Signs of Hope in Syria: The Revolutionary Potential of Religious Engagement

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By ICRD Intern Nicole Patierno

Despite the appalling butchery and surprising staying power of ISIS, it is important not to mythologize the activity of the so-called Islamic State. Though 2015 marked the fourth year of brutal civil conflict in Syria, Western media attention has remained fixated on the every move of al-Baghdadi’s extremist experiment. Meanwhile, on-the-ground efforts to cultivate coexistence and pluralism go undetected and underreported. The following commentary seeks to provide a spotlight on recent developments of cooperation between religious minorities in the region, and how these developments provide hope for the country’s future.

Prior to the 2011 Syrian uprising, the nation was composed of a complex and disjointed mosaic of geographic, ethnic, and religious identities. Though tension between the various groups at times erupted into open aggression, coexistence and even partnership have often characterized Syria’s internal relations. Even during the height of the protests in 2011, demonstrators chanted passionately for cross-sectarian unity. Regrettably, the corruption and disintegration of state authority, and the scapegoat targeting of communities that were previously allied with the regime divided the once united factions back into more parochial identity groups. The space that has been carved between these groups – originated by ancient rivalries and aggravated by contemporary clashing – must be mediated; relationships must be reconciled.

The Al-Hassake governorate in Northeast Syria is composed primarily of Assyrian Christians and Kurds, with Arab Sunni, Armenian, and Alawite minorities. Afflicted by both in-fighting among rebel forces and sporadic onslaughts from ISIS, this region has slipped from the control of the central government. As power has shifted to local governance, a number of notable developments have taken shape across Al-Hassake. In the town of Derik for example, a collection of Christians has banded together to form “Sutoro”, an explicitly Christian police force. This martial unit works together with the Kurdish police and militia to address the security needs of all those living in the region. This alliance is not trivial. Historically, the government privileged the Christians in this region while routinely discriminating against the Kurds. This new cross-confessional bridge indicates loyalty to the vision of a more equal and plural Syrian society. Though this new relationship inevitably has pragmatic dimensions, the impetus to maintain basic security may fashion lasting and meaningful partnerships.

Yet another striking alliance recently manifested in Al-Hassake, as the Kurdish majority power appointed Humaydi Dahmam al-Assi al-Jarba, a member of the Arab Shammar tribe, to serve as co-governor of the province. Again, this appointment indicates a turn from ethno-national supremacy to a vision of inclusive democracy; a critical bid in stemming the sectarian dimensions of the greater conflict in Syria.

These formal partnerships prepare the ground for the inter-group cooperation and reconciliation that will be necessary to stabilize Syria, but that earth must be tilled. Informal, local leaders must respond to these official partnerships by working with groups to mediate the grievances and objectives of their disparate communities. The chaos wrought through civil war must be thwarted by enhancing governance capabilities at the local level.

Perhaps best suited to this endeavor are religious leaders, who are equipped with the authority, influence, and networks of assemblies necessary to facilitate the building of relationships across ethnic, confessional, and geographic divides. To this end, ICRD has been actively engaged in facilitating reconciliation within Al-Hassake. Implementing faith-based reconciliation methodologies, community leaders from various sectors have participated in strategic seminars to mediate past hostilities between their communities, and to construct joint solutions to resolve the larger civil conflict. These meetings have yielded historic social contracts between disparate religious and ethnic communities. Participants representing Syriac Christians, Kurds, Sunnis, and Alawites have committed to a new paradigm of peaceful coexistence, and are actively working to translate this commitment into a new reality in spite of the chaos that reigns about them.

Though the villainy of ISIS poses an immediate and menacing threat in the region, its development must be viewed as a side effect of the Syrian regime; a regime whose divisive politics have ceaselessly fragmented the Syrian community. Syria, and those that value her liberation from ruin, must work to actively stitch together the divided groups into a transformed and united multi-religious and democratic nation.

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