FIVE years ago, Dr Zaidoun Zoabi was a university professor working in Damascus. “The first time I chanted freedom it took me a couple of minutes amongst the crowd to say ‘f. . . f. . . freedom’. It was the first time that I hear myself. At the age of 38. I hear my sound, my voice. I can feel it. Oh my God, I can say it?” The story of what has happened in Syria since the Arab Spring is told in both overwhelming statistics and appalling individual stories. Hundreds of thousands dead — it may be half a million by now: the UN stopped counting two years ago — one of them a drowned three-year-old, face down on a beach. Despair may be a human response, but it cannot be a Christian one. Religious leaders have insisted, rightly, that we can do more to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Being fearful about immigrants is understandable, the Archbishop of Canterbury said last week, but we must take more anyway.
Things are more complicated the closer you get to Syria itself. As President Putin has shown, President Assad’s friends have been loyal; but those who stood up to him in 2011 are, as the BBC put it, now “disenchanted, detained, displaced, or dead”. And we are even more nervous about intervention than we are of the crowds at our borders. No one wants a repeat of Iraq. One thing we must resist is a return to the old status quo — a ruthless president saved from Islamic State fighters by Russian troops. Any solution that keeps us safe while continuing to endanger our neighbours half-way around the world is craven.
In the same interview, Archbishop Welby reasserted a case he has been making for some time: that the international community should be willing to confront states that have aided the development of extremism and violence, such as Saudi Arabia; also, that bad politics should be challenged by better. The extent of the challenge right now looks tame. Arms sales aside, it is hard to think of a reason why Britain has looked so favourably and for so long on a country of such obvious inequalities, not least on grounds of gender.
The past five years have been an assault on the hope expressed by Dr Zoabi and his brave fellow campaigners. Now is not the time to be distracted by the phantasms of a migrant invasion and forget those original ideals, which the West expressly shared. “It was always the right moment to do something,” Dr Zoabi says. “From March 2011 to now, it was always important to do something, to take action. . . Maybe I will not see the moment when peace is in my country, and maybe I will not see when there is democracy, freedom in my country. But I believe it is coming. It is coming. We just need to be aware that we have to pay for it. The price is huge.” At the right moment, the West declined to pay the price needed to secure peace, democracy, and freedom in Syria. It is now realising that the price of not doing so is just as huge.