Daryl Byler, executive director at EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, speaks to a group gathered on the steps of the Rockingham County Courthouse to speak out against the use of force in Syria on Monday, Sept. 9. (Photo by Michael Reilly / Daily News Record)

Candlelight vigil seeks nonviolent solution to Syrian conflict

Um Ghadeer arrived in Aman, Jordan, after a 300-mile journey with her husband and four children from Aleppo, Syria, after their home was destroyed in the country’s civil war.

In her one-room home, the Sunni Muslim refugee served tea to Daryl Byler, who worked for an international humanitarian organization in Jordan for six years.

“It was strange to me that she was not interested in placing blame. She just wanted the violence to stop,” Byler said, looking up to the crowd of more than 100 people gathered on the Rockingham County Courthouse steps Monday evening.

The assembly, organized by MoveOn.org, lit candles to shine the light of prayers for a nonviolent solution to the Syrian conflict, which has gone on for more than two years, left over 100,000 civilians dead and more than 7 million — about a third of the country’s population — displaced.

President Barack Obama has asked Congress to authorize the use of Tomahawk missiles against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in response to a chemical weapons attacks that killed about 1,400 civilians last month. Obama claims he has evidence Assad is responsible.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claims evidence to the contrary, while United Nations inspectors are investigating the attacks.

Obama plans to address the nation tonight in a prime-time speech to explain his call for a military strike.

Byler, who is the executive director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, was one of several people who spoke at Court Square about finding creative solutions instead of missile strikes, as the sun sank behind the nearby Harrisonburg/Rockingham Judicial Center. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Daryl Byler wrote an op-ed arguing against a U.S. military strike on Syria that was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.]

Earl Martin, one of the event’s organizers, said candles were burning in 165 other cities in the U.S. He said missile strikes would lead to the deaths of innocent civilians like he saw in the Vietnam War.

“We carried the collateral damage in our arms and the collateral damage stained our shirts and stained our hearts,” he said.

Having seen the carnage of war, Martin wants the U.S. to find “more effective ways to respond.”

An Iraqi war veteran, who said he just made up his mind about whether the U.S. should intervene with military action in Syria, agreed with Martin.

“The cast of characters in this is insane,” Evan Knappenberger said. Israel and al-Qaida both want the U.S. to intervene, he said.

“I don’t think the U.S. military is the tool for this kind of problem,” he said, standing in his camouflage Army jacket.

Each speaker shared similar sentiments that the U.S. should dig around its toolbox for something besides a hammer.

In an interview while the congregation dipped wicks into glowing candles spreading light around a darkening Court Square, Byler said that any process meant to heal wounds made during the bloody conflict must involve Assad, the rebels and the majority stuck in the middle.

Violence has occurred throughout the Middle East, he said, because oppression has led to more oppression. When a majority regains power over a minority, as rebels intend to over Assad’s Alawite sect, they return the tyranny they experienced and the cycle repeats.

“The hard work is for the international community to recognize all of the disparate parties who have a stake in this problem to … come together to talk,” Byler said.

Instead of missile strikes, he said, those accused of war crimes, such as chemical weapons attacks, should be tried in the International Criminal Court.

“It seems to me that it models much greater respect for …  international law, for international peace, than doing something we’re pretty sure based on experience is going to fuel the flames,” he said.

Byler said the U.S. can only sell democracy if the nation can show it works properly, with politicians reaching across the aisle for compromise.

“To see effective …  democracy in the Middle East, we need to lead by example,” he said.

Article courtesy Daily News Record, Sept. 10, 2013