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OSMTH-I on Christian Crisis in Syria, Egypt with refugee needs in Jordon, Turkey & Iraq
Syria: Building National Reconciliation and Collaboration Among Diverse Civil Society Leaders


The Original Vision

The International Center For Religion and Diplomacy was funded by the U.S. State Department through IREX to conduct three targeted Faith-Based Reconciliation programs focused on the ever-worsening conflict in Syria.

1.     A program conducted among key Arab tribal leaders from various tribes.

2.     A program conducted for key Kurdish and Arab tribal leaders from the Al-Hassake region.

3.     A program conducted for key members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood with key opposition groups: Alawite, Christian, Druze, Kurds, Seculars.

Evolution of the Syrian Conflict

Since the time that the grant proposal was submitted and it was approved and funded by IREX, the Syrian conflict has changed dramatically in a number of ways:

1.     What began as a revolution has now morphed into a complex civil war.  Even the opposition is fragmented and represents a variety of interests, not all of which are friendly to U.S. interests in the region.

2.     The Syrian National Council has become increasingly fragmented and has lost much of its credibility with U.S. and EU diplomats.  It has been reorganized several times in an attempt to keep some form of unified opposition to the Assad regime.  Many SNC members have lived outside of Syria for decades and have little moral authority with the internal population or the rebels.

3.     The Assad regime at first appeared to be on its way out and now appears to have gotten a second wind owing to military assistance from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

4.     The Geneva Peace Conference will attempt to arrive at some kind of negotiated settlement.  Does this involve reform of the Assad regime or transition to a new political structure?

5.     The Kurds in Iraq are sensing a historic opportunity to extend their influence into the Al-Hassake region of Syria which is 65 percent Kurdish and which many Kurdish leaders refer to as Western Kurdistan.  The conflict between the Kurdish Democratic Party (Barzani) and the PYD (the Syrian PKK of Ocalan) which resulted in the border closure was the opening salvo in a struggle for control of the Al-Hassake region.

6.     Knowledgeable political leaders on all sides of the conflict agree that if the Assad regime falls that the real conflict will then begin in a chaotic struggle for power among key groups in Syria supported by outside players.  The analogy to Yugoslavia of the 1990’s is on the lips of many senior level leaders.

7.     Regardless of what happens to the Assad regime, the Al-Hassake region is presenting an historic opportunity to stabilize one major region of Syria.  Leaders from inside the Al-Hassake region as well as the Kurdish Regional Government all have a vested interest in stabilizing the region.  They are prepared to work with ICRD toward this end.

8.     Stabilizing the region is defined by indigenous leaders as forging a new social contract between Kurds and Syriac Christians of Al-Hassake region.  From this foundational building block to bring them together with Arab Bedouin tribal leaders from inside the Al-Hassake region to problem solve about political and security issues.

9.     Kurdish and Syriac Christian leaders from the Al-Hassake region are only too aware that under the Assad regime they have been pitted against each other.  Hence, it was their idea to forge a new social contract between them.  They have strongly encouraged ICRD to work with leaders from inside Al-Hassake region and not with SNC leaders who have spent decades living in Europe or America.

10.       The Kurdish Democratic Party is cooperating with the United States, Turkey and EU.  The PYD is cooperating with PKK, the Assad regime and Iran.  Hence, the dynamics within the Al-Hassake region could involve a major intra-Kurdish conflict.

11.       The conflict in Syria may well mark the beginning of a major sustained Sunni/Shia conflict through the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and South Asia.

Hence, given the many changes in the Syrian conflict in recent months together with the opportunities that are presenting themselves representing the potential for systemic change, it is important for ICRD to modify its strategy.  This was the reason for modifying our focus for the first Faith-Based Reconciliation program to involve Kurdish and Syriac Christian leaders from Al-Hassake region conducted in Erbil, Iraq.

The First Faith-Based Reconciliation Program

The ICRD Team arrived in Erbil, Iraq on May 20, 2013.  The team was composed of Brian Cox (USA) (Project Leader), Bassam Ishak (Syria) (ICRD Senior Associate), Chander & Kanta Khanna (India) (Prayer & Fasting Team), Dana Moldovan (Romania) (Logistics) and Alia Ismail (Lebanon) (Facilitation and Translation of Conference Documents).

The nature of the first program was to conduct a Faith-Based Reconciliation workshop for 30 Kurdish and Syriac Christian leaders from Al-Hassake region of Syria as a vehicle for softening hearts, engaging in constructive joint problem solving and forging a new social contract towards creating a future together in the Al-Hassake region.

The tangible deliverable from the workshop would be a written and signed social contract that would be publicized on the internet as a means of both creating movement in the conflict as well as influencing the thinking of other major players in the conflict.  In addition, we were intending widespread distribution of the social contract within the Al-Hassake region as a means of fostering a public conversation about the future of Kurds and Syriac Christians in the region.  The framework of the social contract was created by Brian Cox and reviewed and revised by Bassam Ishak.  It was expected that during the workshop the details would be filled in from the work of the small groups.  Hence, Kurdish and Syriac Christian leaders would be using the framework to forge their own social contract.

When we arrived in Erbil we learned that the border had been closed that day between Syria and Iraq on both sides of the border.  The PYD had arrested 80 Kurdish (Democratic Party) leaders in Syria and closed the Syrian side of the border.  In response, the Kurdish Regional Government closed the Iraqi side of the border.  Hence, our delegates from Syria would not be able to come to Erbil owing to a larger geopolitical intra-Kurdish conflict.

