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.
A program conducted among key
Arab tribal leaders from various tribes.
A program conducted for key
Kurdish and Arab tribal leaders from the Al-Hassake region.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
First Faith-Based Reconciliation Program
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.