A. Schiff: Syrian minorities' safety is dependent on a negotiated end to the fighting


by Representative Adam B. Schiff

As Syria’s civil war continues to rage in the heart of the Levant, no population is more vulnerable than Syria’s religious minorities, including over a hundred thousand Armenians living in the country. Their safety is dependent on a negotiated end to the fighting, and is a central reason that I vigorously support efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the immediate crisis stemming from the horrific gas attack by government forces on August 21. In the United Nations process now underway, lies the hope that the United States and Russia can initiate talks to bring about an end to the wider war.
From the beginning of the Syrian civil war, I have been monitoring closely the impact of the fighting and the disintegration of Syrian society on the country’s Christian minority, which is one of the oldest in the world. Armenian Christians, many of whose grandparents and great-grandparents settled in Syria to escape the Armenian Genocide almost a century ago are in particular jeopardy – caught between a regime that has protected Christian communities but used the most appalling violence against its own people, and an opposition that is populated in part by Islamic extremists bent on annihilating religious minorities.

As my staff and I have worked to try to obtain immigration visas for the family members of constituents who are living through the horror of this war, I have come to understand in the most personal terms the anxiety that so many in the Armenian diaspora feel as the events unfold in Syria. I, too, fear what could happen if the Syrian regime collapses precipitously, and have recoiled at reports of rebel attacks on Christian villages. The prospect of American-supplied weapons falling into extremist hands, and then being used against Syrian Christians and later against the west, is at the heart of my steadfast and public opposition to providing lethal arms to the rebels.

I have also expressed grave concerns over America acting unilaterally against the Syrian regime in response to the recent grisly poison gas attack that left more than 1,400 Syrian civilians dead, including over 400 children. I know that the Armenian-American community shares these worries, as I have heard from many hundreds of you in recent days urging the President and Congress to refrain from military strikes designed to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. The community has appealed for a diplomatic solution instead, and I support this effort unequivocally.
I am encouraged by the announcement of a framework diplomatic solution after three days of negotiation between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, under which the Syrian regime would give a full accounting of its stockpiles of chemical weapons, and put them under international monitoring, to be followed by the destruction of these weapons in the first half of 2014. The framework, which is to be formalized in a U.N. Security Council resolution this week, will be difficult to implement in the middle of a war zone, but we must spare no effort in trying to accomplish the task. As I said in a recent meeting with Secretary Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, only this path holds the promise of permanently placing these weapons out of use – something a military strike cannot accomplish.

The United States should use this new diplomatic channel to explore widening the negotiations to try to end the civil war and begin transition to a post-Assad government that would guarantee all of Syria’s people a chance at a better future. Both Secretary Kerry and his Russian counterpart have voiced hope that the current effort could act as a catalyst for broader peace talks.

Even as we work to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, I remain focused on the humanitarian catastrophe that has engulfed Syria – with more than 2 million refugees having fled the country and millions more internally displaced. As a member of the Appropriations committee that funds our international affairs budget, I have been pushing for greater humanitarian support of Syria’s civilians. I also spearheaded a bipartisan request to the Secretary of Homeland Security joined by over seventy of my House colleagues on behalf of the families of thousands of Syrian refugees who live here in the United States urging that these refugees be granted humanitarian parole so that they can be reunited with their loved ones in the U.S. These refugees already have approved immigration petitions and should be immediately reunited with their families, many of whom live in our community.
During this crisis, the feedback from my Armenian constituents – many of whom have lived in the region and have family there now – has been invaluable in forming a complete understanding of the horrors of the conflict and the challenges to ending it. As I continue to work with Administration officials to address the security, diplomatic, and humanitarian aspects of this crisis, I will be ever mindful of the perilous state of Syria’s Christians and their safety will remain a paramount concern.

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