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The choice between fire or fire

06 September 2013

In the complexities of Syria, it would not be right to intervene now, says Robin Morrison


I was commiserating with a Syrian family in Wales, last week, and I asked them what they thought the solution might be. The shrugged, with tears in their eyes. "The choice," they said, was "fire or fire."

In the United States this week, the whisper behind the motion going to Congress is that the stakes have been upgraded from "deter" to "degrade". To degrade means cruise-missile attacks from ships, submarines, or planes based in Turkey, the Red Sea, and elsewhere, on specific military targets. This will reduce the Syrian regime's military capability, and so swing the balance in the favour of the rebel forces.

Punishment for the use of chemical weapons or longer-term deterrence may be the immediate motive, but the language of degrading fits into a longer-standing narrative about the "axis of evil", which, President George W. Bush said, included Syria. Underneath this approach is an unchristian, almost comic-book assumption that all the evil resides in the dictator, and all the good in the rebels.

Few who produced and colluded with this narrative can have been to Syria and spent time with people there - including, of course, the thousands of Christians from different Churches and backgrounds.

I was part of a small ecumenical delegation on a visit to Syria and Lebanon in 2006. I wrote the letter that helped us to meet President Bashar al-Assad in his palace for about two hours; all of us who went remember that meeting well. Ever since, we have been agonising, analysing, and praying about what anyone could do to help.

When President Assad's early speeches blamed outside terrorists for the protests, he made a strategic mistake, and appeared to be in denial of the influence of the Arab Spring and the internal concerns about his human-rights record, especially when it came to dealing with terrorists.

But he was right. There are many outside terrorist groups, indirectly or directly involved. They are now insiders, scattered among the tribal, sectarian, and divided parts of Syria, which have been part of its geography and history for some time. There is no coherent political leadership plan appearing from the "rebel" side.

There would have been no way of ensuring that arming the rebels would not lead to arming terrorists, further fanning the flames of the violence. In the dry heat of any sectarian tension, these flames are easily lit.

When we met President Assad, he was courteous, and openly engaged with every issue we raised about economic, health, social, and educational reform. He despaired of Britain under Blair, and our subservience to the US narrative about the Middle East.

He had sided with Iran against Iraq, and expected praise for that from us. He had offered to broker Israeli-Palestinian talks, and said that he had received no credit for that. He was suppressing jihadist terrorists, and again received no thanks from the West. He was providing a neutral Ba'athist-like space, in the middle of sectarian Muslim factions and the plurality of many different Christian groups.

He was trusted and respected by every Christian leader, at patriarchal and general-secretary level, to whom we spoke, and some Muslim leaders, too. "Without him and the Alawites," they said, "this country would fall apart."

Democracy is not a question of individual but confessional group-opinion and representation. Sectarian division runs very deep, and not just between Sunni and the Shia. We should know from our own history in the West how such division turns to violence.

After the chaos of Iraq, the continuing intransigence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the global implications of Islamic extremism, the West is learning the real danger of those who see sharia as the only way of running a country; who support the return of the Caliphate; who are completely against what they see as the corrupting values of modernity in their own countries, let alone in the West.

If Congress votes for a military strike to degrade or deter, it needs to construct a robust and viable political end-game to deal with the violence, and to bring other members of the international community on board, particularly Russia and China.

If Congress votes against a strike, let us pray for a new energy to facilitate a political solution. Doing nothing is rarely an ethical position, although an article in the International Herald Tribune last week advocated stalemate as a sensible option. Given the alternatives of fire or fire, this is tempting argument, even though a stalemate would only perpetuate the killing and suffering, with or without chemical weapons, in the immediate future.

There is merit in a "Darwinian" approach, which argues for keeping out of this, in the belief that, eventually, voices will emerge, we would hope on all sides, which say: "Enough is enough." Only the people of Syria can stop this, and until that happens, the killing will go on.

The Kosovo doctrine of intervention should not be implemented in all situations. In Syria, it would only postpone the moment when people rediscover their own perspective, and realise that they have the power within themselves to stop perpetuating the violence.

They will need massive humanitarian support for reconstruction of all kinds, over many years, from the countries of the UN Security Council and elsewhere. In truth, if the international community came together in that task, it might be a healing for us all, as well as for the Syrians. So, the United States and Britain: let the fire burn itself out, don't put more fuel anywhere near it. Stand by to help douse the flames, and rebuild what they have destroyed. 

Canon Robin Morrison was, until recently, Bishops' Adviser for Church and Society in the Church in Wales, which included a responsibility for international affairs.

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