Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call: Humanitarian Crisis in Syria

Humanitarian Crisis and Conflict in Syria

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, senior fellow for the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, discusses the humanitarian crisis and conflict in Syria, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series. Ms. Lemmon’s 2017 visit to Raqqa culminated in a three-part PBS Newshour special.

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Senior Fellow for the Women and Foreign Policy Program, Council on Foreign Relations


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, and our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.


We’re delighted to have Gayle Lemmon with us today to talk about the humanitarian crisis and conflict in Syria. Gayle Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations for the Women in Foreign Policy program. She is the author of Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, which are both New York Times bestsellers. She’s currently a contributor to The Atlantic’s Defense One site, writing on national security and foreign policy issues, and a former contributing editor at Newsweek’s the Daily Beast. She recently returned from Syria, a visit which culminated in a three-part PBS NewsHour series. And we sent out a link to that series in advance, so if you haven’t had time to watch it, I commend it all to you after the fact.


Gayle, thanks very much for being with us today. I thought you could just brief us on your recent trip to Raqqa and what you saw there and the ongoing conflict in Syria and the humanitarian presence that we’re reading about.


LEMMON: Absolutely. And thank you to all of you. As Irina mentioned, I am just back from northern Syria. And the one affiliation we didn’t mention is I’m also a CNN contributor. So I’m working right now on a piece—it should go up next week—for I do a weekly column there about this lost generation of Syria girls, lost to this war, whose futures have been really sacrificed to this war.


So I went to Syria to do three pieces for PBS, and then I’ve done some print pieces for Defense One and this will be for CNN afterward. And really, what we wanted to do was to take viewers into the on-the-ground view of what was happening in Syria, because war is deeply personal, even if we don’t talk about it enough that way. And the Syrian conflict is not just nameless, faceless people shooting at nameless, faceless people. There’s just, you know, these incredible stories of moms and dads and young people who are really battling against the odds to have some kind of future.


So we did three pieces. The first was on Raqqa and the fight for Raqqa. And for those of you who are following the Syrian conflict—which I know is not too many people, but if you’re on this call perhaps you are among the few—and it was really about the fight for the last—for what was the capital of the so-called caliphate, and that fight—what that fight looked like. So we went to watch trainees being trained by the U.S. special operations forces, and those they are training—mostly those they are training now, and recruits who are spending two weeks in basic training and then going to the front lines.


And then we spent time with—at a graduation of the Raqqa internal security forces, which is the hold force, these young mostly men that we met—there are some women in the force—who are going to take the—who are holding the city once the Syrian Democratic Forces, who the Americans are backing, defeat—you know, take that territory. The security forces come in afterwards. And then we went to Ain al-Issa IDP camp, which is 70,000 strong of people who have been internally displaced by this battle, and who have fled Raqqa. And the stories just—honestly they take your heart out.


You know, there’s a mother we have interviewed who is in the story who left the city eight months pregnant, led her two-year-old and her mentally ill husband out of the city amid ISIS reprisals—they had snipers killing anybody who tried to flee and they also were very willing to kill people who were trying to escape—and coalition airstrikes, which were falling from the sky and killing people trying—because ISIS is using them as human shields. So this mother braved all of that to get to this displaced camp. And she gave birth in the IDP camp to a two-kilo baby—a teeny, tiny, tiny little thing.


And, you know, she was so powerful. And I was like—it’s like, we kept calling her our Virgin Mary. You know, she was just talking to us about in this very direct, very strong language, about what she hoped for her daughter’s future, what she thought this next generation deserved. We asked her, what do you think of the airstrikes? And she said: You have to do whatever is required to get rid of these criminals. And what she wanted for the future.


We also met a mother who was leading her twenty-person strong extended family out of Tabqa, which is—sorry, out of Raqqa, to the town of Tabqa. And they were genuinely living in rubble, in a bombed-out building where the smell of flesh kind of greets you as you walk in. And then you walk into what they have made their home, right, you know, there are lot of families living there who have been displaced from fighting wherever else. And they have—the women are washing, everybody is clean, everybody has clean clothing. They’re doing the best they can. The men are trying to go—you know, basically sift through the rubble and find what they can that could be sold, metal or scrap. And everybody is trying to get by.


And there I met a sixteen-year-old who will be in the CNN piece, who was in year—finished grade nine. And then, like all the girls she knew, you know, she said once the war started everyone was either kidnapped, you know, had something awfully criminally happen to them, or their parents sold them into marriage. And I don’t mean sold them like slavery. I mean, their parents basically found husbands for them because it was the only way these parents thought they had to keep their kids save. And she said, you know, I used to dream of being a flight attendant and now all my dreams are for my children because she’s sixteen with a two-year-old and a nine-month-old, because her—and she said, and I’m one of the lucky ones because my husband—she said, I actually like my husband.


