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T. Schellen: An Assessment of the Implications of the Syrian Catastrophe

Published in Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2013

Suffering through a horrible time of internal and imported warfare, Syria was the world’s biggest problem in 2013. The awareness of the predicament came to a peak in the summer, when the global community was confronted with the country’s surging numbers of internal and external refugees that were unprecedented in recent memory, and with the most cynical use of weapons of mass destruction. These troubles highlighted the ongoing humanitarian plight of the Syrian people and the double specters of the Damascene regime’s brutal military and of extremist fighters with totalitarian targets.

Between the G8 Summit in June and the 68th General Assembly of the United Nations at the end of September, the Syrian problem ruled the agenda of top-level geopolitical meetings and international media coverage. The flight of Syrian families from their homes was a continuous occurrence beyond this high-attention period, and refugee numbers have continued swelling to a deluge of over 4 million internally displaced persons and 2.23 million cross-border refugees registered by UN High Commissioner for Refugees at the start of December 2013.

This torrent impacted most strongly the Arab and Muslim countries surrounding Syria. Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt took in more than 90 percent of the refugees in absolute terms; Lebanon and Jordan welcomed the highest ratios of refugees in comparison to their own national populations.

Finding a way to manage the Syrian conflict, control its repercussions on the Syrian and neighboring populations, reduce the armed confrontations and replace them with non-violent means of determining the country’s direction have all become global priorities in 2013.

The atrocity of the conflict, the magnitude of the refugee flood and the plight of the displaced persons in the course of just one short year have reached levels that put Syria into the same category of historic horrors as the worst wars in the post-World War II era in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Biafra, Somalia, Burundi, Afghanistan, Iraq-Iran, Kuwait and the Balkan wars come to mind.

Another worrying element in the Syrian conflict is its location at the geographic center of a region that has experienced no real peace for the past 65 years. This regional context of confrontations is economic and religious with geopolitical implications. The context entails the Arab-Israeli wars beginning in 1948, the competition of global powers for mineral resources and strategic positioning in the Middle East and, of late, the complex struggle for a new Arab mode of political existence and governance.

The importance and possible global impacts of the war in Syria were illuminated in a most extraordinary way when the situation came to a peak of attention at the time of the UN General Assembly. It was unusual enough, after serial failures to reach workable resolutions, that September 2013 saw the successful passing of resolutions on the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Besides the well-known wrangling over resolutions and the fact that Syria was the focus of speeches, discussions and resolutions, the world also came to witness a rare interaction of belief statements in a quasi-theological exchange in connection with the General Assembly.

Competing views from the top

The first protagonist voicing his political belief in a way connoting its metaphysical root was US President Barack Obama. In a September 10 speech, he spoke of the possibility of a “targeted military strike” by the US to deter President Assad of Syria from using chemical weapons in a repeat of an alleged regime massacre in late August.

Arguing his case with a reference to America’s role in the world, he concluded his remarks by saying:

Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used. America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.

Adorned with the customary wish “God Bless America,” President Obama’s claim of exceptionalism drew a very speedy response from Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 11. In a retort to the US perspective, President Putin asserted with a counter end-of-days alert to President Obama’s doomsday warning that:

a potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.

Apart from sharing litanies of opposing disasters that were presented by both leaders with more political emphasis than factual reasoning, President Putin’s response by way of a New York Times opinion piece also carried a religious message – countering Obama’s venture into theology and explicitly registering his disagreement with “American exceptionalism” with a direct reference to the creator as the last line of his retort. He wrote:

It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, being a Shi’a religious scholar, inserted his perception of divine providence straight into his speech to the General Assembly. Juxtaposing fundamental fears and universal hopes in his introduction, he described Iran’s 2013 presidential election, his own, as a “living example of the wise choice of hope, rationality and moderation by the great people of Iran.” He emphasized his own perception of Iran – and implicitly of its theocratic constitution – as model of governance in adding, “The realization of democracy consistent with religion and the peaceful transfer of executive power manifested that Iran is the anchor of stability in an otherwise ocean of regional instabilities.”

