A Plea for Negotiations and Nonviolence in Syria

The following article was written by Roula Alkhouri, who recently earned her D.Min. from CRCDS. She has been Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Batavia since November 2007. She moved from Bend, Oregon, where she served for seven years as associate pastor. Roula is the first Syrian woman ordained into ministry. Roula is married to Mike Stuart who is also an ordained Presbyterian minister. Their daughter Sophia is the joy of their lives.

I write with a heavy heart about the conflict in Syria. Even though I grew up in Syria, I have been away from Syria for over 20 years. So, I write about the conflict in Syria with the disclaimer that I am somewhat of an outsider because I no longer reside in Syria and cannot possibly fully appreciate the suffering of the people of Syria right now. Yet my Syrian roots run deep. My parents, my sister, my niece, and most of my extended family still live there. I also feel a need to speak a prophetic word that comes from my Syrian Christian faith and my commitment to following the way of Jesus which I believe is a way of justice through nonviolence and love.

During a time when the United States is pondering military intervention in the conflict in Syria, I think it is important for the American public to consider all the options that are before us. Unfortunately in this debate, whether to use force or not, our government is presenting us with only two options that are extremes. On the one side we are led to believe that military action is the only way to be involved in this conflict. We are also led to believe that it will be limited in scope and will cause minimum damage to the people of Syria.  On the opposite side, our government wants us to feel guilty about not getting involved while innocent people are suffering. We are reminded of the price of inaction during the Holocaust and the violence in Rwanda. What gets overlooked and even forgotten in this kind of debate is the power and need for nonviolent solutions. The role of the United Nations gets diminished with no value being put on partnering with others.

I believe that this was the power of the way of Jesus in the conflicts of his day. He did not succumb to the mentality of violent solutions, nor did he see that a life of passive acceptance of the status quo was the way to go. What Jesus offered was an alternative vision, a way for peace through nonviolent engagement and community building. His vision included both loving the enemy and standing up for justice. These two things did not go against each other in the way of Jesus.

Following the example of Jesus, as we stand on the verge of another bloody war with no end in sight, I pray that our people and our leaders would engage in seeking justice and peace for the people of Syria through negotiations and diplomacy. Being aware of the many conflicted interests that are playing out in Syria today, we as Americans would be making a fatal mistake by supporting through military intervention one side against the other. Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China, Turkey, Hezbollah of Lebanon, and Al-Qaeda have all had a hand in supporting one side or the other in the conflict in Syria. Each of these players has come to this conflict to protect their own agenda on the political scene of the world. A military American intervention would be adding to the problem and not helping it. We are not seen by the Syrian people and by most of the world as objective arbitrators in this conflict.

What is needed is bringing all these different parties and not just the Syrian people together for some serious talks and negotiations. Violence only breeds violence. More death is not the answer. What is needed in the Middle East is a vision for what is possible for the people through working together with their neighbors. Military intervention by the United States would only add to the carnage and would further divide the people of Syria and decrease the level of conflict there.

The majority of the people in Syria do not want the United States to intervene militarily because they know that there is no viable and healthy alternative to the current government. Even though they are aware of the brutality of their government in the face of protest, they have seen and experienced firsthand the brutality of the rebels. What started in March of 2011 as a call to reform through peaceful protests was soon hijacked by militants to overthrow the government and seize power over the people of Syria. The people of Syria know that the rebels are mostly funded by extremists who want to impose conservative Muslim rule on them, much like the Taliban in Afghanistan. Most Syrians, Muslim, Christian, Alawites, and others do not want that type of government. . The majority of the Syrian people would like a secular and democratic government. Until the recent violence, the people of Syria have lived peacefully with each other. They in fact embraced their cultural and religious differences. As a Christian in Syria, I experienced this firsthand. Sectarianism was not part of the social fabric of Syria.

The Syrian people feel used by other countries that are intervening in this conflict to protect their own interests. For them, this is reminiscent of the way the British and the French used the Middle East during the early part of the 20th century as colonies for resources and for political dominance in the world. They are also aware that once the violence escalates to that international level, it would only mean more destruction for them.

Last week, we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. I thought it was ironic that as we celebrated the vision and legacy of a man who believed and lived nonviolence, that we as a country would be contemplating a violent intervention in Syria. Our president while giving a powerful speech about freedom, responsibility, and nonviolence was considering using military force against Syria without the support of the United Nations. The dream which Dr. King had has been accomplished through the power of love, nonviolent resistance, and the transformation of human consciousness. Violence and military interventions are not the way to transformation and healing for the Syrian people. What will make a difference in the long run in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East is the ability for the people and the leaders to work together with their neighbors. What we need is the vision of all the sides that have been supporting and funding this conflict to stop pouring their resources into violence and instead learn to invest in the people of Syria to bring healing and wholeness to them.

The United States can be a leader by sitting together with Iran, Russia, and China for negotiations on this issue. We cannot write people off and bomb countries in hopes of establishing peace. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are too fresh in our minds to believe this myth of violence. What could result from international negotiations is that Russia, Iran, and China would stop sending weapons to the government of Syria. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others would stop funding and arming the rebels. The international community would work together to de-fund organizations like Al-Qaeda. This will de-escalate the violence and will force people to come together for negotiations. If we as a country are not willing to sit down and talk with our “perceived” enemies, how can we expect the Syrians to negotiate among their different factions and foreign enemies?

All of this takes a lot of courage because the way of war and violence has been acceptable as a way of showing power and leadership. Nonviolence, negotiations, and diplomacy are much harder and require humility, diligence, and perseverance. Yet, they are the only ways to bring true peace. As the people of the United States, we need to demand this kind of involvement from our government. We need to speak up for this vision of nonviolence and negotiations. We need to demand that our leaders look at the complexity of the situation to avoid more mistakes in our interventions in the Middle East. We need to warn them to the dangers of military intervention.

I pray that the words of the Apostle Paul will be true for our country’s intervention in Syria “Do not overcome evil with evil, but overcome evil with good.” Roman 12:21