So you see desperation, but you also see people really determined—really determined to push forward. And so here is the thing I’ll leave you with, is that if your nineteen- and twenty-year-old talks to you about how everything they’re doing is for the next generation. They don’t care about their generation anymore. Their generation has no future. But it’s all for the next one.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. We can open up to questions and comments from the group.


OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.


(Gives queuing instructions.)


And our first question comes from Yuri Mantilla with Liberty University.


Q: Yes. Well, thank you. Thank you very much for that report regarding the Syrian conflict. This is Professor Yuri Mantilla.


Considering that they are kinds of inhumanity, genocide, war crimes taking place in Syria, and that those kinds of international crimes are mainly targeting, as you mentioned, children, how do you see the international community taking action in the Syrian conflict? When I talk about international community, I’m not only focusing on Western European countries, the United States, Russia, but also developing countries. What would be the—(inaudible)—countries, you know, in Asia, in Latin America, all over the world? How can we mobilize the international community to take action to stop this?


LEMMON: I would—yeah. I think this is a conflict that has gone on so long and with so little actual humanitarian work that everybody has gotten used to this. And that is, to me, a huge danger because there is so much more the world could do. First of all, the international community should push very hard for education. There are too many kids out of school. Ain al-Issa IDP camp has no education system at all whatsoever. And I mean just basic literacy 101 for all those little people. And it breaks your heart. That should not be. In my view, we could do better.


And I—and the thing is, there are so many sensitivities among Syria and the Syria regime and Turkey and Russia and the United States. And we haven’t even, you know, gotten to, you know, Assad’s likely staying. But none of that matters to these little ones, right? I mean, to me, it’s like there has to be some level of understanding that literacy and basic skills should be at every place for the displaced.


And the Americans have been very reluctant to send aid to northern Syria in large doses because they’re not sure about—(audio break)—would also have strong Arab representation. I think that’s very important to note. We can get into the policy stuff if you want, but that would take us another 10 minutes. But the world could do much more, first of all, on the education front. And I truly believe that more could be done if more NGOs were sort of committed to that, with support from the international community.


Second of all, I think there has been no sense that the world is actually clamoring for justice and a war crimes tribunal or anything even resembling responsibility being taken for who has done what. It’s very hard to get to the sites to inspect. Amnesty, Human Rights Watch has done reports. You know, I do think those are worth doing, and more. But to me, the biggest question is how do you get to the next generation and get them educated, because it’s what every parent talks to you about.


Q: Yes. Well, thank you. Thank you.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question comes from Marina Buhler-Miko from St. Alban’s Parish.


Q: Into my question—this is Marina Buhler-Miko, St. Alban’s Parish, Washington, D.C.


We support a school right on the edge of Syria in Jordan. And it does educate some of the refugees from the camp there. And I was wondering, you know, what groups do you know of who are organizing to get at the educational needs of those people? Anybody? Are there any groups anywhere in the world that are beginning to organize efforts to try to educate either this current generation or the next generation?


LEMMON: It’s a really good question. There are very many vocal folks who have been focused on it. U.S. Department of State has this DART program. But quite honestly, I think they have seven or eight people who are doing the best they can, but how much can seven or eight people do? The Mercy Corps and the IRC—and in full disclosure, I’m on Mercy Corps’ board, but I also know IRC is there and NGOs are starting to come in. I actually think a pressure point would be to go to the NGOs and say, you know, who can we deal with on the ground to help t get resources to educate children? UNICEF is there too, but I’ve not seen schooling be a priority there. There’s so much else emergency-wise. And that could have changed. But I do think that the NGOs could have more pressure on them, and more donors saying here’s what we want to give to. That would be very useful. That is my personal view.


Q: And you have a real ally in the Jordanian ambassador here in Washington about the fact that with refugees that education is really just not where it needs to be. And she’s very outspoken on that, yeah.


LEMMON: And I have been thinking, you know, since I got back, like, why is there no—why is there—you know, these kids in Ain al-Issa IDP camp—(inaudible). You know, I met a 13-year-old girl who’s been out of school for five years. And when ISIS came, obviously all of that ended—all the education that she had. And I asked her, you know, what do you want to do? She said, my only dream is to be back in school. And I said, what’s your favorite subject? You know, I don’t care. You know, whatever subject would be fine, if we could be in a classroom. And at the end I was asking her questions—and she’ll be in this piece too—and this is what stayed with me. I said, well, you know, I really wish I could spend more time with you. And she said—she looked at me and she said, I wish you could be here every day, because think of when the last time any of these kids have had anybody ask them how they were, what they want to learn.


