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Western policy concerning the post-Arab Spring conflict in Syria

10 May 2013


From the Bishop of Warwick

Sir, - Syria is awash with blood. Western countries have too readily aligned themselves with George Bush's designation of Syria as part of the "axis of evil". Such "goodies and baddies" language simply betrays a lack of self-knowledge and, in this case, a dangerous ignorance.

The invasion of Iraq with the rhetoric of "crusade" was the greatest imaginable recruiting sergeant for Islamist fighters, allowing the all-too-easy equation of the Christians with Western aggressors. Christians in the Holy Lands have been paying the price ever since, as their continuing exodus sadly confirms.

Syria received more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, many of whom were Christians fleeing the threats of such extremists. When in Syria, I heard some of their stories and read some of the written threats put through their doors. Syrian Muslims and Syrian Christians worked together with the government to provide homes and schools for these refugees.

In 2007, I spent eight days in Syria, on behalf of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, visiting leaders of all Christian denominations. I also met the Sunni Grand Mufti, Ahmad Hassoun, the Shia leader Sheikh Nizam, and the Druze leader Ahmad al-Hajar, and was privileged to attend the meeting between President Assad and Archbishop Williams.

Under Bashar al-Assad's Alawite (police-state) regime, Christians were given considerable freedoms. There was much Muslim-Christian mutual hospitality. Christians would invite Muslims to share in the iftar meal after the Ramadan fast, and Muslims on other occasions would invite Christians to such meals.

Visiting Christian leaders in Aleppo, I discovered that the leaders of eight Christian denominations met for prayer breakfasts each month. (Today we continue in urgent prayer for two of these leaders, Metropolitan Paul Yazigi, and Archbishop Ibrahim.)

The Grand Mufti was an extraordinary influence for moderate Islam, not only in Syria, but internationally. He visited Britain to urge imams from all over this country not to import jihadi struggles here from their own countries, but to be loyal British citizens. Hassoun argues that there is no such thing as a holy war. Quoting the Qur'an: "Let there be no compulsion in religion," he has been a passionate advocate of living well with difference.

Three years ago, Syrians, in the momentum of the so-called Arab Spring, made clear their quite proper aspirations for greater freedoms. There might have been a moment and opportunity then to take a different course which made for peace. That moment has been lost.

Assad is not the same ruthless tyrant as his father, Hafez, was. But, I am told, his relatives in charge of the army and with hands on the levers of power would not make space for dialogue and change.

What we are seeing now in Syria is a regime deeply compromised by its own escalating violence, and an opposition piggybacked by extremists from several different countries, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who have nothing but contempt for democracy. One tactic of such extremists is to kill those bridge-builders in Syria, whether they be Muslim or Christian.

The Grand Mufti's son was shot by terrorists, for example. Another tactic of the extremists, I am told by Syrians in this country, is to commit atrocities on some opposition forces to make it appear that it is the work of Assad, thus radicalising some of the erstwhile moderate forces of opposition. It may be that the recent sarin attack (if that is what it was) falls into this category.

So, whatever we do in this country, let us not collude in the comforting illusion that we can go in like a knight in shining armour to arm the goodies against the baddies. It is not as simple as that. To exchange Assad for the most organised elements of the opposition, such as al-Nusra linked to al-Qaeda, will bring no freedom or blessing to the peoples of Syria, and leave no room for its minorities, among them our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Many Syrian Christians both in Syria and in this country are concerned that our Government is overtly supporting the opposition at the expense of seeking to broker a constructive dialogue that could lead to peace. If the West is not to make things worse by arming the "opposition", we should do all in our power to engage the countries fighting proxy wars through the Syrian peoples on both "sides" of the conflict. That means Russia and possibly even Iran.

Warwick House
139 Kenilworth Road
Coventry CV4 7AP

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