A SYRIAN priest in the Church of England has said he is “devastated” by the news that the United States has carried out a missile strike against a Syrian air base, describing it as “complete madness”.
The priest, the Revd Nadim Nassar, director of the Awareness Foundation, has also condemned the "total failure" of the Church to work for peace. He drew parallels with the civil war in Lebanon, which he witnessed first hand: “After 35 years, we are repeating the same mistakes, the same evil, the same violence.”
Christian Aid has called for an "immediate cessation of violence by all parties" and warned that the strike will "likely only add to civilian suffering and deepen insecurity".
The strikes on Friday morning were a response to a chemical attack in Idlib on Tuesday, which the United States has attributed to Syrian forces. The US President, Donald Trump, said that the strike targeted at the air field from where the attack was launched: “It was in the vital national security interest of the US to prevent and deter the use of deadly chemical weapons. . . Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behaviour have all failed and failed very dramatically.”
A spokeswoman for the UK Government said on Friday morning that it "fully supports the US action, which we believe was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime, and is intended to deter further attacks."
A spokesman for Russian President, Vladimir Putin, called the strikes “an act of aggression against a sovereign nation”.
Mr Nassar compared the response to “trying to put out the fire with gasoline”.
“I was devastated to hear that more violence was added to the situation in Syria," he said on Friday. "Do we really think that such an airstrike will prevent chemical attacks by whoever is doing it? I don’t believe so at all. What I believe is that violence cannot stop violence. We need to revert to our senses, and talk.”
He accused the US and Russia of “playing games” and the UK of “just following, just supporting what America is doing without any proper investigation. The defence minister said they are dependent on their intelligence. How can we trust that intelligence? It failed competely in Iraq. Are we preparing the way for another war in Syria?”
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday that its partners on the ground in Idlib were reporting that at least 70 people had died frfom chemical poisoning on Tuesday; hundreds more had been affected.
Save the Children, which operates a clinic that treated casualties, said that doctors had reported that nearly one third were children, “who are arriving at hospitals pale and unconscious or struggling to breathe after rockets were dropped”. WHO reports that, shortly after receiving the first patients of the alleged attack on Tuesday, Al Rahma hospital was “damaged”.
The Archbishop of Canterbury called on people to “pray, lament, protest for justice”.
The Pope said that he was “horrified” by the “unacceptable massacre”.
The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, called for prayer to be accompanied by "heroic international co-operation".
Idlib is a rebel-held area to which many displaced Syrians have fled during the Syrian conflict. It has been subject to heavy bombardment. Last year, 21 children were killed in an airstrike on a complex of schools in the area.
Russia confirmed on Tuesday that the Syrian airforce had attacked the town of Khan Sheikhoun, but said that it had struck a “large terrorist ammunition depot” which produced chemical weapons for use in Iraq. The Syrian government categorically rejected claims that it had used chemical weapons. A state news agency report quoted the Foreign Ministry referring to “fabrications”, which came “prior to the convening of an EU meeting tomorrow about Syria in order to launch an attack on the country and justify the hostile resolutions that will be adopted in this meeting”.
UN agencies including the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN Syria Commission are conducting investigations to determine what occurred. But a Guardian report from the town attested that no buildings had been hit, undermining the Russian view that the chemicals had been stored in the town.
Previous UN investigations into persistent allegations of chemical weapon attacks in Syria have confirmed their use, including the deployment of Sarin gas in attacks on the outskirts of Damascus in 2013. Both the UK and the US governments attributed this to the Syrian government, but failed to secure sufficient parliamentary support to pursue military action. An agreement was reached between the US and Russia for the destruction of the Syrian chemical stockpile, but reports of attacks continued.
In 2014, the Commission concluded that government forces had used chemical agents, likely chlorine, in eight separate incidents in western Syria (News, 5 September, 2014). Last year, a UN inquiry concluded that two chlorine-gas attacks on civilians had been perpetrated by the Syrian air force, and that Islamic State was responsible for one mustard-gas attack.
At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Wednesday, the UK ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, asked: “How long are we going to sit and pretend that actions in this chamber have no consequences? That vetoes have no bearing on the lives of innocent men, women and children.”
He dismissed Russia’s account of events: “This bears all the hallmarks of the Assad regime.”
Russia’s deputy ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, criticised the “useless practice of carrying out investigations remotely” and said that the Syrian government had requested an investigation by the OPCW. This investigation should be “objective”. He accused the UK of an “obsession with regime change in Syria”, which “hinders this Security Council”.
The US ambassador, Nikki Haley, warned: “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”
When the use of chemical weapons in Syria was debated by the House of Lords in 2013, Archbishop Welby said that he was not convinced that military intervention would prevent further use (News, 30 August, 2013). Other religious leaders and Christian charities also opposed military action (News, 30 August).
