The Syrian crisis is a seminal moment in history, requiring the international community to take stock of how it responds to such conflicts.
I explained previously how Syria is the defining humanitarian aid crisis of our time and how it is not another war.
Here, I share two final observations about the conflict:
1. Since the 2003 Iraq war, international humanitarian law and the rules of war have almost ceased to be a consideration by combatants in the region.
With the Syrian conflict, simple issues of humanitarian access, humanitarian space, protection of humanitarian workers, of civilians and non-combatants, protection of places of religious worship and hospitals, the issue of conditionality of aid and so much more are ignored by all parties in the conflict.
The rules of war – the Geneva Conventions – were drafted to mitigate the human impact in wars fought between nation states.
All the conflicts today are either between non-state actors, or between a government and a non-state actor. As a result, it is very easy to justify that the rules of war do not apply to these conflicts.
Steven Pinker, in his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” says that the times have improved and that fewer people are dying from conflicts today than they have previously.
However, in the conflicts that are still ongoing, the brutality has not diminished and the way we fight the wars has taken a step back.
2. There is a significant religious dimension to this conflict.
Humanitarian aid workers do not like to speak about religion because we treat people on the basis of need and not because of race, ethnicity or religion.
Yet, this crisis has a religious dimension that few previous emergencies have had, and aid groups often do not understand the deep undercurrents of religion in the Syrian crisis.
One major dimension of the conflict is the Sunni-Shia struggle dating back to 680 AD and the battle of Karbala.
Religion is an integral part of life in the Middle East. Everybody has their religion printed on their ID cards. Politics and elections take place on the basis of religion and not issues.
It is not enough to say that we operate on humanitarian principles and do not take religion into consideration when assessing need. The very foundations of society in the Middle East are based on the fact that each tribe takes care of their own.
Humanitarian aid programs cannot be blind to the religious dimensions.
Christians helping Muslims has a huge impact, when it is assumed that Christians will only help Christians.
On the flip side, a question that many Arab Christians are asking is if the Christian humanitarian agencies are also concerned about Christians in need – or are the agencies going overboard to help Muslims and Yezidis to make a point that they are not being biased?
Not an easy question, nor are there easy answers.
Yet, there are rays of hope amid what seems a very discouraging scenario.
For the first time in a long while, we are seeing local churches in a conflict as major humanitarian actors. Churches in Europe are speaking about being prophetic in the face of racism and xenophobia as well as demonstrating what the Kingdom of God looks like, that it is a place of compassion. We are seeing churches in Europe and the Middle East being transformed as a result.
Finally, we are seeing increasing cooperation between Christian and Islamic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and community organizations in Europe and the Middle East in helping the refugees – showing, that just maybe we can live in peace.
Rupen Das is global field staff with Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM) based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is also research professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, Canada. This article is a shortened version of a plenary presentation Das made at the ACCORD 2016 annual meeting to the 70-plus Christian U.S. relief and development member NGOs. The full-length version is available on his blog.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.
Rupen Das is research professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto and the national director of the Canadian Bible Society. He is author of several books, including “Compassion and the Mission of God.”