact on the borders between Syria and Turkey: who could cross, and what weapons could flow to which combatants.

That evolving dynamic on the part of Turkey was driven in large part by their relationship with the Kurds, and especially the Kurdish militia in Syria, the YPG. When we visited Syria in May of 2017, the Syrian government had largely handed over control of north-eastern Syria to the Kurds; government forces were generally limited only to the area surrounding the airport in Qamishli and one government building in the center of that city. The YPG was understood to be keeping the peace in that region on behalf of the government of Syria. This is the same group that US forces were supporting in their fight against ISIS (i.e. we were supporting a fighting group there that was acting as proxy for the Syrian government). Ironies abound.

There have recently been reports that the US government is no longer providing military support to the YPG. The relationship between the Syrian government, the Syrian Kurds – and especially their militia, the YPG – and local Syrian Arabs (including the Syrian Christians as well as other Syrian Arabs there), and the various outside forces engaged there is surely a thorny and unresolved one, with a potential for intense struggles in coming months and years.

All of this makes clear that, while the fight against ISIS as a caliphate in Syria may be moving towards a conclusion, the struggle over the future of Syria is still far from resolved. Leaving aside the foreign powers, each with their own interests in the conflict, there are three Syrian groups contending for control of all or parts of their country: the current Syrian government; Syrian Arabs who are still demanding a regime change; and the Syrian Kurds. Much has been written about each of those three groups. Rather than review that here, suffice it to say that while each group has some positive characteristics, there are also major problems in the ways in which each has acted and would seek to govern. None has clean hands. The struggle between these three, even leaving aside the outside forces supporting and opposing each, has great potential for very serious conflict, with no easy or quick resolution on the horizon.

Our Syrian Christian partners, and the larger Christian community there of which they are a part in and with whom they work in communion, find themselves in the midst of that on-going conflict. We have a deep responsibility to hear their voices. We join our partners in showing concern for, providing aid for and working to change the circumstances of all those who suffer, including Yazidis, Muslims and other groups that are struggling against repression. The work of reconciliation is difficult and dangerous. Our Christian partners are among the strongest voices seeking to keep that vision and hope alive. We must stand with them in that commitment.

I believe that, as of now in early 2018, the central message of the overture which is on its way to the coming General Assembly is still valid. Even with the changed circumstances in the six months since it was originally written, the four main points of that overture still point in the correct direction:

I. Stop the Killing. “…use all diplomatic means…to bring about a durable ceasefire, in tandem with a cessation of military support to any participant in the conflict.”

II. Work for Reconciliation. “…contribute fully to the humanitarian, human rights, and peace-building work of the United Nations … involving civil society wherever possible … encouraging nonviolent coexistence among religious and ethnic groups.”

III. Alleviate Suffering. “…provide robust financial support for organizations engaged in alleviating the suffering of Syrians… expand the number of [Syrian] refugees admitted [to the US]… review and revise the current program of economic sanctions on Syria.

IV. Deepen our Partnership with Syrian Christians. “…provide a list of media sources about events in Syria…build personal contacts and partnerships with Syrians.”

Even in the face of changing circumstances on the ground, these goals are as valid today as they were when they were first written. May we be faithful in pursuing them.