What is the way for­ward on Syria?

The Church of England - - COMMENT -

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.

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