What is the way forward on Syria?
Western policy on Syria is a mess. One official who discussed the issue with President Obama told the New York Times that he had never seen him more frustrated. The President, he said, is frustrated with the Russians but also with the failure of anything his own administration has tried so far.
Peace talks in Geneva have stalled. Assad is now winning the war and he sees no reason to make concessions. Although the process of dismantling chemical weapons is continuing, it is doing so at a very slow rate. According to some estimates only five per cent of the weapons have so far been dismantled.
Meanwhile the suffering in Syria continues, with the death total now put at 140,000 and millions made homeless. The New York Review of Books has published a horrifying but convincing article that argues that Assad has made a deliberate decision to target the health of people living in rebel-held areas, including the health of children. Even before the fighting started the Syrian government stopped routine immunisations for preventable childhood diseases in areas sympathetic to the opposition. Since the conflict started Assad’s forces have obstructed humanitarian aid and the supply of vaccines to rebel-held territory.
As a result measles, typhoid, hepatitis, dysentery, tuberculosis, diphtheria and whooping cough are all on the rise. There have even been over 90 cases of polio, a once much-feared disease that was thought to have passed into the history books.
Weary with war after a long campaign in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq that has only led to a divided and strifetorn country, many in the West have preferred to avert their eyes from Syria. People have chosen to ignore Tony Blair’s oft-repeated warnings that what happens in the Middle East will affect all of us but these warnings are likely to be proved true in the case of Syria.
Security services in the West are anxious about extremists who have gone to Syria, trained as jihadi fighters, and returned home. British security officials put the figure in this country at 250 and are worried that they may continue their campaign here.
The power of extremists in Syria has grown as the West has failed to support moderate factions among the rebels. If the advice of people like Anne-Marie Slaughter had been followed early on in the conflict, the West would have established no-fly zones and given arms to the rebels. When it was certain that Assad was using chemical weapons, strikes should have been made to disable his air force. At the very least, he would then have been forced to enter into serious negotiations with the rebel forces with whom the West would have had leverage because of the aid they were receiving.
Obama, Ed Miliband and David Cameron all deserve blame for the current situation. Miliband’s behaviour in the debate over Syria’s use of chemical weapons showed the very worst type of opportunism.
Two factors have clouded the judgement of the churches. The first has been concern for the plight of Christians who have been afforded a measure of protection by the Assad regime. But the failure of the West to support the moderate rebels has only increased the influence of the extremists who constitute the greatest threat to Christians.
The churches have also been influenced by the growing importance within their ranks of theologians who have advocated pacificism or something very close to it. Stanley Hauerwas is someone who falls into this category. The failure of the Iraq war to lead to the creation of a peaceful and stable country has strengthened the hand of the anti-war faction in the churches.
Disillusion with war and with the ability of Western nations to undertake nation-building in areas like the Middle East is not confined to the churches. It is widespread among both the voters and the political classes. Such an attitude is understandable but an awareness of the limits of Western influence should not lead us to think there is nothing we can achieve.
Long-term national boundaries in the Middle East will probably have to change if we are to see the emergence of stable states. Most countries are artificial creations of colonial powers. In the case of Saudi Arabia what exists is not so much a nation as a family estate. Political upheaval and conflict is inevitable until a new political configuration emerges and the West cannot decide what this configuration will be. Conflict between Shia and Sunni is part of this upheaval.
But this does not mean that the rest of the World should sit on the sidelines and watch atrocities take place or allow non-Arab nations such as Russia to intervene in conflicts for their own advantage. The Just War tradition is normally used to decide whether or not a course of military action is justified according to certain criteria. But one element in the tradition stresses the importance of acting in the world to promote justice and punish wrongdoing. We must not see Just War thinking as an excuse not to get involved in the world’s problems.
Inappropriate, ill-conceived intervention can have terrible consequence but so, too, can failure to act.