Syria: Evolving Perceptions of a Tenacious Conflict

In May of 2017, I was privileged to join a group of travelers who spent ten days in Syria and Lebanon. Eleven of us traveled from the United States on a trip organized by the Syria/Lebanon Partnership Network of the PC(USA). Entitled “Mutually Encouraged by Each Other’s Faith,” the goal of the trip was “to share worship, fellowship and a mutual time of learning with PC(USA) partners in Syria and Lebanon.”

Alongside those objectives set by the organizers of the trip, my own goal arose from my belief that the conflict in Syria is one of the greatest humanitarian crises in my lifetime. I continue to wrestle with the ways in which a person like myself, committed to non-violence, can find a path through that violence-filled conflict.

During our five days in Syria and three days in Lebanon, we spent time with four congregations in Syria and six schools run by our partner churches in those two countries. In that part of the world, the words “Evangelical” and “Presbyterian” are generally synonymous and interchangeable. Since 1959, our partner churches there are organized as the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL). In addition to visiting churches and schools they operate, we met with officials of the denomination at their headquarters in Beirut. We also visited with staff of the Near East School of Theology(NEST) and the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), as well as with priests from several other Christian denominations. It was a busy and rich time.

In each of those locations, we saw signs that, in the midst of the great turmoil that surrounds them, the church is active, alive and well. The evangelical pastors we met are all well trained (at NEST!), offering strong leadership in engaged congregations filled with active elders and amazing numbers of young people who were anxious to interact with us and perform for us. In one church which we visited, in Hasaka, the person leading the congregation, (Mathilde Sabbagh), is a young woman, a recent graduate of NEST. The rules in their denomination are that a person must serve for a period of time under the mentorship of another pastor, after which they can be ordained for pastoral ministry. Mathilde is now in that transitional period, after which it is expected that she will join the faithful few woman already ordained for ministry at NESSL, a path-breaking achievement in that often-patriarchal part of the world.

Individually and working together, the churches are responding to the great needs that keep appearing on their doorsteps, providing what help they can to those fleeing from places of greater turmoil and offering help to all, regardless of their religion (in many cases, the majority of beneficiaries are Muslims). We were told that attendance at church conferences has increased substantially, as people search for opportunities for mutual encouragement and for learning from each other.

The demand for schooling is immense; the schools run by the churches have established a reputation for offering strong, values-based education which is much appreciated by all, including Muslims (in all the schools, most students are Muslim).

Among those whom we met, we often heard of a commitment not to leave. Two of the churches we visited in Syria had been badly damaged by bombs but are now fully restored and actively operating. Congregants thanked their pastors for not leaving. Among those people who had fled, we were told that some have heard from those who stayed in Syria that it is now safe to return; they are excitedly looking forward to doing so. We also heard a report that as many as half a million have already returned, although it is not clear how many of those plan to stay, as opposed to simply visiting to check on their property and the welfare of those who remain behind.

We found widespread evidence of the effective ways in which different branches of the church are working together. Much of the aid work is done through the MECC, engaging people from across the ecumenical spectrum. At a breakfast held for us in Qamishli, in north-east Syria, attended by priests from five different branches of the church, we heard a vivid story of cooperation. The Syriac Orthodox priest said to us:

“From the beginning of the conflict, we knew that it would be long and difficult. We also knew that we would be targeted because of our views.

“We have tried not to give Orthodox or Catholic or Evangelical views; at this time, we must speak only as Christians, not about our denominational positions. The heritage of the church is a common message of love for all people.

“When Islamic State forces intruded on Qamishli in December, 2015, thirteen Christians were killed by a suicide bomber. Those killed came from several different Christian communities. We determined that we should have one funeral together for all thirteen, held at one of the Orthodox churches; they were then buried together in one cemetery, a Catholic one. They died as brothers. They must not be separated at death.

“What unites us is the cross of Jesus Christ. We can maintain that unity here, without worrying about unity at the top. We must retain that unity here on the ground.”

In another set of conversations, this time with officials in the head office of NESSL, in Beirut, when they were asked to tell about their work and how they are approaching the tasks before them, we heard the following responses from two different church leaders:

“In this time of conflict, the challenge is to write our own story, to develop our own theology of how we should live in this time of crisis. We don’t know the end; but we must stay engaged, to find its meaning for us.”