Q: I think the—I mean, what he Jordanian ambassador talks about is that people have to recognize, if you don’t educate this younger generation they just go to become terrorists. And that’s how it is.


LEMMON: Oh, absolutely. And so, I mean, I’d be happy to continue this conversation offline, Irina can arrange it. I have been to meetings with the Jordanian ambassador, I have met her. I really, truly believe there is more to be done on this. And I may be going back to the region if I do a book that is related—because I have just a whole other story for another day—but, you know, I would definitely want to go back and see those kids.


Q: Thank you.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Aristotle Papanikolaou with Fordham University.


Q: Hi, there. I was just wondering, in your time there, whether you—whether you can say a little bit on sort of how the Christian perspective is, because, you know, I’m hearing—we hear, of course, about Christian persecution within the Syrian conflict, amidst much of the other suffering as well. But also I was—recently I saw pictures of Christians with Assad in some kind of official ceremony of some sort where Assad is speaking. So I didn’t know whether in your time there whether you sort of encountered that and whether you can shed some light on that for us.


LEMMON: It’s an interesting question. Honestly, we were much more focused on Kurds versus Arabs in northern Syria, and the U.S. effort to try to figure out if it can get behind—and I did a piece about this—that the U.S. special operations being—you know, their biggest concern is that the U.S. is going to abandon Syria’s Kurds. And they will say it in no uncertain terms. And that piece, you know, for those of you who are interested, I know Irina has it. It made a lot of—it’s got a lot of attention within national security circles because that is a, you know, is very clear. Special operations feels like the Syrian Kurds—especially as Turkey sees them very differently—are people—are allies, and true allies with whom they can get behind and fight alongside.


So, but the Christian question came up several times in terms of just a minority piece. But everybody—it is not—it didn’t come up first and foremost, but I’ve read a great deal about it. And I do think that the—question of minorities and how they have been treated, and whether some will stay with Assad because it’s what you know versus the uncertainty of persecution if you don’t, is very much a question that is in play. And I think there’s real fear about what might come next for different groups—both if Assad goes and if Assad stays.


Q: OK, thank you.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question comes from Ann Rodgers with the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.


Q: Hi. My question is partly a follow-up on the last question, and then there’s a second part to it. What we’ve heard, not so much coming out of Syria but out of Iraq and some other contexts, is that Christians are often afraid to go to the refugee camps for fear that they will be persecuted within the refugee camps, and that that’s an issue. So it sounded like you had met Christians in the refugee camps. And I wondered if you could just comment on whether there was tension there. And then the other part of my question is, like, what, you know, typical Americans can do to try to bring some kind of help or comfort to the situation. I think people read about it and they’re just overwhelmed.


LEMMON: I agree with that entirely. I agree with that entirely. So I did not meet Christians in the camps, but I did talk to folks in northern Iraq who had camps where Christians were present. And it’s very true—I did not hear that they were persecuted in the camps, but I definitely did hear that different groups were worried about interacting with different groups in the camps. So the camps are no security panacea by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the Yazidis lost one camp because too many in their—too many Arabs were coming in, right? So, I mean, from Mosul. So there’s definitely—you hear stories about this.


Now, I will say, I’m very clear about what I saw and what I didn’t. So I did not see that myself, but I definitely talked to people I trusted who spoke with me about that. So I do think that all minorities are facing a very tenuous situation right now. And the Christians certainly among them. And I read a piece yesterday, actually, that was about this issue, and whether Christianity would be erased, you know, and that was sort of one of them. And, you know, I think if you talk to the Kurds, they kind of go to very great pains to say: We are multiethnic here. Like, we want in northern Syria there to be Assyrians, Kurds, Arabs, you know, any—we all belong here. Some would take issue with that, but that is definitely what you hear from people running the civil councils and running the administration in northern Syria.


And on this point about what people can do, I think that is such an important one. And I wish it were easier. I wish I had an easier answer. One is that I think people can give to local refugees, right? There are a number of churches—this has been very active. And Catholic Relief Services, I think Jewish—I’m sorry, I’m blanking on the Jewish relief agency. The Jewish relief agency have been doing those services. They’ve been active. And I think it really has been the religious community, the faith community, that has been the most welcoming, from what I have seen, in terms of Syrian refugees—(audio break). I think that support is so very important as people land in a strange country with strange food and strange schools, a strange language, strange road system, right? I do think that matters a great deal.