On Thursday, hours before the strikes, Mr Nassar strongly rejected suggestions that military intervention was the solution to the crisis.
"The British Parliament voted for bombing [against ISIS, in 2015], and what happened? They bombed and they bombed, but nothing happened. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury backed the bombing, which, I feel, was appalling of him. . . To blame the lack of military intervention, for me, is like trying to put out the fire with gasoline."
He continued: "I want to ask, where was the consciousness of Mrs May and Mr Trump, and the President before him, and the Prime Minister before her, when Syria lost hundreds of thousands of people? The world has not moved.
"Why has it moved now because 70 people died out of a gas attack? It is horrible, but every killing is horrible for us. . . What hypocrisy are we living in with politicians? It is OK for peope to die under barrel bombs and shelling and suicide bombings?"
It was "madness", he said, to suggest putting an end to the destruction with more military action. The "proxy war" would end only with the agreement of the powers engaged in it.
"At the moment, I do not see that those superpowers have taken the decision to end the war," he said. "I see the opposite: a decision to escalate the war after the gas attack and the threat of intervening military . . . It’s a theatrical dialogue rather than a true dialogue for peace, and they want to score points on each other, and attack each other, instead of recognising each other and looking ahead how we can together build Syria."
Syrians he had spoken to were "furious with all politicians with this political game that is played inside the country".
On Friday, he drew parallels to the civil war in Lebanon, which he witnessed first hand. He recalled the shelling of Beirut by a US warship in 1984. "There was colossal devastation, numerous dead and injured and maimed. Did the war stop? Of course not. I think it's exactly the same scenario now. Hammering Syria with missiles to stop chemical attacks is complete madness. After 35 years we are repeating the same mistakes, the same evil, the same violence."
Mr Nadim, who has previously condemned the response of the Church to the crisis in his country (News, 6 May, 2016), spoke of a "total failure" by church leaders to exert pressure to end the war.
"Where is the Christian prophetic voice in society to challenge such decisions to make more bloodshed and more destruction and more military intervention?" he asked. "Where is the Christian peacemaking? We say our Lord is the Prince of Peace. I don’t see the Church is behaving like the children of the Prince of Peace."
"It is paramount that the UK and other governments push for an immediate cessation of violence by all parties to the conflict and for world leaders to prioritise the establishment of a peaceful settlement in Syria that serves all of its citizens equally," said Christian Aid’s Programme Officer for Syria, Máiréad Collins, on Friday. “As long as the violence continues, necessary humanitarian interventions inside Syria continue to be slowed or stopped entirely."
She warned: "Any further military action, such as the US strike last night, will likely only add to civilian suffering and deepen insecurity. This is underlined by the reported fresh bombing today of Khan Sheikhoun, the town which suffered the sarin gas attack this week.
“The depravity unleashed by the Syrian war throws into sharp relief the deep malaise that has gripped the international community. As world leaders line up to apportion blame, the reality is that Syria represents a collective political failure."
On Wednesday, Dr Cocksworth, who speaks regularly on Syria in the House of Lords, called for action to accompany prayer.
“Whenever we think that the hell into which Syria descended when violence — as it almost always does — spiralled out of control can get no deeper and darker, it does,” he said.
“Our prayer for Syria and Iraq to be delivered from evil needs to be accompanied by heroic international cooperation involving immediate efforts for peace, urgent humanitarian support for refugees in the region and long term commitment to justice for victims and the reconstruction of society.
"The scale of Syria’s suffering will demand massive, costly and lasting action to rebuild the country by every power that has been party to this horrendous conflict. Only that will cleanse the land of the chemicals that have killed its people.”
Last year, Dr Cocksworth led a House of Lords debate on a political solution in Syria, in which he urged the Government to “explore ideas for gradually devolving political power in Syria, both from Assad to a newly formed Government and from Damascus to the regions”.
“Western Governments, including our own, have rightly accepted that sudden and violent regime change in Damascus cannot be made into the condition for peace, but we have yet to see a corresponding shift in the narrative over Assad’s future,” he said, at that time.
“We need to accept that there is no viable opposition Government-in-waiting in Syria and little prospect of creating a unitary Government out of the myriad opposition groups. Other ways of resolving this impasse must be found.”
At a major conference on Syria in Brussels this week donors pledged $6 billion in aid. The UN had warned on the eve of the gathering that its 2017 funding appeal for Syrian refugees was just nine-per-cent funded and that, without a change, food and cash assistance will be reduced or cut this year. A new report from Catholic aid agencies called for a focus on livelihoods and social cohesion, including investment in host countries that would enable refugees to work. Chris Latif, World Vision’s Response Manager for Northern Syria, said: “Many inside Syria feel that the outside world has forgotten them.”
This week, the Prime Minister, Theresa May announced an additional £160 million of funding for Syria, taking the country’s total aid contribution to the crisis to £2.46 billion.