“We must keep our values during this time of war; we must get out of the war with good values. Holding firm to the goal of reconciliation is a challenge for Syria, and the church must play a role in that.”

These powerful words reinforced my confidence in the church there and the leadership of the Synod.

So if the church is as active and strong as these comments suggest, how are we to understand their work, in the context of the larger conflict that surrounds them? In broader terms, how are we to understand that conflict itself and their – and our – roles in dealing with it? What follows are my own thoughts; I do not claim to represent views of the Syria Lebanon Partnership network or of the PC(USA).

How one talks about the conflict revolves centrally around one’s understanding of the government of Syria and the religious and ethnic demographics of the country. For centuries, Syria has been a predominantly Muslim country. While the demographics are changing, rough figures suggest that Syria has a small Sunni majority (approximately 60%). Other Muslim minority sects – Shiite (including Alawites) and Druze – make up about 30%, while Christians, Yazidis and others make up less than 10% of the population.

Since the late 1960’s, power and authority in Syria have been concentrated in the hands of officials affiliated with the Baath Party. From its establishment, this party has been secular in its orientation, with a focus on socialism and Arab nationalism. The central leadership has come from the Alawites, a tribal group with religious roots in Shiite Islam. As a syncretist offshoot of the Shiites, however, the theology of the Alawites has evolved to such an extent that many orthodox Shiite leaders regard them as heretical. We were reminded that the current leadership of the government of Syria includes many non-Alawites.

The secular nature of that government has led them to affirm the rights of each person to practice his or her own faith as she or he wishes. Relative to many of their neighboring countries, their pattern of ruling has imposed fewer restrictions on dress codes and other patterns of behavior. One thing, however, was never on the table for discussion in Syria: the structure of governance, reflecting the absolute power of those in charge.

Since the establishment of this government in 1970, Sunni Islamists (first the Muslim Brotherhood; more recently, Al Qaeda-affiliated groups) have attempted to overthrow that leadership, whose secular policies they consider un-Islamic and heretical. In 2011, when the “Arab Spring” emerged in Tunisia and spread across North Africa, there were demonstrations in Syria as well, asking for more political freedom. At the start, those demonstrations were peaceful and were focused on the expansion of political freedoms, although from the start it appears that many were calling for an end to the existing government’s rule and its replacement by one with more political choice. Increasing tensions soon arose between those seeking a move towards a system of liberal democracy, on one side, and Islamists intent on moving the country towards strict Islamist patterns of governance, on the other. It was clear, though, that the government was not about to yield its absolute control of the levers of power and would use all the force at its disposal to put down those that challenged its rule.

The Syrian demonstrators were soon joined by others from outside the country, whose demands were far stronger. Islamist extremists, recruited and trained by Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, brought demands not just to amend the regime but to replace it entirely. Sunni groups from Iraq, experienced fighters now disenfranchised in their own country, joined the combat. The resulting influx of fighters, money, and weapons allowed the insurgents to capture major tracts of land across Syria.

In many ways, this was the launch of the internationalization of the conflict in Syria. Friends of the Syrian government from across the Shiite world – especially from Iran and Hezbollah – were loath to see the Syrian government overthrown and rushed to supply fighters, money and weapons. When it became clear that even more help might be needed, the Russians joined the battle, with their own supply of fighters, weapons and money. This in turn raised the anxiety of the Americans, who added their resources (our resources!) to the mix, to prevent the Russians from gaining too strong a foothold there.

A further complication to this struggle engaging the wider community concerns the Kurds, who make up a significant proportion of the population in north-east Syria, where we spent most of our time. Since the Kurdish militia has proven to be quite effective in fighting the Sunni extremists who are the main opponents of the Syrian government, that government has formed common cause with the Kurdish fighters, giving them major responsibilities for maintaining law and order in the north-eastern part of Syria. The complication comes from the recognition that the Kurds have their own agenda in this fight, built around the aspiration of many of their leaders to establish a separate Kurdish nation, encompassing Kurdish-majority portions of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. This is a goal which the central governments of each of those three countries strongly rejects, as (we were often told) do the great majority of the Syrian people. Again, this is an example of the ways in which what is happening in Syria is strongly influenced by forces emanating from beyond their borders.

