“We wish that you could come back with us to our country and see our home there,” Yusef Hassan (name changed for security reasons), told me earlier this year. But little likely remains of Hassan’s home in a suburb of Damascus, Syria.
I met Hassan, his wife and three children, in their small apartment in Sidon, Lebanon. The family fled there in early 2013, when the civil war got too intense. Although things are calmer in Lebanon, life is far from easy. Yusef had a kidney transplant several years ago and needs regular medical care, nearly impossible to attain at a reasonable price in Lebanon. Because of that, he made several trips back to Syria but the travel is becoming increasingly difficult.
The family’s 11-year-old son works at a supermarket to support the family, instead of attending school. They have had trouble registering their 9-year-old daughter for school, a common problem in Lebanon, where the schools and other public services have been overwhelmed by Syrian refugees. There are now more than 1 million refugees in Lebanon, a country with a population of just 4 million.
Overview of the conflict
The conflict in Syria defies easy answers. The largely nonviolent revolution in March 2011 stemmed from economic grievances and a desire for greater freedoms. The Syrian government responded violently to these protests and the conflict soon turned into armed conflict.
That conflict has now become an international one, further complicating efforts to resolve it. Iran and Russia, as well as groups like Hezbollah, are lending their support to the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad.
Other governments in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have given substantial support to the Syrian opposition. Wealthy individuals from the Gulf have also provided significant funding. Increasingly, Islamist fighters from various countries have joined the fight against the Syrian government, including some groups classified by the U.S. as terrorists.
The U.S. government has aligned itself with the opposition. It claims that this stems from a desire to support the revolution’s original democratic demands. But the decision is also driven by U.S. political, military and economic interests.
Thus far U.S. assistance to the opposition has included small weaponry, logistical support and intelligence gathering. In April reports began to emerge that larger anti-tank weaponry is now also coming from the United States.
U.S. officials state regularly that “there is no military solution to this conflict.” But the U.S. continues to provide support to the opposition under the rationale that this will give the opposition a stronger negotiating position against President Assad.
This policy has only served to escalate the war. As Archbishop Jean Kawak of the Syrian Orthodox Church says, “we can’t reach peace through violence. We have no other option but dialogue.”
Throughout the conflict civilians have been caught in the crossfire. More than 150,000 Syrians have died. More than 9 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance. There has been irreplaceable damage to Syria’s physical infrastructure and cultural heritage, a country with a long and rich history.
Neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are bearing the tremendous burden of hosting Syrian refugees, now numbering at least 2.6 million. Initially, as Syrian refugees took refuge in neighboring countries, many host communities responded with remarkable hospitality and generosity.
However, as the war has continued and the number of refugees continues to grow steadily, tensions with host communities are growing. Vital services such as water and sanitation are being strained beyond their capacity. The war in Syria has also exacerbated tensions within countries like Lebanon. This has resulted in increasing incidents of violence, and there is potential for much greater spillover.
Until the war comes to an end, the humanitarian toll will continue to grow exponentially. Because of this, many Syrians with whom Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) works express their strong desire to see the conflict end. They urge U.S. citizens to support policies that will bring an end to this brutal war.
“We wish that you could come back with us to our country and see our home there.” - Yusef Hassan (name changed for security reasons)
Support an immediate ceasefire. There are already small examples of local ceasefires, worked out in communities where members of the opposition forces and the government army were acquainted with one another. The United States should put its full diplomatic support toward a national-level ceasefire, effective immediately.
Cease military and all other support for armed parties to the conflict. The U.S. should end its military support for the Syrian opposition and direct all of its energies toward a political solution. The U.S. should insist that its allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar end their military involvement as well. At the same time, the international community must continue to urge Russia and Iran to end their military support for the Syrian government.
Actively pursue a negotiated, political agreement. Any such agreement will need to be brokered by Syrians, but the U.S. and others in the international community will need to support this outcome and make clear that it is a top diplomatic priority. A political agreement will need to guarantee protection of the rights of all Syrians.
Respond generously to the humanitarian crisis. The U.S. has provided $1.7 billion in humanitarian assistance thus far, a commendable contribution. At the same time, the needs only continue to grow. Thus the U.S. and others in the international community must continue to respond generously. Humanitarian assistance should be directed only to agencies that are operating in accordance with international humanitarian law.
“We can’t reach peace through violence. We have no other option but dialogue.” - Archbishop Jean Kawak of the Syrian Orthodox Church
When I was in Lebanon in February, I asked the Hassan family what they would tell the U.S. government if they could. Like so many others I spoke with, they said they simply want the fighting to stop so that they can return home.
Take a moment today to urge U.S. policymakers to heed the cry of Syrians for peace and the chance to return home.
This story is excerpted from the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of the MCC Washington Memo newsletter, "Weep with those who weep: U.S.-Syria policy." Download the full issue here.
MCC Washington Office publishes a print newsletter three times a year, featuring in-depth analysis and theological reflection on the issues that shape – and are shaped by – public policy. Articles from the newsletter are available on washingtonmemo.org, and you can request to have the Washington Memo Newsletter delivered to your home.