“You can’t bend the wind.”
This was the proverb that Kofi Annan cited in his meeting with Bashar al-Assad in 2011, advising the president of the Arab Republic of Syria that the popular movements that had brought changes across the Middle East would inevitably also bring change to Syria.
Two years later, the U.N. assessed that, since fighting began in March 2011 between the Syrian government and opposition groups seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad, as many as 100,000 people have been killed, almost 2 million have fled to neighboring countries, and a further 5 million have been internally displaced.
In addition, at least 6.8 million Syrians, half of who are children, require urgent humanitarian assistance.
The wind now appears to be blowing steadily behind the militarized parties,with the risk of creating a proxy war in which both regional and international powers are engaged.
The Syrian government has without doubt conducted deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate airstrikes and other attacks on civilians and used cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.
Armed opposition groups have also committed their share of indiscriminate shelling and serious abuses against suspected government supporters.
In the midst of this death, destruction, and displacement, there are still Syrians striving to maintain the fabric of their society, including the network that the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is supporting.
United by a common belief in the power of nonviolence to bring about an inclusive community, the network includes people who oppose the regime and those who support it.
Through local initiatives, they are working for a Syrian society in which all Syrians can co-exist safely and peacefully.
Already, they are mediating for the return of people kidnapped locally to their families.
For displaced people or those who are now refugees in other countries, they are documenting property titles.
And they are working with teachers to encourage schools to be inclusive of children of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
The project is based on painstaking analysis of the causes of conflict at a local level, and this is one of the elements that ensure that it will do no harm—and may be doing good.
The network’s members are aware that the roots of the conflict are deep, with previous land allocation practices by the state along sectarian lines influencing how the national conflict is expressed in different communities.
They are aware, too, that every time a traditional leader tries to assume a mediation role and fails, his or her authority is undermined. They are aware as well that the new media can help increase communication across dividing lines, and also fuel prejudices.
The members are cautious. They have expressed fears that, “If the group digs in the ashes, they might start a fire that could get out of control. We have to be expert firefighters; you cannot put out an old fire by starting a new one.”