While limiting his remarks on Syria to a reference to a human tragedy that was fueled by an infusion of arms and intelligence into the country but has no military solution, President Rouhani dedicated more time to defending Iran’s claim to a peaceful nuclear program and to refuting what he called unjust sanctions. When he advanced to a statement of belief, rather than discussing the paternal theology of chosenness by virtue vs. the maternal emphasis on equality among God’s children, President Rouhani emphasized hope in God’s virtuous servants on a platform of common scripture. He said:

Notwithstanding all difficulties and challenges, I am deeply optimistic about the future. I have no doubt that the future will be bright with the entire world solidly rejecting violence and extremism. Prudent moderation will ensure a bright future for the world. My hope, aside from personal and national experience, emanates from the belief shared by all divine religions that a good and bright future awaits the world. As stated in the Holy Qur’an: And We proclaimed in the Psalms, after we had proclaimed in the Torah, that My virtuous servants will inherit the earth. (21:105)

With such great measure of referencing religious messages in the context of the global debate on Syria in September 2013, it is no wonder that religiously desensitized media in their reporting on the debates failed to recognize the identity-driven subtexts of the political stakeholders and focused instead on the customary geopolitical and economic angles that are evident in the competition to win Syria. However, the religious aspects, while perhaps concealed under political and security issues, are certainly of decisive importance, at least in the view of Muslim stakeholders in the contest for Syria, and this makes the religious angles important also from the perspective of the geopolitical challenges that are related to the war.

The Universal Peace Federation International, responding to the urgency of the situation in Syria and in recognition of the religious angle and need for a spiritual and ethical approach in the search for conflict mitigation and avoidance of multiyear regional violence, at the time decided to convene a conference in Amman, Jordan, on October 12-13, 2013. Its theme connected the search for dialogue and reconciliation in Syria with the UPF’s quest for a new integration of religious thought and religious institutions in global peacemaking on the level of the United Nations, via an interfaith compact for peace and the creation of an interreligious council.

Looking at the Syrian catastrophe just two months later, the global attention has lessened in intensity, as is invariably the case with prolonged conflicts in the present era. It appears therefore prudent to consider again and from a longer-term perspective if the conflict in Syria is of global importance not only as a humanitarian disaster of the greatest magnitude but also as a component in geopolitics and history, with consequences that could reach far beyond the conflict itself and that might contribute to a global turning point in history.

Impact example: Lebanon

The overpowering importance of mitigation of the Syrian conflict is unquestionable if one analyzes the situation from the vantage point of its smallest and most affected neighboring country, Lebanon.

At the end of 2013, the duration of the Syrian crisis from Lebanese perspective is truly a question beyond economic survival. This is not a radical surprise. From the angle of a small country that would benefit from a large neighbor’s social and economic progress – such as are aspects of relationships between, for example, Hong Kong and China – Lebanon has lived with a multi-faceted structural crisis of the Syrian neighbor for decades. Not that Lebanon was light years ahead of Syria in terms of security and government institutions, but the Lebanese democracy, fiscal economy, and private sector had potentials that were not helped by the absence of an accessible development cluster of reform-minded neighbor countries in the Eastern Mediterranean.

On the other hand, the acute crisis in Syria is very recent and not even two years along its course, when seen from Lebanon. By end of 2011, there were no measurable impacts from Syrian refugees on Lebanon according to a World Bank investigative paper. In 2012, the refugee population grew from some 5,000 to 120,000 registered persons and impacts became visible. The major headaches for the Lebanese fiscal and private sector balances in 2012, however, were indirectly related to Syria.

The biggest problem in the Lebanese economy in 2012 was absence of people on holidays and investors from the Gulf region. This absence was linked to the security problems seen as arising from the fighting across the border, but Lebanese opinion leaders attributed the low inflows of Gulf tourists even more to political factors – governments in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were largely in support of the Syrian opposition and told their nationals effectively not to visit Lebanon, which was not toeing the same line.

In 2013, however, the crisis in Syria accelerated into an avalanche in its impact on Lebanon. According to the World Bank paper (Economic and Social Impact Assessment [ESIA] of the Syrian Conflict, dated Sep 20, 2013), the number of Syrian registered refugees swelled six fold between January and August, and numbers from the end of November indicated that the total population of registered refugees had surpassed 850,000 and would reach 1 million by year-end.

Assuming a lower rate of inflows in 2014, the ESIA paper still estimated this number to reach 1.6 million persons by the end of 2014 but noted that it could as well grow to 2.3 million refugees if the influx does not slow from the 2,000 persons per average day who arrived in August and September of 2013. Testifying to the feebleness of all these projections, the ESIA authors had to concede that there is no certainty and that the actual refugee numbers by end of 2014 “could be very much higher, or very much lower, than the estimations in these projections.”

