Congressman Jeff Fortenberry

Representing the 1st District of Nebraska

Fort Report: The Road to Damascus

Apr 17, 2017
Fort Report

An important religious figure in Syria once asked to see me and other members of an American delegation. I assumed we were in for a strident lecture about America’s role in the Syrian conflict. It was quite the opposite. He humbly asked us to understand the circumstances of the vulnerable persons he represented. He pleaded with us to be aware of the complexities and dangers they live with. Not one lawmaker walked away from that meeting without a deeper empathy, and what was at stake for innocent people in Syria.

I often use the phrase “Foreign Policy Realism” to describe how the United States should best exercise its strength and authority in international affairs. Last week, when writing to you about rising tensions around North Korea, I pointed to the end of “Strategic Patience” regarding reckless, ruthless leaders abroad. There are limits—as when a dictator positions to use gravely destructive weaponry.

As Chinese President Xi met with President Trump to discuss the challenges of North Korea, a decision was made to retaliate against Syria for using chemical weapons on helpless civilians. The precise, targeted action clearly answered this crime against humanity. I support President Trump’s decision. The responsible nations of the world cannot remain idle while children are gassed. Moreover, to simply ignore or merely decry the crime creates the conditions for carnage to worsen and for chemical weapons to be used with impunity.

At the same time, there are no easy solutions to resolving this intractable conflict. Foreign Policy Realism cannot be reduced to quick answers amid longstanding chaos and discord. In this instance, and in service of the principles of civilization itself, the United States' response was measured and proportionate. However, the road ahead will not be so clear. What’s needed is a consistent, determined sequence of actions to resolving the Syrian nightmare that neither commits us to a long-term dynamic in which our young people are put in harm’s way, nor a dynamic where we create a vacuum allowing nefarious players to move in. The responsibility is international in scope, and not America’s alone.

Our goal should be to create stability for all people in the region, destroy ISIS, elevate the conditions for a negotiated settlement, and assure the right of refugees to return to their ancestral homelands. Foreign Policy Realism demands that this mechanism include Russia and other nations in the region.

While the kinetics of our defense is in motion, we must be mindful of the risk to religious minorities that a sudden rupture in Syria could engender. It is a little known fact that Christians constituted roughly ten percent of Syria’s pre-war population. Syria’s President Assad must be replaced; however, if he is too swiftly removed, he could be replaced by something even worse: genocidal barbarians with every intention of exterminating Christians and other minority groups from the territory they seize. Innocent Muslims may fare no better.

One option to help persecuted communities is to create “interim zones of stability,” so that those who have been forced to flee can remain proximate to their ancestral homelands, with the hope of one day returning to them in safety. Last fall, I introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives encouraging the Iraq government to follow its own initiative in 2014 to establish a province in the Nineveh Plain, a once-rich tapestry of ethnic and religious stability in the northern part of that war-torn country, where Christians, Yazidis, and minority Muslim communities once lived in a spirit of general pluralism, but now have been ravaged by ISIS genocide. The creation of such a province could provide a model for Syria and elsewhere in the region.

In Damascus, there is a street called Straight Street, where the Apostle Paul resided after he was blinded during a religious experience. The street’s origins are inextricably intertwined with the existence of the West. Perhaps in this Easter season, in addition to the hard necessity of military might, the absolute necessity of smart diplomacy, and the essential humanitarian effort to alleviate suffering, we can once again hope for some wholesale conversion to peace.