Understanding these actions and reactions helps understand what it means to say that the conflict in Syria has moved from being a civil war – a struggle between different groups of Syrians – to being a proxy war. In large measure, it is by now a battle engaging the regional superpowers – Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, on one side, against Iran and its followers, on the other – as well as the world superpowers – Russia and the United States – with each of these outside groups pouring in fighters, weapons and money to support its own clients in Syria. The tragedy is that the battle between these outside forces rages back and forth across the Syrian landscape, with the Syrian people trapped and engulfed by these larger forces engaging in their own conflicts, fought out across Syrian territory. Several of our hosts quoted to us the African proverb: “when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled under their feet”.

With this background, I turn finally to the future: what our Syrian church partners requested of us, and how I personally see a possible way forward. First, the churches’ requests, which were clear and straight-forward. Here is what they asked of us:

  • Prayer: please pray for and with us. Encourage more to come and visit.
  • Provide more help for suffering Syrians, especially those displaced in the region and those providing help to them.
  • Work in your country to eliminate the outside flow of weapons supporting any faction in the conflict, to de-escalate this proxy war. Use diplomacy to help stop the fighting.
  • Work in your country to seek to remove US government sanctions, designed to pressure Syrian political leaders to change policies but in fact causing great suffering among the Syrian people.
  • Seek out alternative sources of information. Our partners there find western media to be often misleading and inaccurate.
  • Help change the discourse in the US away from an insistence that the current government of Syria must go. It seems doubtful that any Christian churches still operate in regions of the country not under Syrian government control. Our church partners see any currently viable alternative to that government as a major threat to their own safety and to that of other minority groups. Furthermore, harsh criticism of the Syrian government by our church can put our Christian partners there at risk.

I support those “asks” and commend them to all, across the church and across our country.

As I think in broader terms about the conflict and the ways forward beyond those points, my thinking has led me back to the work of Amos Oz, an Israeli citizen who has thought deeply and written much about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In 2002, he gave an interview with NPR in which he laid out his thoughts about that conflict, which he recognized as a great and ongoing tragedy. He said that, in stage plays which are tragedies, conclusions come in two different ways; he calls them the tradition of Shakespeare, and the tradition of Chekhov. In the Shakespearean tradition, at the end of the play, “the stage is hewed with dead bodies and justice of sorts prevails.” In the Chekhovian tradition, by contrast, at the conclusion, “everyone is disappointed, disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, but alive.” He describes that outcome as a “clenched teeth compromise.”

Many in Syria today seem to think that the best goal for now is one of “clenched teeth compromise.” Their plea, and surely we must support that plea, is firm: at all costs, stop the fighting. But as Christians, I believe we also hold firm to a third outcome. Jesus’s message, and his depiction of God’s vision for the whole creation, is surely not a “compromise of gritted teeth.” Rather it is of a world evoked by the heavy theological word, reconciliation, where all people, including those with profound differences, are reconciled with each other and with their creator.

I was glad to find that idea reflected in the words we heard from the leaders at NESSL, quoted above, as they wrestle with developing a theology appropriate to their lives in the midst of conflict, but holding firmly to the goal of reconciliation. Nobody believes that the path to that outcome can be quick and easy. People currently killing each other, who are forced to confront others who have killed friends or members of their own family, will not be quickly or easily reconciled. I believe the goal of reconciliation is not ours to create. It involves a changing of hearts and minds and comes as a gift through the work of the Holy Spirit. Our role is to plant seeds that invite people to re-think their accepted truths, while seeking to create conditions that lead towards that end, which surely means a movement away from militarized conflict. I firmly believe that the path of reconciliation is the one that Christ calls us to seek, but recognize that the path to that end must often lead through a “compromise of clenched teeth.” Most of our government’s recent actions seem rather to point in the opposite direction, towards a Shakespearean outcome, which in theological terms could well be called Armageddon. For all too many leaders around the world, including those in our own country, that seems to be their preferred outcome. May God give us wisdom as we seek to walk the path that leads to shalom.