Baby steps matter, be they cultural, humanitarian or political.
That was the takeaway for two local Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members who — while on a recent refugee-assistance trip to the Middle East — were unexpectedly included in a quickly scheduled meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.
At the Jan. 18 meeting with a delegation of religious leaders, they said, Assad attempted to reach out to the West, caution against foreign military intervention in Syria’s civil war, and appeal to those whose humanitarian work there goes back centuries.
The meeting came in the wake of the Assad government’s massive crackdown on protesters involved in the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising, a conflict that has claimed an estimated 130,000 lives.
The United States is among the nations calling for Assad’s removal from power. But Assad has insisted that a transition of power is not up for discussion. And a week of U.N.-sponsored international peace talks in Geneva ended Friday without concrete progress. Assad’s team submitted a “declaration of principles” that made no mention of transferring power.
But the Syrian leader struck a very different tone in the Jan. 18 meeting attended by the Rev. Laurie Kraus, who directs Presbyterian disaster assistance and humanitarian aid, and Amgad Beblawi, a coordinator for the organization’s mission work in the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia. They work for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, an arm of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
“He spoke of amnesty, he explained the ideology of the fighters, and he talked about the perception that Western governments, including our own, aren’t seeing the whole picture,” Beblawi recalled.