MCC photo/Doug Hostetter

 Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach helping to distribute MCC school kits and hygiene kits at a school in southern Lebanon that had received many Syrian refugee children.

In early 2013, when I visited the Middle East in my role as director of the MCC U.S. Washington Office, I was surprised to hear an analyst remark, “When the U.S. and Russia figure out what they want in Syria, the war will end.”

At that point the war in Syria had been going on for about a year and a half. Western media were generally portraying the conflict as opposition groups within Syria fighting against the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad.

That is part of what has happened. But it is not the whole story. In the spring of 2011, many Syrians took to the streets to nonviolently protest their lack of rights and to call for democratic reforms. In part due to the Syrian government’s violent crackdown on protesters, the demonstrations morphed into an armed conflict.

But the conflict was no longer simply between Syrians. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations began to provide financial and military assistance to opposition forces, as did the U.S., although it did not admit this openly at first. Russia, Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah stepped up support for the Syrian government.

In many ways the war in Syria became a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran, and between the U.S. and Russia. All have vested interests, including vying for regional dominance and control of economic resources.

As the war became more complicated, opposition groups began fighting each other. At one point, a militia group supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was fighting against forces supported by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Even now, after seven years of terrible conflict, many Syrians tell MCC staff that they believe the Syrian people could come to a peaceful solution and find a way forward for their country if they had the opportunity to do so without foreign interference.

With the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq in 2014, the U.S., Canada and dozens of other governments formed a “Global Coalition” to defeat the armed group. Canada originally engaged in direct airstrikes, but beginning in 2016 focused on training and assisting Kurdish and, more recently, Iraqi forces. Canada has temporarily suspended this help as a result of infighting between the two. The U.S. military has carried out thousands of airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.

In early 2017 the U.S. acknowledged it had begun sending U.S. troops directly to Syria. U.S. officials indicate that even though ISIS has now lost control of almost all of the land it had seized, U.S. troops — which number at least 2,000 — are likely to remain.

Even now, after seven years of terrible conflict, many Syrians tell MCC staff that they believe the Syrian people could come to a peaceful solution and find a way forward for their country if they had the opportunity to do so without foreign interference.

For me, it has been both humbling and important to recognize the ways in which my own government is involved in the conflict in Syria.

But in order for this to happen, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran and others in the international community will need to put some of their own interests aside and allow Syrian voices to determine the outcome. It will be particularly key that these voices represent the spectrum of Syrian society, including various ethnic and religious groups and women.

On that same trip in 2013, I was helping to distribute MCC school kits and hygiene kits at a school in southern Lebanon that had received many Syrian refugee children. A leader at the school said, “Tell your governments we don’t want arms, we want peace.” On subsequent trips to the region, this message has been repeated to me consistently.

As residents of the U.S. and Canada, we can play a significant role in ending the war in Syria by calling on our governments and others in the international community to end military involvements in the war and to instead support negotiations to reach a diplomatic agreement.

Psalm 34:14 instructs us to “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” For me, it has been both humbling and important to recognize the ways in which my own government is involved in the conflict in Syria. International support for the war has helped fan the flames. After seven long years of devastation and pain, it is time to pursue peace instead. 

As director of the MCC U.S. Washington Office, Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach works to communicate the voices and experiences of MCC staff and partners to legislators in Washington, D.C.

Learn more at washington.mcc.org/Syria-Iraq.

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