Media narrative that Syria is a hopeless debacle ignores helpful non-violent steps US can take


Secretary of State John Kerry testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing concerning the 2015 international affairs budget, on Capitol Hill, April 7, 2014 in Washington, DC.


Drew Angerer

WASHINGTON — Syria is a mess, a hopeless, sectarian debacle. There are no good options, only the choice between two evils: the repressive regime that murders its own people and jihadist fanatics that want to establish a pure Islamic state.

This is the dominant media narrative and it could not be further from the truth.

There is another choice. Her name is Natalia. Living in Homs, every morning she takes her own life in her hands to deliver life-saving food, water and medical supplies to towns under siege from Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime.

Natalia believes in democracy, human and civil rights and legal protection for minorities.

I met Natalia during a recent trip to southern Turkey. I also met dozens of other Syrian activists, teachers, engineers, and humanitarian workers.

They are good-hearted men, women, Sunnis, Alawites and Christians that spend their days delivering humanitarian aid, nursing barrel-bomb victims back to health, rebuilding and maintaining essential Syrian infrastructure, planting the seeds of a vibrant civil society, and educating the well over one million displaced children.

Like Natalia, they are attempting to lay the groundwork for a peaceful, pluralistic, and healthy Syria once Assad falls. These moderate voices rarely reach American eyes and ears, but they are exactly the people the US should be empowering.

There are three ways the US can empower Natalia and the moderate opposition, even as the Washington foreign policy establishment continues to seek a negotiated settlement.

First, vastly expand conflict resolution and human rights training for Syrian activists, civil society, local leaders, and opposition fighters both inside and outside of Syria.

One such course that Natalia took was financed by the British government. It taught her the basics in international law and how to protect human rights in conflict.

Natalia stressed that the courses were indispensable, but believes that many more are needed. Additional training in protection and treatment of religious and ethnic minorities will give the Syrian opposition more credibility in the eyes of the international community and build trust among Sunnis, Alawites, Christians and Kurds.

And offering courses to religious and tribal leaders can kick start the healing process.

Second, Syrian children need education. While running music workshops at a Syrian refugee school as part of Project Amal Ou Salam, a project of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, I was struck by the detrimental impact of lingering trauma on the comprehension of the students.

Nine and 10-year-olds had difficulty mimicking a simple drumbeat. If these were the privileged few Syrian children now in school, how troubled are the remaining child refugees, a majority of whom haven't been in a classroom since the war started over three years ago?

As civil war drags on, the number of uneducated Syrians will multiply. When the fighting ends, Syria will need an educated workforce to rebuild. Knowledge combats the extremism that so many Americans fear. More funding for teachers and textbooks can make this possible; the US should lead an international effort to plug that funding gap.

Third, the US and the international community must increase and diversify its humanitarian aid. They must overcome the regime's power to stop shipments of food, water and medical supplies from reaching rebel-held cities, using starvation as a weapon and killing hundreds.

Without courageous Syrians like Natalia risking their lives to deliver aid into these areas, hundred more would die.

Increasing humanitarian aid isn't enough; the international community also needs to think creatively about delivery. Airdrops of food and medical supplies into besieged cities should be tried.

While the Obama administration continues to mull over whether to provide additional lethal arms to the moderate opposition, there remain creative, non-violent steps the US could take without firing a missile or putting a single American life in danger.

Andrew Overton is a graduate student at American University studying international relations with a focus in human rights and US foreign policy. He recently returned from a class trip across Turkey where he studied the Syrian conflict.