The following article, contributed by Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International, and published in the September-October 2012 NewsNotes, is based on a longer piece written for the Center of Concern’s Education for Justice program.

Since March 2011, Syria has been embroiled in an escalating and increasingly dangerous conflict that began as a powerful, creative and nonviolent uprising during the Arab Spring. Christians, who have been in Syria since the beginning of Christianity, have long been engaged in the struggle there for freedom and dignity. While there is no one unified “Christian” voice or opinion about how to achieve a just, peaceful, democratic and reconciled Syria, many have played a thoughtful and active role since the beginning of this revolution.

Every day, for months, Syrians have protested in the streets, participated in general strikes and engaged in symbolic actions. Many of the protesters came from the Syrian poor and middle classes that were marginalized politically and economically by the Syrian regime. Their demands for freedom, dignity, and economic justice, for the release of political prisoners and an end to emergency rule were quickly met with violence and increased repression, as Syrian security forces waged war on their own people. While many in the opposition continued the nonviolent struggle – even trying to negotiate with the government, and ultimately trying to depose nonviolently President Bashar al-Assad – others took up arms.

Throughout, according to the independent, non-governmental organization International Crisis Group, a “vibrant, courageous and resilient civil society” mobilized networks and “kept in check some of the worst forms of violence to which any armed opposition operating in a poisonous environment might have resorted.”

Since July 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which includes many government army defectors in small groups under local leadership, has been the main armed opposition group operating in Syria. An opposition government in exile, the Syrian National Council (SNC), was formed of Diaspora Syrians (old opposition) and political activists who had recently left Syria, but its relationship to the FSA and legitimacy inside Syria are complicated. It also differs substantially on key issues from the National Coordinating Committee (NCC) a main political opposition bloc inside Syria. 

Youth activists – in many ways the backbone of the revolution – organized themselves at first into small local committees to document and publicize the uprisings. Over time, they formed a web of commissions, councils, and unions formally grouped around three coalitions: the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), the Ghad alliance (including the Local Coordinating Committees or LCCs), and the Higher Council of the Syrian Revolution (see Randa Slim, Middle East Institute).

As the violence escalated and spread, tens of thousands of Syrians fled or were forced from their homes. According to the UN, over 140,000 are internally displaced or in refuge in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Iraqi refugees who have been living in Damascus found themselves once again caught in the middle of a war.

The role of the international community in response to the uprising has been complicated by geopolitical interests, plagued by disinformation and, to date, ineffective. Sanctions, UN resolutions, efforts of the Arab League to broker a ceasefire and UN envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan have been thwarted. Meanwhile, Russia continues to arm and supply the Syrian government, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Turkey’s logistical help, are arming the rebels, and other countries, including the United States, are providing them with other forms of support.

It is easier to say what should not be done in relation to the crisis in Syria than to identify what should be done. With members in the region, Pax Christi International has been following the course of the revolution with great care, believing that violence is not the answer. To further arm the opposition in response to arming of the Syrian government or to intervene with military force would be to move in the wrong direction and risk igniting the region in a protracted and widespread war.

But nonviolence cannot be passive about injustice or evil and the “responsibility to protect,” as stipulated in the Outcome Document of the 2005 UN World Summit, says that the international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing if their own government fails to do so.

How is the question, when nations of the world have invested enormous wealth developing capacity for military action but have almost completely failed to develop tools for nonviolent intervention in situations of egregious human rights violations.

Some possibilities include strong support for the sectors of Syrian society committed to active nonviolence; maintaining diplomatic presence in Syria; expanding the presence of human rights observers and the documentation/ publication of human rights violations; engaging all relevant actors in ending the violence and promoting a political solution; tightening sanctions if they are specifically targeting leading figures in the Syrian regime and do not harm vulnerable people, including those who are displaced and Iraqi refugees in Syria; supporting neighboring countries to ensure that they are willing and able to welcome and shelter refugees; supporting the International Committee of the Red Cross/Crescent to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches affected communities; and withdrawing investment from companies supplying Syrian security forces.