A civil defence member carries an injured girl at a site hit by airstrikes in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan, Syria. CNS photo/Courtesy of Khalil Ashawi, Reuters

Is Syrian peace attainable? Not by war

By 
  • August 6, 2016

As Armenian Catholics, the Moubayed’s don’t want to disagree with the Pope. But as Syrians who fled their home in Aleppo last year while the bombs came closer and closer, the married couple are not so sure peace is possible.

Pope Francis has put the full weight of his global pulpit behind a Caritas Internationalis campaign urging governments, especially in the West, to get on with the business of ensuring a negotiated peace in Syria. “Syria: Peace is Possible” launched July 5 with a video by Pope Francis urging the world community to work and pray for peace in Syria.

“Everyone has to recognize that there is no military solution for Syria, but only a political solution,” said Francis. “The international community must therefore support the peace talks heading toward the construction of a government of national unity.”

“It’s possible, but…” said Nayiri Moubayed, clearly uncomfortable with the question of peace now for Syria. “Maybe after four or five years.”

Her husband, George, thinks it will be 15 or 20 years before Christian refugees such as his family will be able to return to Aleppo. It isn’t just a matter of rebuilding the devastated city — its houses, businesses and infrastructure. A culture of peace will take even longer to build.

“The most important is the people, not the infrastructure,” he told The Catholic Register.

Nayiri, George and their six-year-old son Michel have been in Toronto since Jan. 23. After years of armies, militias, barrel bombs and snipers, then six months as refugees in Beirut and a lucky escape thanks to Nayiri’s Canadian sister who could sponsor them, the Moubayed’s don’t look back at their old homeland and predict the sudden flourishing of a democratic, open and peaceful society.

But there’s no viable alternative to a negotiated peace as soon as possible, said Ryan Worms, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace’s director of in-Canada programs. From Development and Peace’s perspective, in collaboration with the community groups it supports inside Syria and among Syrian refugees, negotiations have to include Bashar al-Assad’s government.

“What we can say as Development and Peace is, if you want the belligerents to end the conflict you need all of them to talk to one another,” Worms said. “You do not do peace with your friend. You do peace with your enemy or with the groups that you are fighting on the ground. If there is no form of dialogue between all parties to find a peaceful, diplomatic solution I don’t see how we will reach a permanent peace.”

As Canada’s Caritas agency, Development and Peace has been involved in putting together the Peace is Possible campaign (syria.caritas.org) and will sponsor a national day of prayer for peace on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, Oct. 4.

Canada is a member of the International Syria Support Group of 26 nations and NGOs who have sponsored negotiations in Vienna last year and Geneva this year. The negotiations have included the Assad regime. At the same time the Commission for International Justice and Accountability has been preparing the legal case to try Assad and his Central Crisis Management Cell of senior government and military leaders for the barrel bombs, razing of entire cities and besieging cities so that civilians could not access humanitarian aid and food.

Peace negotiations held thus far have ruled out negotiating with designated terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State and the Al Nusra Front. Canadian soldiers are currently training Kurdish fighters who are taking on both groups. The United States and several allies are bombing Islamic State positions in co-ordination with the Iraqi military on the ground attempting to retake Mosul. The Kurds, who are seeking an independent state, have been excluded from the talks by the Turks. Russia’s bombing campaign on behalf of the Assad forces has been suspended, but Russia maintains forces inside Syria.

“I’m not sure it’s our role as an NGO from Canada to really say what and how the political process should work,” said Worms.

But Development and Peace has advanced the idea that Syrian civil society — unions, community associations, non-governmental organizations — should be involved in the peace process.

“As of today, we are working with some of these groups. There’s a richness of expectations, of views and also of dreams of different civil society groups within Syria,” Worms said.

The idea of civil society in the Middle East is a Western fantasy in the eyes of George Zuhair Kassir, an elder of Toronto’s St. Benhem Syriac Orthodox Church. As a retired chemistry professor who worked in his native Iraq, Jordan and elsewhere, Kassir never saw an NGO or association in the region that could operate without the specific patronage of the authoritarian rulers of the region.

“These are luxuries,” said Kassir. “You have to stop the war and then do the other things according to civilized society. The war is there. The intruders are there. The killing happens every day, emigration every hour. You can’t find the best solution for all that. You have to stop the war in any way (you can), and then you can start bringing people — decent, thoughtful people — to sit and make rules for the future.”

Worms maintains that the organizations and people who can make a peace deal work are already in Syria and ready to contribute.

“I don’t want to enter into the details of the groups we are working with for security reasons,” he said. “But you have a diversity of groups. You’re talking about university students… also farmers. It could be medical personnel who decide to organize themselves to advocate for greater access to medicines to the conflict zones… mothers who would organize around ensuring safe access to schools for their children.”

Nayiri Moubayed thinks the best hope for the Christians in Syria is the restoration of the Assad regime to full control of the country, despite whatever war crimes he may have committed.

“If it is Bashar al Assad, there will be various cultures, various people,” she said.

But she doesn’t think that scenario is very likely either.

“We love Syria. But after the war, everything is changed. They destroyed everything,” she said.

“While the people suffer, incredible quantities of money are being spent to supply weapons to fighters,” said Pope Francis. “And some of the countries supplying these arms are among those that talk of peace. How can you believe in someone who caresses you with the right hand and strikes you with the left hand.”

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