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Syria: ‘No clear right answer’ as West ponders its response

06 September 2013


Defiant: the "Over our Bodies" campaign by supporters of President Assad, which plans to organise human shields in Damascus against US air-strikes

Defiant: the "Over our Bodies" campaign by supporters of President Assad, which plans to organise human shields in Damascus against US air-strikes

THE NUMBER of Syrian refugees reached two million this week, with 5000 people a day fleeing the country, as the West continued to debate the possibility of military intervention.

According to the UN's refugee agency, one in ten of Syria's pre-war population now lives outside its borders - a "disgraceful humanitarian calamity, with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history", a statement said.

Christian Aid has warned that any Western air-strike would "increase dramatically" the number of refugees, with "catastrophic effects on the already desperate humanitarian situation in neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon and Iraq".

On Saturday, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, announced that he had decided to take military action against the Syrian regime, but that he would seek congressional authorisation for intervention. A vote is expected on Monday.

On Tuesday, President Obama said that this limited action would fit "into a broader strategy that can bring about, over time, the kind of strengthening of the opposition and the diplomatic, economic and political pressure required - so that, ultimately, we have a transition that can bring peace and stability, not only to Syria but to the region."

The UN chemical-weapons inspection team left Syria on Saturday. There is no deadline for the delivery of its report, and it will not be determining who was responsible for any chemical-weapons attack.

On Tuesday, the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, said that action to prevent future uses of chemical weapons must be approved by the Security Council.

The US government's own chemical-weapons assessment, which was published on Friday, asserted "with high confidence" that the Syrian government was behind the attack in Gouta, Damascus, on 21 August.

President Obama said: "I'm confident in the case our government has made, without waiting for UN inspectors. I'm comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralysed, and unwilling to hold Assad accountable."

On Tuesday, the Revd Jim Wallis, chief executive of Sojourners, a US-based justice-and-peace network, told BBC Radio Five that the priority for the West should be to "win the hearts and minds of the Syrian people back" through humanitarian support, before launching "an international campaign . . . to isolate Assad and surround him with rejection, put him on trial." Russia and China must be "pressed very hard on their support for this man". Military strikes "often have unintended con-sequences, and they can bring more people into the battle".

This week, UK government ministers said that there were no plans to hold another parliamentary vote on military intervention in Syria, after MPs rejected the Prime Minister's motion approving such action under a UN mandate ( News, 30 August).

On Friday, the Syrian-born director of the Awareness Foundation in London, the Revd Nadim Nassar, described the vote as "extremely disturbing", because "no one in the whole British Parliament asked Mr Cameron if he had tried an option other than military attack. . . Although the vote was as I wanted and wished for, I felt deep pain that this country was being betrayed by its own political leaders, as it was by Mr Blair before the war on Iraq. I did feel that Syria and the Syrians were abandoned by the world."

Gavin Shuker, a Labour member of Christians in Parliament, who voted against the motion, said on Tuesday that his faith had played a "clear role" in his decision-making, but that the issue was one "where there is no clear right answer". De- scribing himself as "neither a hawk nor a dove" (he protested against the war in Iraq, but supported action in Libya), he was "deeply sceptical that armed intervention in the region could be helpful for the people of Syria. . . I reached a judgement that I could not vote in good faith on military action, regardless of my party's position."

Jeremy LeFroy, a Conservative member of the same group, who supported the Prime Minister, said: "There is a mistaken impression that, by voting for the government motion, MPs were voting in favour of military action. . . [It] required a further vote before there could be any involvement by the UK in military action. . . I believe that any military action should only be taken against Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons, with the aim of preventing further use, under a United Nations mandate, and by a wide group of nations, including other Middle Eastern and Arab nations. Any such military action should only be contemplated after all other non-military means have been exhausted, and if the full consequences of any such action have been considered, which I do not currently consider to be the case."

David Burrowes, another Conservative member of the group that supported the Prime Minister's motion, echoed this argument, and described how "one of the most significant moments was not just the end of the debate, but the beginning, when the Speaker's Chaplain read from Psalm 46. . . which makes the point very clearly that our Lord is sovereign, and nations need to humble themselves before him."

The Government, which is al- ready the second largest donor of funds to the crisis, announced on Tuesday that it had committed £348 million to help those affected by the conflict in Syria. This represents the UK's largest-ever response to a humanitarian crisis.

The same day, the Revd Engin Yildirim, Priest-in-Charge of the Turkish-speaking parish of the Re- surrection in Istanbul, described the situation in Turkey, which is currently host to 460,000 Syrian refugees.

"You see a lot of people coming in need," he said. "There have been some instances in the past couple of months where people are going to churches because they have no home or no place to live. We are a small church [with] not a lot of resources, but I believe that it is very, very important that churches approach the situation intentionally, to buffer up the need."

Although he had not observed tension in "cosmopolitan" Istanbul, he was aware that, in smaller areas bordering Syria, such as Antioch, people had "mixed feelings", and were wary of possible disorder.

The British Parliament's vote against military intervention had provoked "a bit of disappointment" in Turkey, Mr Yildirim said, but he was personally in favour of the decision, "because no one knows who used the chemical weapons, and there is always the possibility that they were used by groups who would want this invasion".

He suggested that the voices of Christians in Syria were not being heard in Turkey, and asked people to pray for Christianity in the Middle East, which was "increasingly diminishing"; and about the potentially negative consequences of the growth of Sunni Islam fundamentalist groups in the region.

It was expected that the crisis in Syria would be discussed at the two-day summit meeting of the G20 leaders in St Petersburg, which was to start on Thursday.

Church Times readers voted overwhelmingly against military action in response to last week's online question. At the time of going to press, 83 per cent of those voting said that they were against military intervention; 17 per cent were in favour.

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