Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

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Syria: Challenging, complex, glimmers of hope

The following piece was contributed by Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International; the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns is a member of Pax Christi International. The article appeared in the January-February 2014 NewsNotes.

Photo of Syrian refugee children from IHH Insani Yardim Vakfi Turkey.

According to the UN, after almost three years of conflict, Syria is on the verge of reversing decades of economic and human development; three million people are unemployed; and one of the harshest winters on record has dumped snow, rain and freezing temperatures on vulnerable Syrians. Many have been imprisoned for no apparent reason, kidnappings are common and brutal violence – most recently involving explosive barrels – continues to devastate civilian communities.

On January 22 the Geneva II conference will launch what is expected to be a long process of dialogue, hopefully leading to a just peace in Syria. Syrian government and opposition representatives will be joined by the United Nations, Britain, the U.S., Russia, France and China (the P5), the Secretary General of the League of Arab States, the High Representative of the European Union, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and 25 other countries. Whether Iran will participate was still to be determined at the time of this writing. The main objective of the negotiations is to implement the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012.

In a recent statement, Pax Christi International urged the international community, primarily through the United Nations, to provide the necessary infrastructure, mediation and a timetable to facilitate the process of negotiations, but insisted that Syrians themselves should be the main actors. Syrian civil society committed to nonviolence and women in particular should be consulted prior to and during the negotiations and should monitor the implementation of any agreements.

The route to peace in Syria will require construction of a sustainable and inclusive political framework that upholds the rights and honors the diversity of all Syrians, regardless of ethnic or religious background or gender, and a just process to ascertain accountability for war crimes or crimes against humanity committed by any party to the conflict.

"Negotiations will be difficult, but without them, there is only bloodshed and despair on the horizon. I count on those with influence to encourage the Syrian parties to come to the Conference with the serious intention to end the war and agree on a peaceful transition." (UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, Dec. 23, 2013)

Pax Christi International has proposed a follow-up conference on security cooperation and other critical issues, including the creation of a Middle East "weapons of mass destruction-free" zone. Such a conference should involve all nations affected by the Syrian conflict.

Responding to the Syrian people’s suffering, Pax Christi International also called for full humanitarian access to those in need in Syria. Pax Christi urged international donors to honor and even increase their commitments of foreign aid for countries in the region hosting millions of Syrian refugees and to remove legal barriers to those seeking a safe haven in Europe or elsewhere.

In addition to 2.8 million refugees, most of whom are in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, more than 6.5 million Syrians are displaced internally. Many have been displaced multiple times and are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. On December 16, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) launched the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) 2014. As the coordinated response within Syria, the plan aims to meet the humanitarian needs of 9.3 million people, at a cost of US$2.3 billion.

According to IKV Pax Christi Netherlands staff in the region, the starvation of civilians in besieged areas – explicitly prohibited in Article 54 of the Fourth Geneva Convention – is being used as a method of warfare. In this context, IKV Pax Christi Netherlands issued a policy brief on Syria entitled "Starvation as a weapon," putting forward recommendations that urge the UN Security Council to support a resolution that explicitly condemns the use of starvation as a weapon; that confirms the rights of civilians to have access to humanitarian aid; and that opens all humanitarian corridors to allow access to the besieged civilian population. The International Criminal Court should start a preparatory study to examine intentional and planned starvation to determine whether war crimes (and by whom) have been committed.

IKV Pax Christi Netherlands also urged the international community to examine again with Russia and Iran the prospects of an UN arms embargo on all parties in Syria; to insist that Syria’s neighboring countries cut off the supply of weapons, fighters and money flowing to jihadist groups; and to continue strong condemnation of the use of internationally banned landmines and cluster munitions as well as the targeted use of explosive weapons on schools, hospitals and other populated areas.

Faith in action:

Write Secretary of State Kerry; urge the U.S. to support a UN arms embargo on all parties in Syria; to fully support negotiations toward a just peace; and to back a "weapons of mass destruction-free" zone in the Middle East.

Suggested text for a letter:

Dear Secretary of State Kerry,

As you know well, the humanitarian crisis in Syria and for Syrians in neighboring countries is extremely serious. The Geneva II peace conference scheduled for January 22 offers a glimmer of hope that a negotiated end to the war is possible, but the road to peace will be long and difficult.

I am grateful that the United States is playing a positive role in support of negotiations and hope you will continue to work with the Russian Federation and other nations to ensure that all parties to the conflict participate in Geneva II and honor any commitments made during the negotiations. I am particularly concerned that civil society organizations committed to nonviolence and Syrian women be involved in the process.

In support of efforts to end the violence, which is increasingly vicious and complex, I urge the United States to support a UN arms embargo on all parties in Syria and, in the longer term, to back a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East.

Thank you.


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