Faced with a situation wherein ICRD would be unable to conduct its planned program owing to a larger conflict beyond our ability to control, we were faced with two options.  Option One was to cut our losses and return home.  Option Two was to demonstrate spiritual and political resolve by remaining at the Erbil International hotel and engaging in prayer and fasting and negotiation.  Over the course of the next four days were negotiated with the Kurdish government, the two major Kurdish political parties and the Syriac Union Party to seek some possibility to bring our Syrian delegates to Erbil.  Our initial efforts focused on getting both the Syrian and Iraqi sides of the border to at least allow our delegates to cross.  The PYD on the Syrian side agreed to this arrangement.  However, the Kurdish Regional Government, out of a desire to punish PYD for the arrests, refused to open the border.

Our second efforts focused on bringing the Syrian delegates to Erbil via Turkey.  The President’s office was cooperating with us in getting the names of the delegates to the border.  Unfortunately, owing to the weekend and Kurdish bureaucracy the names would not make it to the border in time to arrive in Erbil and conduct any meaningful program.  We abandoned this effort.

Our third effort focused on bringing the Syrian delegates to Erbil directly from Syria in an unofficial manner that would allow the Kurdish government to save face with the PYD.  The government and all the political parties were working with us toward this end.  At the last minute we learned that leaders from the SNC were opposing this effort by reminding the Kurdish government that a commitment had been made to the SNC that they would be allowed to organize the first such conference that would be much larger than our workshop.

On May 25 we came to the conclusion that the ICRD program was not going to move ahead at this time.  Bassam Ishak and I met with Dr. Hakim (leader of the Kurdish Democratic party) and Dr. Hamid Darbandi (President Barzani’s Ambassador to the Syrian Opposition).  Both assured us that the Kurdish government strongly supported ICRD’s efforts.  Both actually proposed modified strategies that they felt would strengthen the impact of our program.  Dr. Hamid actually took us to the Darin Hotel Plaza, a new hotel, and introduced us to the manager and procured the government’s discounted rate for us.  Both encouraged us to explore Mardin or Midyat in Turkey as a fallback position and indicated they would support ICRD’s program regardless of whether it was in Erbil or Mardin/Midyat.  Dr. Hamid offered to arrange a meeting for Bassam and me with President Barzani on a future visit.  Both leaders strongly encouraged ICRD to do two back-to-back conferences.  The first program would stick to the original plan.  The second program would include Arab Bedouin tribal leaders and focus on problem solving about political and security issues in the Al-Hassake region.

The key to grasp here is that ICRD’s basic strategy has been confirmed by the senior/civil/and grassroots leaders.  They have made suggestions for modification so as to create a wider impact by our efforts.  When the Faith-Based Reconciliation process is described to them, they grasp that it is qualitatively different from non-faith-based conflict resolution initiatives and understand that it resonates better with the whole culture of the Middle East.

The ICRD Team departed from Erbil on May 26.  Bassam Ishak and I flew to Istanbul with the intention of traveling the next day to Mardin and Midyat in Eastern Turkey near the Syrian and Iraqi borders.  The leader of the Syriac Union Party arranged the logistics for our trip.  We had three objectives for the trip.  The first objective was to find an appropriate and reasonably priced hotel for our programs.  The second objective was to make contact with Syriac Christian refugees in Midyat.  The third objective was to make initial contact with Turkish security services so as to create awareness and support for our efforts should we settle on Mardin/Midyat as a better venue than Erbil.  Both Bassam and I are feeling cautious about putting all of our eggs in one basket after our experience this time in Erbil.

Regarding hotels, we looked at four different establishments.  Two had no conference facilities or capabilities and we eliminated them from consideration.  One was advertised as a five star hotel, but probably deserved one or two stars at best.  (ask Doug Johnston about the Green Nile Hotel in Khartoum)  As a test Bassam and I stayed overnight at this hotel.  The next morning at breakfast we both had concluded it was not appropriate for our needs (noise, poor service and food, unattractive conference facilities).  However, in Midyat we discovered a priceless treasure in the form of the Kasr –I Nehroz Hotel.  The spiritual environment as well as the affordable prices are a compelling reason to hold the two back-to-back conferences in Midyat, Turkey.  It is accessible from both Syria and Iraq.

Regarding Syriac Christian refugees we visited two of the monasteries that were sheltering refugees.  We were allowed to speak to the refugees which gave us a better grassroots understanding of the facts on the ground in Al-Hassake region.

Regarding the Turkish security services, Bassam and I have learned from our experience as veteran faith-based diplomats that no intelligence service wants to hear about a sensitive meeting in their jurisdiction by word of mouth.  It is better that they become aware of and understand our purposes directly from us.  Toward that end we met with the Secretary of the Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Mardin over lunch.  He grasped the importance of our initiative and appreciated our sensitivity to the Turkish intelligence concerns.  He promised to work with us and open conversation with Turkish intelligence about ICRD’s initiative.


Ironically our inability to conduct the ICRD workshop in Erbil due to the border closure created an impact for beyond the prospective 30 Syrian Kurdish and Syriac Christian leaders from Al-Hassake.  ICRD’s presence in Erbil and our spiritual and political resolve enabled us to impact the government, political parties and media at the highest levels.  Our message of Faith-Based Reconciliation and ICRD’s efforts to empower Kurdish and Syriac Christians in the Al-Hassake region have become known and is being studied to understand our true intent and purposes.  We are now in an even stronger position to bring systemic change to the hearts of people and to the dynamics of political community in the region.

Our next step is to conduct two back-to-back conferences July 19 – 26 either in Erbil, Iraq or Midyat, Turkey.  The first conference will involve 30 Syrian Kurdish and Syriac Christian leaders from Al-Hassake region utilizing the Faith-Based Reconciliation process to forge a new social contract.  The second conference will include 10 Syrian Kurds and 10 Syriac Christians from the first conference with 10 Arab Bedouin tribal leaders to utilize the Faith-Based Reconciliation process to focus on political and security issues in Al-Hassake region.

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