The world was stunned when Colombians rejected a peace deal that would have ended a half-century conflict with Marxist rebels.
For some Syrians and Syrian-Americans, who are looking for any little sign that their own country can emerge from its dark civil war, the failed opportunity has been hard to accept.
Alia Malek, a Syrian-American author and lawyer, shared her dashed feelings with friends Sunday night on Facebook.
“I was looking for hope for Syria in Colombia,” she wrote.
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Colombian citizens narrowly rejected a peace accord Sunday with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC, which could mean restarting a conflict that has already killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.
It was a dramatic blow not only to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and those who supported the peace deal, but also for much of the worldwide community who saw in Colombia a precedent-setting opportunity to show peace is possible even under the most difficult circumstances.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi captured that sentiment last week when he tweeted out a picture of Santos shaking hands with FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño next to a photo of the destruction in Syria.
“Proof that no conflict is intractable,” Grandi wrote.
That looks a little premature now, considering that days later the Colombian people voted down the agreement, but Grandi was far from alone in hailing the accord. Secretary of State John Kerry joined 15 heads of state, Santos, and Londoño – all dressed in white as a symbol of peace – in an elaborate signing ceremony six days before the Colombian citizens took to the polls.
You are looking for proof that humanity can move forward. And apparently it didn’t in Colombia in this case.
Alia Malek, Syrian-American author and lawyer
While the wars in Colombia and Syria are very different, there was a time in Colombia when the nation seemed consumed with violence. Most every Colombian citizen had a story to tell about a loved one or friend of a loved one being attacked, being kidnapped by guerrillas or having land seized.
Many fled to the United States and Europe.
In Colombia’s past, Malek and others see Syria’s present, where half the population has been displaced and hundreds of thousands have died since the start of the war in 2011.
The fact that Santos and the FARC commander could shake hands after a cease-fire in Colombia means that someday in Syria opposing forces might also decide to lay down their weapons.
“You are looking for proof that humanity can move forward. And apparently it didn’t in Colombia in this case,” Malek said in an interview.
Malek also has friends in Colombia after having spent time there.
Colombia is one of the leading Latin American countries taking in Syrian refugees, with 2,640 seeking or having been granted asylum. The Syrian community at this point remains tiny in Colombia, but it is part of a growing Muslim population that has triggered new conversations about religion and family.
The story of a Syrian refugee, Almotaz Bellah Kedrou, who won over his Bogotá neighborhood when he started a food cart with Syrian dishes that he’d learned to prepare from his mother over Skype, went viral and was read worldwide.
The peace process in Colombia is far from over. Santos and Londoño have promised to maintain a cease-fire for the time being and will extend it as needed. The United States has agreed to send U.S. diplomat Bernie Aronson back to Cuba to help with the talks.
A senior State Department official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity at a department briefing per administration policy, said Wednesday that there was broad support for many aspects of the agreement, including mine removal, substituting crops for coca production and releasing child soldiers.
Whenever you see anything that relates to peace or a peaceful resolution to a conflict then people get attached to that. It’s more symbolic than real.
Nazih Richani, Kean University
Much of what is in the agreement will likely be saved, predicts Nazih Richani, a political scientist and director of Latin American studies at Kean University in New Jersey who has studied the protracted civil wars in Colombia and Syria
Richani said it was difficult to compare the two conflicts, considering the different actors and interests involved, particularly in the Syrian war, which he described as the most complex war he’s ever studied.
Bu he understands why some Syrian-Americans see a connection between the conflicts.
“Whenever you see anything that relates to peace or a peaceful resolution to a conflict then people get attached to that,” he said. “It’s more symbolic than real.”
But for Malek, what may seem symbolic today could be real tomorrow.
“Colombia is a few decades from where Syria is going to be, one way or the other,” Malek said. “Regimes fall. People get sick of fighting each other. There is going to be a post-conflict.”