And the second thing I would say is to call your members of Congress. Those calls actually do get logged. And tell them, you know, you want the U.S. to do more in northern Syria. You want to give more aid for northern Syria, and for—and I only say northern Syria because that’s where the Americans are most active and that’s what the State Department is evaluating right now, should they give—should they give more. And then the third thing is to talk to NGOs. You know, I wouldn’t have to be huge amounts of money, but you all command, you know, audiences who have some capital. It doesn’t have to be huge. But bundle your donations and talk to NGOs about wanting to get—earmarking those dollars for school issues—I mean, for schools, either for refugees in Turkey and Jordan or for IDPs inside Syria. Say you want it for education.


FASKIANOS: OK. Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question comes from Eliot Assoudeh with the University of Nevada Reno.


Q: Hi. Thank you so much for your wonderful and insightful report. So my question relates to the role of Iran and Quds Force Revolutionary Guard, and their recruitment of children and teenagers, specifically the—(inaudible)—teenagers under the age of eighteen to the guard of the—(inaudible)—in civil war in Syria. So is there any way that if addressed by international community, that’s why Iran using children and teenagers for the war, specifically recruiting them from the Afghan population that lives in Iran?


LEMMON: You know, this is a very real issue. And I have—both books I did have been set in Afghanistan. “Dressmaker of Khair Khana” was about a teenager girl who was supporting her business under—supported her neighborhood under the Taliban in Afghanistan. So I read Turo and a bunch of Afghan—(inaudible)—the English-language Afghan media. And that story about young people being recruited by Iranian forces—or forced, however you want to look at it; their parents would say they have to do whatever—it’s very real. That’s—and I have been following that storyline for years. The Iranian influence from the geopolitical perspective is what the Americans are most worried about next, right?


And I would urge, the last point as far as the last questioner would say what can we do, I would simply argue that we should stay engaged in Syria. Just because the fight in ISIS—against ISIS is over does not mean you pack up and go home, in my view, because ISIS 3.0 and 4.0 comes when there’s alpha governance, safe havens for malign actors, and no support from the international community for people on the ground who are doing the best they can to rebuilt in a conflict that has become global, right, with Russia, Iran, Turkey, the U.S. all playing a role in that war. So I would strongly argue against just packing up and going home.


I’m not ever arguing for 20,000 ground troops or anything like that. But the special operations support for the Syrian Democratic Forces has actually yielded a benefit, in my view, to give space for civil society to come in and for services to slowly, slowly start returning. And I think it should be supported. And I would say that the Iranian influence shows no sign of waning as the Assad regime grows stronger and stronger. And there has not been enough at the U.N. to talk about the role of child soldiers and those who are recruited. And frankly, I wish there were more.


Q: No, exactly. Thank you. Specifically, if we look at a very recent article that Henry Kissinger wrote about Iran’s imperialistic ambitions, I, myself, have written two pieces on Shia expansionism in Iran, because those places that used to be populated by Sunni groups or Sunni population in Syria, after, you know, the civil war get a little bit settled and those areas now Revolutionary Guard specifically goes for populating, importing Shia population from neighboring countries to put in those areas. So they are basically doing what Stalin at some point did with Georgia, so.


LEMMON: And I would say just one final thought before we take the next question is that—thank you for that. But you talk to American policymakers about what they worry about next for Syria, it is the rising influence of Iran. That’s the immediate response you will get.


Q: Thank you so much.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Shaik Ubaid with Muslim Peace Coalition.


Q: Hi. Thank you for taking my question. I’m Shaik Ubaid with Muslim Peace Coalition and also Burma Taskforce.


You know, the longest running genocide in the world in is happening in Burma, Rohingya, which is not as much in the news as the unfortunate people of Syria. I’m going to ask you, how do we mobilize the faith leaders in the U.S. to counter the propaganda about not accepting refugees and not getting involved and not—preventing more. And how to fight, specifically, for example, you know, people—(inaudible)—are more focused on the minorities, for example, in Syria—which they should be; but at the same time the largest group, the Sunnis, are the one who are bearing the brunt of the regime’s atrocities. So how do we rise above the sectarian interest and help everybody who is suffering there?


And to follow the—or to buy into the propaganda of the monarchies, the corrupt leaders who say that if we do not educate them they will become terrorists, presumes that Muslims, for example, are more inclined towards terrorism. I mean, there are terrorists who are very well-educated, you know, and they use their education to take revenge or to fight for their causes. So education is—you know, is—the lack of education is not the reason for terrorism. It’s the persecution that is and displacement of people that is. But how do we mobilize the powerful faith leaders in the U.S. to help it become more accept to helping the refugees, not only in Syria but also in Burma, which is the longest-running genocide?


