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