This torrent of human need is at the very least expensive to cope with. The World Bank estimates the financial impact on Lebanon as a combination of lost economic growth, higher fiscal expenses and strains on the education, healthcare, transportation, water, electricity and waste removal infrastructures. The total projected impact exceeds $10 billion over three years 2012-2014; this is composed of an estimated $7.5 billion in economic loss from missed GDP growth and $2.6 billion in fiscal losses through a combination of higher state expenses and lower revenues. It does not yet include an estimated $2.5 billion in stabilization costs to reverse the degradation of infrastructures and restore public services.

Poverty and destitution are not absolute determinants of the human state of mind, but these temporal influences are too weighty to ignore. In the context of a national economy such as that of Lebanon, the expectation is that a second full year of impact from the Syrian conflict in 2014 will make the poor in Lebanese society – estimated at one million people living on less than $4 a day out of a 4.3 million national population – still poorer and hungrier and inflate this group by 15 to 20 percent.

Young people – both low-qualified Lebanese and Syrians sheltered in Lebanon – will find it harder to get a job, and provision of basic and advanced services in education and healthcare will become harder to achieve. In all these regards, the prospects are frightening, and the outlook turns even darker if one thinks beyond the 2013 short-term horizons of financial burdens. These horizons make sense for the purpose of validating an immediate financial need, which the World Bank and UN experts have put together in the EISA paper upon the Lebanese government’s request.

The critical larger content

Both the content and context of the Syrian crisis are already far above the financial burdens that the global community has accepted so far – with hesitation and to a frustratingly partial degree. According to UNHCR, the funding gap for Syrian refugee aid in early December was about 38 percent, and according to the ESIA paper, funds allocated by the international community to refugee aid in the urgent Lebanese case were $534 million versus a requested $1.66 billion.

The willingness to accept Syrian refugees into Europe has prima facie been equally unimpressive. A German welcome ceremony staged with a minister and flowers in September 2013 at the airport of Hannover documented that Europe’s strongest economy had decided to permit entry to about 5,000 Syrian refugees. That equates to less than a week’s worth of outpouring from Syria into Lebanon alone and represents an acceptance to host the equivalent of less than 0.001 percent in the German resident population. The forecast for Lebanon is that the country will hold between 37 and 51 percent in added resident population by the end of 2014, depending on the development of the Syrian crisis.

According to a statement by Amnesty International on December 13, 2013, Germany doubled the acceptance of Syrian refugees to 10,000 but noted that the entire 27 member states of the EU were only admitting 12,000 refugees, an infinitesimal number equal to only half a percent of all Syrian refugees that had to escape from the country’s violence by December 2013.

News reports from Sweden (a non Euro-zone country) said in December that the country was struggling to cope with the influx of 8,000 Syrian refugees over a three-month period under a projection that the country’s total refugee inflow might rise from around 50,000 in 2013 to nearl6 70,000 in 2014. Sweden, with a population of 9.5 million, is a European leader in offering asylum and permanent residency status to Syrian refugees.

It is a fact, however, that the ratios between nationals and foreigners in countries like Sweden and Germany under the short-term humanitarian needs of Syrians or with a view to admitting them long term are political hot potatoes. More than anything else, the discrepancies between high national wealth and low acceptance numbers for refugees, which are reflective of various integration and social welfare challenges, to my mind as a European who lives in the Middle East, ring a loud bell about the cultural exhaustion and existential apathy of European societies – particularly when compared with the ability of Western Europeans to pull out of evil and achieve restoration of national structures in the aftermath of the Great War in the roughly two decades after the 1945 cessation of fighting.

The rejection of Syrian refugees by EU citizens on an individual level and the obstinacy of institutions to admit refugees cannot be a surprise, given popular fears and political realities in practically all European countries. This highlights how the thorny issues of integration and mutual acceptance have not truly been resolved in the past 50 years; just one recent example was the continent’s debates over Roma migration.

Periodic outbreaks of xenophobia and recurrent fringe violence against foreigners are undeniable indicators. Whether these fringe events are symptoms of incorrigible human tendencies and as such can offset the significant progress in coexistence that the majorities of Europeans have embraced and which sizeable minorities are standing up for in events of solidarity and through individual giving, is another discussion entirely.