LEMMON: Yeah. So I appreciate your question. I agree with you on education. I certainly don’t think anybody would say only Muslim children would become terrorists. But if you only see war for a great deal of time, and the most attractive options are presented to you by malign actors, it’s just understandable. And so I think that education has its own benefits. And I mostly see it as leading to economic growth and stability, which breeds more security, right, and a more equitable society, which is why I think it matters a very great deal. And I would say that probably most people on this call would certainly agree with that.


To your point about faith leaders, I think that the folks on this call have not fully recognized how much power they have. Because the military is one trusted institution, and I still think that faith communities are about the only thing that people trust in their societies right now. And I believe truly that if faith leaders spoke out more on the weekends and with their followers about why refugees matter and how each one of us—you know, there but for the grace of God go every single one of us. And that, you know, it is not OK to demonize an entire faith, but that, you know, there is a reason why the United States has been, in my view, and secure as it is, which is because we are an accepting nation that does not create—(inaudible)—of who is an American and who isn’t.


It is what’s special. Listen, my father was an Iraqi refugee when he was a kid. And it shaped everything that came for him afterwards. If you go to Europe, if I were in Europe I would have to put a picture on my C.V. and tell everybody where my father had come from every time I applied for a job. That is not America. It is what America—it’s what makes America so very special. And it’s why I feel so patriotic about this country. But I do think the language of patriotism and the language of what makes America special has to be taken back. And I do think that faith communities could do much more to explain, in conjunction with the military which, by the way, national security leaders have been the most clear about why, you know, these bans were not in anybody’s interest—certainly not in American national security interest—and have been the most ardent in fighting for their battlefield buddies in Afghanistan and Iraq to come to the U.S.


No one’s arguing for not extreme vetting. Absolutely everybody wants to know who’s coming. But if you follow the process of what it takes to be a refugee, come to the United States, you will know how painful that process is. So I think you can argue for strong vetting and a strong America that is inclusive, lives up to the ideals of this nation. And I think faith communities could do more.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Eleanor Ellsworth with Episcopal Diocese of San Diego.


Q: Hi. I’m Eleanor from San Diego.


And as you may or may not know, there are many, many, many refugees here, and—(inaudible)—


LEMMON: Absolutely, yeah.


Q: —that go on here. But my question takes us back to your emphasis on literacy in Syria for the children. And here’s my—here’s my remembrance. There was an awful lot of activity in Afghanistan organized by Rotary International. And I was wondering if you’ve had any inkling of activity from Rotary. And if not, my second question would be, is there a contact point that would be best so that Rotary could be influenced—and I am a Rotarian, I think a lot of people are—to do something in Syria, such as we have done in Afghanistan?


LEMMON: That is an excellent question. And I have not come across—you know, honestly, Syria has been no-man’s land in terms of the international community for a great deal of time. And by the way, the U.N. won’t even deliver to areas that are not regime held most of time. I mean, it has been a disaster of epic proportions on the humanitarian scale. And I would say that there is room now—Mercy Corps is coming back in. You know, I mean, and for very good reason, right? People didn’t want to put their own people at risk. Who controls what areas? You know, Syrians have been risking their lives for all of these local and international NGOs a great deal. And more could be done. Arwa Damon from CNN actually has an NGO, INARA, that is working with Syrian kids. But I would love to know if Rotary were there. And I did not see any sign there was. I would be very surprised if they were, giving how sliced up the country’s areas are and how ongoing the fight is.


But there are areas—I don’t want to put anybody at risk, but there are areas of Syria that really do feel quite fine, and where kids are going back to school. Tabqa, you know, was under ISIS occupation as recently as May. Kids just went back to school, which is an amazing thing. It’s one of the best sights in the whole world to see little ones with backpacks. And, you know, it’s just—we interviewed Syrian refugees in Turkey, and there was one little girl in the family of seven kids who go to go to school. And the difference in watching her bound home with her backpack and watching all the other little kids with no place to go every day, I will never forget it. It stays with you, that perfect—that focus, that direction of those children, it matters a great deal. So I would love to know if Rotary were there. And I do think there would be a way for them to be involved.


Q: Well, I can follow up with Rotary International and find that out, but—


LEMMON: That would be great.


Q: The question would simply be, what would be the starting point from inside Syria, I suppose, is the word?


LEMMON: Yeah. I think the question then would be is it a local NGO or is it an international NGO that, you know, where you could, if you’re American, go to the headquarters and say here’s what we would like to do. Can we partner with you? Tell us—you know, they’ve all mapped the ground work, right? And there are civil councils, which—and they are also working with the local civil councils, because it’s very important to work with the infrastructure that people from there are building. And they are building it, right? I mean, they want their kids to go to school more than everybody else does, right? So I’m saying that there are local folks, actors on the ground who want the same thing, but could really use the resources. And I do think international NGOs like Mercy Corps, IRC, which I know are in the country and working in touch with those civil councils, could actually be a decent starting point.


