After ISIS, now what?

MCC partnered with the Syrian Orthodox Church to supply heaters and fuel to help vulnerable, rural Syrian families survive the winter, where temperatures dip near freezing. (Photo courtesy of Syrian Orthodox Church)

After ISIS, now what?

By Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach

Last winter Rafee, his wife and sons received heating fuel through a program supported by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Syria. In 2015, their hometown had been attacked by ISIS, and eventually the family fled to another village. There they struggled to pay for rent and medication, so they were grateful for the fuel assistance provided by the church. Rafee’s last name is withheld for security reasons.

Syrians like Rafee long for an end to the conflict that has engulfed their country since 2011. With the next round of negotiations scheduled for late November in Geneva, there is some hope that an end is in sight. But it will require significant political will on the part of all armed actors, as well as the countries supporting them.

Until now the Trump administration’s top priority in Syria has been to fight ISIS. Militarily, this goal has been largely achieved, as U.S.-backed troops have driven ISIS out of most of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. Reports indicate that only 5 percent of Syria’s territory remains under ISIS control.

But the toll in the fight against ISIS has been high, with several thousand civilians reportedly killed by the Coalition’s efforts in the past two years. As much as 80 percent of the city of Raqqa has been destroyed. And little has been done to address core grievances that could lead to the rise of other extremist groups.

U.S. officials have indicated that de-escalating the conflict is also a priority. Their primary action in this regard has been to work with Jordan, Russia and others to establish a de-escalation zone in southwest Syria. But this stops far short of active, engaged diplomacy that will be necessary to reach a permanent solution to the conflict.

As the fight against ISIS wraps up, there are indications that the U.S. military may seek to stay in Syria, to redirect its efforts against the Syrian government and its ally, Iran. Such a move would get the U.S. even more deeply mired in another Middle East conflict, ignoring the painful lessons of the Iraq War.

Senators Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Sasse (R-Neb.) have proposed a bipartisan “Syria Study Group” to recommend a way forward for U.S. policy. The proposal was attached to existing legislation in the Senate but has yet to become law.

A careful examination of U.S. policy would be wise, but in any such process, it will be critical to include a diverse array of Syrian voices. A review must seek ways to end the war and its devastating toll on civilians, not simply advance U.S. interests in the region.

As winter approaches again, the humanitarian crisis continues. Even as MCC continues to respond to families like Rafee’s, we must also be urgently working for peace.