At the same time, Syria’s rise to a battleground of asymmetric conflicts with ideological objectives as well as competition for domination of the central location in the Middle East has implications that reflect back on Europe. From across the continent, hundreds of ideologically motivated fundamentalists have been attracted to Syria, some of them to act as humanitarian workers but many also seeking to inject themselves as combatants into the armed conflict. Germany, the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands are examples of countries where intelligence agencies and anti-terrorist units have taken returnees from the Syrian conflict under observation.

The persons who travel to Syria as stakeholders in confronting the government may be converts or, more often, EU citizens of Eastern Mediterranean origin. The numbers are small and European combatants can be measured in the dozens or low hundreds per country, some reports say. Other estimates speak of up to 1,000 persons.

In any case, beyond the size of this group, it has been established that a terrorist mindset is one that can produce acts of violence from small cells and that perhaps can also catalyze public riots. In the immediate outlook, this is a latent danger that is concern to security agencies. In the longer run, it must be considered that the perpetrators of terrorism will likely also target developed countries.

Moreover, both the ideologies of destruction and the languages of terror are mobile and migratory, whether cyclical or a generally rising trend. Thirdly, the number of Europeans who travel to the region and take up sword and Kalashnikov may be small but the number of young Syrians and other Arabs who are embroiled in the conflict is unprecedented.

Some of these young people, desensitized by their unjust fate, will use the only skills they learned in the fighting for their personal aims or market themselves as trained fighters. With more than 6 million affected people and among them a high proportion of young men, the prospect of the next generation of radicalized or commercially available warriors is growing with frightful intensity.

The level of militancy in Syria has already grown to the size of an army: according to HIS Jane’s, a security analyst firm, an estimated 1,000 operational entities of militant groups with approximately 100,000 fighters were active in Syria in late summer 2013. Of these, foreign fighters, including an estimated 750 to 1,000 EU-nationals, represent 5 to 10 percent of the anti-government militants – something that HIS Jane’s attributed as being “highly significant” due to the short time span in which this foreign force accumulated. In the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, the comparable inflow of foreign fighters took more than a decade.

It also should be noted that Syria’s governmental forces comprise not only the regular army of more than 300,000 soldiers but also more than 100,000 paramilitary persons, according to data from the year 2010.

According to IHS, the conflict in Syria represents the emergence of “qualitatively evolved” religious warfare due to the conflict’s “sheer scale” and because of the country’s religious importance to Sunni Muslims.

When the risk of migratory terrorism and ideologized violence is put in context with the non-improvement in the social mobility or access to economic equity that characterizes the perceptions of global wealth distribution, the lack of moral imagination on part of the wealthy and the failure to empathize with those who are barely surviving on the part of the developed world’s comparatively safe societies could breed a wide deconstruction of morals of the disenfranchised.

A bit of information in support of this thought can be derived from the Global Wealth Report that was published by Credit Suisse in October of 2013. The financial institution testified to an increase in global wealth (which is a multiple of worldwide GDP) to a “new all-time high of $241 trillion” in 2013 and to it being on its way to expand 40 percent to $334 trillion in 2018.

At the same time, this fabulous wealth is distributed in ways that appear no more equitable today than in the days of the mythically rich like Croesus, Louis XIV, or Nicolas II or in the times of the radical change advocates such as John Ball, Thomas Müntzer and Emmanuel Sieyes. It seems that wealth inequity has been impenetrable to solutions by economic thinkers and analysts like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Keynes. In our day, wealth inequality is at least as great as or perhaps greater than ever when the research of Credit Suisse assesses that “our estimates suggest that the lower half of the global population possesses barely 1% of global wealth” [author’s emphases].

According to the numbers, the average wealth of $51,600 per adult planet dweller has to be regarded as statistical mirage and a phantom for the vast majority of the world population: the richest 10% own 86% of all wealth and the top 1% control 46%. This is not going to change in any significant way over the next five years; average global wealth per adult will rise to $67,000 Credit Suisse estimates, but if the projections are going to be fulfilled, the share of people who individually own $10,000 or less will still be 62.8 % (CS Global Wealth Report 2013, p. 11 and p. 42).