Q: Great. That’s wonderful. Thanks so much.


LEMMON: You bet. And I’m happy to help with the connectivity.


Q: Thank you.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Soraya Deen with Muslim Women Speakers Movement.


Q: Yes. Hi. Thank you. So my question is I strongly believe a mother’s heart is a child’s classroom. And I’m curious to know how the mothers are nourishing their children at this time, how are they building on hope, and what are they telling their children about their predicament?


LEMMON: So it’s interesting. I mean, let’s say—I’ll be honest with you, the mothers can tell their children what they want, but those children unless they are unable to see are more observant than anybody else, right? I mean, they see everything that’s happening. And these kids are so tough and they’re strong and they are so desperate to be back in school. And I think we should not underestimate the hell that these children saw. You know, we did a story—(audio break)—from Manbij, we did a story about a town one year on after ISIS occupation. And this dad was just incredible. He was painting the wall blue and his gate painted green because he said, you know—you know, and his whole street was only rubble. And then we see this guy who has painted his house. And so we stopped and asked him, you know, what’s going on? Why are you doing this?


And he said, you know, I’m just so happy to have my wife back, to have my children back, to have life without ISIS back. And he said, you know, I’ll do anything for it to stay. And he said, my children saw beheadings. My children saw people hanging from the corners. And you know, all these kids are out in the street. We’re trying to do this TV shoot. And there are probably 60 kids from the whole neighborhood. So you can imagine the rambunctiousness. And it was so fun and so crazy. It’s so impossible to actually do television, but really funny. We gave the 10- and 12-year-olds our security perimeter so that nobody could get in our shot.


But, you know, you see all of these parents who are just trying to put their lives together for children who have seen more than any child should see in a lifetime in just a few years. And so their parents can tell them whatever they want. But they’ve seen it all themselves. No matter what their parents have tried to protect them from, these children have seen it. And you know kids, right? They see everything. They’re so much smarter than adults ever give them credit for. So I think what you see now, all these mothers who said that they will risk anything—anything; like the woman who walked out of Raqqa eight months pregnant—to give their kids a better future. And all they care about is their children’s future. And one nineteen-year-old young man we interviewed actually his brother at 15 had died fighting ISIS. He said, you know—he said, my generation is illiterate. We have no future. He said, all we’re fighting for is for kids.


Q: Thank you.


LEMMON: I would say that, there’s one last thing, we did this first piece in Raqqa. And we were joking that we had to add some men because the mothers were so powerful in the piece that we—we used—really the three mothers told the story of Syria. So if you have a moment to watch that, I think that will answer some of your question too.


Q: OK. Thank you.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Khosro Mehrfar with FEZANA.


Q: Thank you. Hi, everybody. Thank you so much for your informative and very caring presentation.


My question deals with U.N. and it has two parts to it. I may have the answer to the first part, but there is the rest that I’ll ask you. We all know that a major portion of the budget for the U.N. is coming from U.S. So can you just elaborate on the role of U.N., specifically on the fundamental principle of education. That’s the most important vehicle, in my opinion, to—(inaudible). So what U.N. can do or is doing focused laser-sharp on education, especially with the kids at a young age?


And the second part of my question is, not only this, but looks like many other conflicts all around the world have something to do with religion, and it’s been proven. I know in the charter of the U.N. it’s not there yet, maybe at the time it was created there was no need, but let’s think about the possibility of something like, for lack of a better word let’s call it, the religious forum within the United Nations? So U.N. can get in touch with religious leaders specifically in the locality of the area, and then he can be educated, he can educate the local people, and so forth. Thank you.


LEMMON: I do think that—so the U.N. has been there. They have—but they have stayed in Syria and, you know, to help people. But that also means that they have been subject to the rules of the Syrian regime. I’m sure they would say it differently, but that is what folks on the ground told us, and that’s what we have seen. UNICEF—(audio break). And I don’t know about the schooling, though. I have not seen any dollars go for actual schools. And I do think more could be done there. And—but I do think UNICEF is active on the nutrition front. And certainly, they’ve been active in Iraq. But, you know, northern Syria has been a dynamic situation and so I don’t know—I know that they have been there and they are there, but I don’t know to what dollar amount.


You know, the U.N. has tried very hard on the peace deal side and gotten roughly nowhere because actors definitely feel like they have more to gain by continuing the fight than by ending it. And the regime, with the help of Russian air power and Iranian soldiers, has really been able to make gains since the Aleppo campaign. And so, to some extent, they haven’t really felt a need to come to the table. I think the U.N. has to be more active in talking about the humanitarian catastrophe. It has to be more active to trying to push. But it’s hard for the U.N. because it’s a collection of member states. And look at the Security Council, right? And so it’s very difficult for the U.N. as a whole.


