Faithful Witness Amid the War in Syria

Berry fby Berry Friesen

As Mennonites, we are taught by our pastors and teachers that war does not solve problems, it makes them worse.

This teaching is rooted primarily in the way of Jesus—what he said, what he did, what followed from his death. But it isn’t meant to be only a religious belief; it is part of the wisdom of God for the salvation of the world.

At the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City, the delegates adopted a resolution on Faithful Witness Amid Endless War. It describes war as “the new normal” in the United States; because it has become routine, it is accepted without much debate or reflection. In such an environment, our peace witness can become idiosyncratic, without relevance to neighbors and friends.

The resolution encourages congregations to nurture an effective peace witness through attention to three facets of war’s normalization. Using the war in Syria as our context, we will consider how each of those three facets plays out.

(a) Our society’s belief in the moral necessity of violence.

We are told that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad started the war by using extreme violence to suppress peaceful, public demonstrations seeking government reform. We also are told that Assad is brutal and has used sarin gas to kill children.

Portraying Assad as a brute is meant to justify war; it shows that moral people must do something.

What we are not told is that an outside force with weapons participated in those “peaceful, public demonstrations,” killing many policemen, soldiers and innocent bystanders.

What we are not told is that several rebels groups also had supplies of sarin gas and that it is likely one of those groups launched the gas attack from a rebel-held area.

What we are not told is that most of the fighters attacking the Syrian government are mercenaries from outside of Syria. They come in the thousands from North Africa, Europe, Turkey, Iraq, the Gulf States, Russia, Central Asia, even China. Syria is truly under attack from outside forces.

In short, war entails a moral assessment. It’s important that it be made with accurate information.

(b) Our government’s undisclosed purposes in “security efforts.”

For starters, it’s important to note that the US adopted a plan in 2006 to get rid of Syria’s president. Even the strategy—attacks by radical Islamic fighters—was decided upon then.

The US government followed up with specific actions to promote war in Syria, including the shipment of heavy arms from Libya into Syria following the violent overthrow of the Libyan government.

Next, it’s important to acknowledge that the US government has no authority under international law to support those trying to overthrow the Syrian government. There is no United Nations resolution, no threat to the US, no congressional declaration of war. What the US government is doing in Syria is illegal.

Let’s acknowledge that nearly all of the so-called “moderates” trained by the US and nearly all of the arms supplied by the US have ended up in units controlled by al-Qaeda. These “moderates” would typically be called “terrorists,” but because the US government wants them to win the war, it calls them “rebels” instead. And it complains when Russia attacks them.

Also, let’s recognize how odd and contradictory the US response to the Islamic State has been.

It sometimes bombs the Islamic State, but it also is in an alliance with nations (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar) that openly and actively support the Islamic State. The US attacks on the Islamic State have been feeble; we know this as we observe the much more vigorous attacks by Russia.

Though videos of Islamic State atrocities and victory parades are often featured by US media, the US military seems helpless to prevent those atrocities and parades from occurring in the first place. And though US leaders insist the Islamic State is a dire threat to the world, they consistently give higher priority to getting rid of Syrian President Assad than to defeating the Islamic State.

Indeed, were the US to impose a no-fly zone across northern Syria along the border with Turkey, one of the significant consequences would be that supply lines to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State would remain open. Yet such a no-fly zone remains a popular option among US political leaders.

Not to be forgotten is the fact that in the spring of 2012, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed a six-point peace plan for Syria that included a cease fire, an end to the rearmament of the combatants, and the formation of a new government in Syria. The Obama Administration blocked the plan by insisting Assad had to resign before the plan could be implemented.

Now, three-and-one-half years and nearly 200,000 deaths later, the war continues and the Obama Administration still insists Assad must quit before the US will stop arming the “rebels.” It is Russia that is promoting the Annan peace plan, not the US.

There’s a lot wrong with this picture.

(c) Our own secret sympathies with “security operations.”

What makes us more distressed—Russia’s entry into the war at Syria’s invitation, or the leading role the US has played in fomenting this war?

What makes us more distressed—the US invasion of Iraq under a Republican president or the US orchestration of an invasion of Syria under a Democrat president?

Does our compassion for refugees include the eleven million displaced within Syria, living under the protection of President Assad? Or does it extend only to the four million who have fled Syria?

The feelings we have in response to these questions may be shared by our neighbors. Might that be a place where a conversation about the war could start?

Recently, in the pages of the New York Times, former US president Jimmy Carter offered a suggestion that brings this all into perspective: “The needed concessions are not from the combatants in Syria, but from the proud nations that claim to want peace, but refuse to cooperate with one another. “ It was clear call on the US government to change direction.

Carter’s words are a faithful witness, I believe, and their relevance can be grasped by one and all. Though we are not likely to be published by the New York Times, we can say similar things to our neighbors and friends. Let us begin!

Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. His blog at has included several discussions of the war in Syria.


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