In short, the poor of 2020 are forecast to be not as destitute as those of the 1920s, those of modest means in each generation are on the whole better off than those of previous generations; but those who control humongous assets will retain more power than “the 99 percent.” This is by all evidence an inescapable short-term future and, in my perception, also a mid- and long-term one, since the design of human ambition appears to be such that it voids systemic aspirations like that of the 18th-century socialist Babeuf who told his unsympathetic socialist judges in the French Revolution that “Society must be made to operate in such a way that it eradicates once and for all the desire of a man to become richer, or wiser, or more powerful than others.”

But the improbability of economic and political equality, as has been the message of the French Revolution and many uprisings until the unrests of the Arab Spring, doesn’t mean that inequality will just be accepted. In terms of wealth redistribution, the forecast is for strongest relative growth of wealth in China and, on a lower step of the ladder, India, juxtaposed with a relative drop in the share controlled by Euro zone countries; but the United States would remain the country with highest share. This implies that the shift of wealth geographies will create new concentrations and imbalances between the leading emerging markets – the BRICS plus a few others – and a range of countries that will not achieve the same growth.

The low expectation for wealth creation and greater social equity in most Muslim-majority countries save for a few oil producers, in conjunction with the ideological charging of young Muslims in the period of self-assertion, disappointments and contradictions that the Arab Spring has come to represent, plus the impact of Syria’s war in producing more disgruntled individuals trained in killing should be regarded as an extremely worrisome accumulation of risk factors. The intermingling and amalgamation of these risks in a protracted Syrian war must then be classified as a highly volatile scenario, perhaps comparable to uranium that is being enriched to a degree from which it can converted to fissionable bomb material in a very short time.

There is always another perspective, the perspective of hope. From within the time of disasters, such a perspective is counterintuitive but at the same time profoundly human in the sense that humanity bears in it a seed of divinity or responsiveness to the absolute good.

Such a path approaches the Middle East not as the world’s largest source of refugees and primary cauldron of intractable conflicts – which it is – but as a laboratory for the shaping of new identities which have influenced the world beyond imagination. This is true for the three religious traditions that emanated from the Middle East as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

However tentative the real influence of these religious identities is in parts of the world’s Christians, Muslims and Jews, it was quite recent that the combined numbers of adherents of the three religions exceeded for the first time in history 50 percent of the world population. The – very hesitant and tentative – positive assumption of the potentials embedded in the majority of the world’s population would be that the global risk represented by the religious, social, economic and political aspects of the Middle Eastern triangle of challenges can be solved when the energies generated by identities with huge religious and territorial dimensions can be harnessed for positive change and for developing a new set of global governance skills in a paradigm that is conducive to creating a development and justice framework for challenges that the world will face in the coming turbulent decades before the shifting geographies settle in the next equilibrium of social and economic realities.

Taking this path of positive expectation may imply seeing the current era as a global turning point for a world that against all experience is more socially inclusive, more economically equitable, and with greater power to overcome conflicts by non-violent means. This world would also be more cognizant of its religious realities, and probably more religious in the sense of having a vibrant mosaic of communities which cherish and celebrate their rituals and traditions and which have the moral imagination to see others correlated with the divine in the same existential pattern but in different forms.

It would be frivolous to postulate that one singular event could constitute the sea change for a world that appears more desirable to me than the one I have been living in. The turning point image is so frequently used in stating assumptions about events that it is necessary to describe the concept as I use it here.

A definition of a turning point that I found useful comes from Roger D. Launius, a US historian employed by NASA. In an essay asking about the existence of turning points in the history of space flight, Launius described a turning point as “an event or set of events that, had it not happened as it did, would have prompted a different course in history.” Implied in this description is a cautionary note by the historian that “turning points most often represent attempts by observers to assign significance to events, either at the time or thereafter.”

Discussing a turning point from a forward looking angle, meaning projecting it into the future, is speculative in the scientific sense. Religion, however, employs an approach to the future that is based on projections on how the world should be or how its creator wants it to become. With this noted, I refer to the view of UPF founder Dr. Sun Myung Moon, who emphasized the turning point from a perspective of meeting God’s expectation or mandate.

The concept of a historic turning point was clearly present in Dr. Moon’s thinking and can be seen as logical from his understanding of providence as a restorative process targeted and directed by God. As reference I want to quote a speech from the end of 1978 when Dr. Moon told his community, “When you look at the history of God’s dispensation and the work of restoration, it is clear that God has been working for one turning point in order to bring about His ideal.”