I do think that the new secretary-general is very committed, because he worked so much on Syria in his previous role, to trying to work on the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. But it’s—I do think the U.N. faces its own set of limitations.


Q: The second part, if you don’t mind, about the possibility of U.N. getting more involved in this religious activity and maybe even having a branch called the religious forum of the United Nations—


LEMMON: Oh, you know, I think that given it is a collection of member states it would never fly. I love the idea. I think it’s hard for the U.N. to do what it’s already—it has on its plate, quite honestly. And while I think that that is a really interesting idea, I don’t see it becoming actionable anytime soon. But I hope I’m wrong.


Q: So you think it’s a good idea, but it’s very hard to implement? Is that correct?


LEMMON: I mean, I think the idea of trying to deal with extremism and trying to get at—you know, of all branches, of all kinds—and to talk about—you know, to look at the role of faith and to try to work with religious leaders is something that has been done, actually, in Afghanistan. U.N. Women has done it actually in Afghanistan, to get local clerics to sign onto family planning. And, you know, into the country’s constitution and other kinds of things. So I think there is a role that’s ready being—(audio break).


Q: Thank you so much.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


LEMMON: Thank you.


Our next question comes from David Wildman with United Methodist Church.


Q: Yes. Thank you. And thank you especially for all the focus on children. I really appreciate that.


My question is I work across the street from the U.N., so following up on the role of the U.N. There have been a few sort of regional de-escalation zones where at least there’s a kind of modest political role on the part of the different actors. And I’m just wondering if you sense of, like the impact of these de-escalation zones, especially on the children, in contrast to the—continues to be arms transfers. So the international community is, unfortunately, it seems to me, giving an awful lot of aid, but it’s the wrong kind of aid in terms of arms from all sides kind of being pumped in there. So, you know, just so that—do these de-escalation zones create some space where education and the well-being of children can kind of be moved closer to front and center?


LEMMON: I don’t think that they are unhelpful. I would say that it would have to be bigger. But I do think what—I think Russia and the U.S., as much as the language gets heated, at this moment has really been using the deconfliction line, and have been trying to stay out of each other’s way. And I think the deconfliction zone—I’m sorry, the local peace deals that this limited peace agreements, or at least ceasefires, I shouldn’t say peace agreement, have been—I think those are always a good—I don’t think those are a bad thing. But if actors use them simply to regroup and rest up then, you know, that is a question. They are too new, really, for me to give you a thoughtful and informed answer. But I do think that families are using the space.


You know, and I think the second point that’s really important is that Syrians want to go home. Ask any refugee or displaced person what they want, and the first thing they say is to go home and rebuild. And I do think there’s a lot of tension in that, because—so, for example, we interviewed a mother. She’s in our piece about Manbij, who talked to—and her teenage son. And the mother said: Our problem is not with the Kurds. Our problem is with fellow Arabs who think—when we say we’re from Raqqa, they say, oh, you’re all terrorists. Why did you bring us ISIS? And we try to tell them, look, we didn’t bring you ISIS, right? We’re here. And I asked the son, do you have a lot of friends who joined ISIS? And he said, absolutely. And I said, why didn’t you? And he said, because my mother wouldn’t let me.


Q: Hmm. Yeah, that’s very hard, if that’s the only option that young men especially feel, is that—I think you said that earlier about pursuing armed actions. Thank you.


LEMMON: And I do think education presents alternatives. Absolutely. Thank you.


OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question comes from Soraya Deen with Muslim Women Speakers.


Q: Thank you for giving me the time for the second question. I work with the OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership, where we deconstruct the fake theology. And what you just said was profound to me. What is this? How are the mosques? Are they operating? What is being taught? And how do you—how are they keeping the children away from being recruited?


LEMMON: I think that that is—it’s a central question, and one that I honestly and truly don’t have a good answer for. I know people are praying. We saw people praying. And I do believe that mosques are operational, particularly in places that are more secure, for certain. I do not know what’s being taught there. And I think it would be useful. Idlib right now is a town that is really under more or less al-Qaida occupation. And to some extent, people were—the idea of these guys kind of running an administration, staying out of their way. But they can’t even offer basic services.


There’s a great paper that, gosh, one of the think tanks just did about Idlib. It’s either Middle East Institute, Washington Institute, I’m sorry. I can’t remember. I’ve read so many of late. But one of them just did that was about Idlib and about really the failure of the al-Qaida-led group to deliver on basic services, and losing the local population because of it. So you know, I do think that people want services. They want to send their kids to school. You hear that over and over again. They don’t want their children recruited. But I don’t know what the role of the mosque is there. And I’d be very interested to find out.


