This was the title of a conference, organized in London by the Cambridge-based European Centre for the Study of Extremism, director Dr Makram Khoury-Machool, on 5th and 6th April.
Lord Williams of Oystermouth (formerly Archbishop of Canterbury) gave the keynote address. Other speakers included Lord Eames, formerly Archbishop of Armagh, Congressman D Kucinich of Ohio, the Iranian Ambassador, and Peter Ford, a former British Ambassador to Syria. The Syrian Government Ministers for Tourism and Reconciliation had been invited. I believe they spoke on a video-link, but were unable to come to London, because visas were refused. The veteran journalist, Jonathan Steele, and Vanessa Beeley, an independent journalist who has lived in Syria for many months, also spoke, together with others.
Lord Williams said that all the combatants in Syria should acknowledge their share in the evil so widely done. He found hope in the long history of co-existence and culture. He hoped that an effective ceasefire would allow civil society to rebuild health and education services. The common good should outweigh particular interests, and so protect all minority groups.
Lord Eames spoke from his direct experience of the Northern Ireland peace process, which led to the Belfast Agreement. He underlined the need for trust, even if this means that one must sit down with murderers. Trust has, of course, been notably lacking, as may be seen from several inconclusive rounds of talks in Geneva. He said it is essential to discover who can actually deliver on the ground, in situations of violent conflict. Convincing the militant parties that their interest in peace is greater than their interest in continuing to fight, is often the key.
Vanessa Beeley raised important questions about the White Helmets, who have been so publicized by western media. They have worked only in areas controlled by Al Qaeda and ISIS. They are alleged to have taken part in the burning of two towns and in the killing of some prisoners.
Jonathan Steele confirmed that the Syrian Government has a broad basis of support and now controls some 75% of the inhabited land. He mentioned the large silent majority, who long for the return of peace, if they haven’t already left Syria. He criticized western media for failing to report the large number of foreign fighters and the quantities of arms and explosives sent by outside powers, mainly to the insurgents. The Iranian Ambassador said he could see no military solution to the war in Syria.
My conclusion was that a complex internal situation has been made vastly more difficult by outside intervention. This has come from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Turkey, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Russia and most recently the USA, not to speak of jihadis from around the world. Western powers have steadily demanded that the Assad family leave power, but why should they do so when they are winning?
I hope the conference has dispelled some misapprehensions, and encouraged all concerned to work harder for the degree of peace necessary, to enable reconstruction to start and refugees and displaced people to return home.