However, the turning point concept that he developed was not so much interpretative as a clarion call to take up the work and fulfill a mandate. In this regard, Dr. Moon at times emphasized how this approach was distinct from others. In a 1975 speech, he said:

Since the human fall, God, Satan and man have been tackling each other. Their interaction has formed history, with the heavenly side battling to establish turning points in order to restore the original position, and the satanic side battling to keep its dominion. The issue has always been to determine who will eventually gain the victorious turning point – God or Satan. The established religions and their adherents have never realized that man has a central responsibility for turning this evil world around. They have believed that anything can be accomplished if only God wishes it. They assumed that if God willed something, even Satan would not oppose Him. Unification theology says that man himself must take all responsibility. We say that we cannot reach the true turning point unless we expel Satan. Man must take a leading position.

With a very strict view that history evolves through periods wherein mandates have to be fulfilled on a timeline, the founder of UPF attributed enormous significance to human responsibility in achieving a turning point from evil within a limited timeframe of seven years, as Dr. Moon expressed in this speech. From the present-day perspective it seems undeniable that the evolution of events did not result in the changes that he expected to see in his lifetime.

However, the perspective that it is a profoundly human mandate to work for a turning point in history, while noting that this “point” may be a periscope approach to our whole era of change of the past half or third of a century and the same period from now until about 2050 (if 35 years or a generous third of a century is the assumption).

At the turn of 1978-79, the world was faced with unexpected developments that proved very consequential in the making of the 21st century. As noted in a recent book by American writer and journalist, Christian Caryl, the turning point factors that emerged in 1978 and unfolded in 1979 included the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran and the country’s reorientation from a lascivious friend of America to a state bent on religion. The changes of 1978-79 also included the election of Pope John Paul II and his first forays into the monolithically anti-religious Warsaw Pact nations. The third set of changes entailed China’s inauguration of the market in an epochal economic realignment, the rise of Thatcherism, and the start of the anti-Soviet uprising in Afghanistan, as Caryl observed.

From a Middle Eastern vantage point, the 1978-79 years also entailed a regional turning point component in Saddam Hussein’s rise to power in Iraq and global ones in the signing of the Camp David Accord and of the SALT II Arms treaty between the US and the USSR.

In 2013, events with a presumed capacity to greatly and perhaps decisively influence the world over the coming few decades include the adoption of a new economic course in China, the election of Pope Francis, the opening of Iran to dialog on its nuclear program, and the first full year of the war in Syria.

The post-Arab Spring events in the Middle East and most pronouncedly in Syria, viewed in context of the need to avert the promulgation of a new generation of young people whose outlook on life is disfigured by war and some of whom will see their perspectives narrowed to becoming fighters for hire or terrorists, certainly require that the world takes seriously the need for religious engagement in finding ways to manage the current conflict in Syria and in developing responses to the quests for justice and respect before these demands are rephrased as acts of violence in other places of the Middle East and beyond.

To those who live in the Middle East, this discussion cannot be a detached or academic one. But as the waves of impact from the region’s painful changes are circling beyond the perimeters of the Middle East and North Africa and also beyond the wider realm of Muslim-majority countries, thought leaders in religious organizations and civil society worldwide have a responsibility to not let the deliberations slip.

Mr. Thomas Schellen, Secretary General, UPF Lebanon, is a writer and (re)searcher with a double passion for economics and religion. His professional journey has taken him from being a cub reporter on the international desk of a weekly German newspaper in the 1970s to working today as business editor of an English-language magazine covering the Middle East from Lebanon; he is reputed in his market as a leading writer on business and economy. Beginning from his student days, Thomas has been active in outreach programs of Father Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Movement in interfaith and interdenominational dialogue in Europe and the United States. As chief content officer of Forum fuer Geistige Fuehrung, a German think tank dedicated to answering the ideological challenges of European identity in the 1990s, he was entrusted with developing lectures and moderating conferences with high-profile participants. He chairs the Universal Peace Federation – Lebanon, a Beirut-based NGO and affiliate organization of UPF International. In Lebanon, where his family has made its home for the past 17 years, his wife and he are active in interfaith and community projects and in peace leadership education.