Q: Oh, OK. Thank you.


FASKIANOS: Gayle, you say in your PBS “NewsHour” special—you mention that there are already signs of life in Raqqa. What stands out as particularly hopeful?


LEMMON: The desire to return to life. I can’t tell you how many people said to me, if we could push a button and return to 2010, we would. They are not fans of the regime, but they are—(inaudible)—by war and displacement. And they want something better for their children. You know, I dream of my children becoming a teacher, I dream of my children becoming an engineer. You know, I heard that over and over again. And that is why I bring it up on this call, is because that’s what you hear, is this desire—you know, we heard less desire for vengeance than I expected, quite honestly. And I do think in part it’s because of the barbarism of ISIS in the areas. I mean, this is—it’s a whole new level of descent into hell that these folks have brought to communities. And people are very clear about that. And they really want something different. And that, I think, is what is, to me, powerful.


FASKIANOS: Great. Next question.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Samer Alraey with Baruch College.


Q: Yes, hello. Good afternoon, everybody. Can you hear me?


LEMMON: We can, yes.


Q: OK. I’m sorry. My question—I’m from Syria, by the way. My question is, is what’s your prediction for the next near future—or, like, next three years? What’s going to happen in Syria?


LEMMON: If I could answer that properly, I would definitely have a crystal ball. But I will tell you three questions, and I would argue to use they may—I’m sure you have a very informed and rich perspective on this. But since you asked me for mine, and I’ve been following the policy conversation, I would say this. We don’t know, because one scenario has a peace deal eventually being brokered. And a lot of people talk about a loose federation—(audio break)—with the Kurds and Arabs together running a Syrian democratic project and the SDF bringing some level of security, the regime having its space, and the Russians the Iranians staying active in the regime space and everybody kind of living with one another in this loose federation.


Another scenario has a peace deal where transition is discussed. I find that harder to believe. I do not think Assad has been anything but strengthened by what’s been happening the last 18 months. And I don’t think that the Americans, who once had the policy of Assad must go, are serious about that. I really don’t. I think that they are much more like Assad can kind of stay and we’ll have our influence here and in this loose federation, and we will have these folks who we’ve been working with in this area and the regime will kind of stay in this area and then we’ll all fight extremism to the nth degree. But, you know, I don’t see any good—there’s not going to be a big transition at this moment.


The third scenario is that the Americans just say, OK, we beat ISIS. Thank you so much, Syrians and Kurds and Arabs who fought with us. It’s been—you know, this has been a very fruitful partnership. We appreciate it. Turkey then runs—or, you know, the regime comes back in, takes those areas back with the help of Russian airpower and (tacit ?) support from Turkey. And that whole democratic project goes away. We do not yet know the answer to which of those scenarios is going to play out. If you talk to the military folks in particular, they’re very deeply—they deeply believe that the U.S. should stay committed, which might surprise some people. It’s surprised me a little bit before I’d seen it in action. And they are very worried, both for America’s security and for America’s credibility, that America will walk away.


You know, it’s—but the next question will be, under what auspices, under what pretext is America still there? What authorization? And this is a whole other CFR conversation about the authorization for the use of military force under which all of this is happening. So I think there are key questions that are going to get answers in the next six to 12 months, and it will shape what comes next.


FASKIANOS: Gayle, we’re hearing the end of our time. Are there any final thoughts you want to leave us with?


LEMMON: I would just say that for me this is all a security and stability question. I think it does affect America, whether we’ve covered this war like it does or not. And I do think that truly the thing that has stayed with me are the moms and the little ones who are just hungry for something better. So for every time somebody says you can’t do something, I hope you challenge them because there is something to do. And I think, you know, what we’ve tried to do is the best storytelling takes away the other, you know, it has a sort of de-otherization about it. And I hope with these stories we’ve been able to show you that these are moms and dads and little ones and young men and young women fighting who are just likes the ones you know in your community. And they’re fighting for the future.


FASKIANOS: Gayle, thank you very much for doing this, and for everybody’s terrific questions. And I hope that you will take Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s words of the call to action to heart, and take this subject back to your communities, because you all are faith leaders and can do a lot in your places where you are. So we hope that you will do that. It’s always a pleasure to have you on, Gayle. And you can follow Gayle Lemmon on Twitter at @GayleLemmon. We also encourage you to follow us on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements our upcoming events and information about CFR resources. So as always, we encourage you to send us feedback, speaker or topic suggestions. I would love to consider those. And we look forward to your participation in future discussions. Thank you all.



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