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World must tend to Syria’s refugees by making peace

By Patricia Sellick and Kerri Kennedy

Imagine you had to leave your home indefinitely. Which family members would go with you?  What precious reminders of home could you carry if you had to run? What would you be most reluctant to leave behind? One in two Syrians has faced this bleak reality and has had to struggle with these questions.

Almost half of the population of Syria have fled their homes. Some have moved within the country; others have crossed the borders to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. By the end of 2013, refugees from Syria were the largest refugee population in the world registered with UNHCR.

On this World Refugee Day, we owe it to them to support peace efforts and to shift funds away from military training and weapons to increase humanitarian aid and intensify diplomacy. 

After Lakhdar Brahimi resigned as the UN Peace Envoy to Syria in May he said “on all sides, people still help the war effort instead of the peace effort, and it is making things worse.”  So who does one help, if one wants to help the peace effort?

There are many noble individuals and communities waging peace within Syria, against the odds and with scant support. 

The peace effort is among the inhabitants of Sweida in the south west of Syria close to the border with Jordan, who have found a way to accept people seeking shelter in their region. When Sunni Muslims displaced from their homes elsewhere in Syria sought refuge in Sweida, a primarily Druze community, bad feeling developed between the host community and the newcomers who were seen as a burden.

Then community leaders came together to resolve their problems. Pressure on the only bakery was eased by inviting the bakers among the newcomers to bake their large round flat breads during a night shift. Pressure on the school was relieved by arranging for the teachers to teach the children from their community during a second shift.

Across the region the peace effort is also represented by Lebanese and Jordanians who have opened their homes to Syrian refugees and are sharing ever dwindling resources.

Tragically, the peace effort is being undercut and undermined by the armed groups that hold communities under siege and use food as a weapon, and by those who profit from the rocketing cost of foodstuffs, heating oil, and rents. Private and public assets are being pillaged and stolen by organized criminal networks. Those getting rich from these activities have plenty of incentives to continue to support and sustain the armed conflict. Worse, the institutionalization of large-scale weapons trade and smuggling is expanding as more and more armaments are being channelled into the war. U.S. arms destined for Libya have ended up in Syria, and the same is true of arms provided to Iraq.

It does not help that the international community and policy makers have lacked the imagination and commitment to explore political and diplomatic solutions to the war.

That is why we at the American Friends Service Committee are urging you to stand for peace. Contact Congress and the Obama Administration and insist on an end to arms sales and all forms of military assistance to the region and instead support the peace efforts.  

The courage of a child in Syria who makes the hazardous journey to school should be met by an equally courageous act by the U.S. government – the courage to champion international efforts to end the war, in cooperation with all other members of the UN Security Council, including Russia and China.

If the young generation see that the rights and wrongs of this war are decided at the negotiating table, through elections and by Syrian courts, rather than on the battlefield, they will have a vital example before them.

They will know that there is a path away from war. And thus they will be heartened to take on the formidable task of returning home and rising above divides of religion and ethnicity to make Syria a safe and peaceful home for all its people.