The ongoing tragedy of the Syrian Civil War gets daily more complicated and more worrisome for the good of Syria, the region, and indeed all those nations that are playing varying roles in this conflict that seems to become more murky every day. Recognizing the complications and acknowledging my lack of any expertise, I have been praying daily at Mass for a resolution of the conflict for the good of Syria and the Syrian people. As usual the poor and the innocent are the ones who suffer most. In particular in a war that has the classical enmity, seemingly ever present within Islam, of Shia/Alawite vs. Sunni as well as groups within each of these major Muslim traditions, we must have a particular concern for the others within Syria who suffer as much or more alongside all their neighbors and fellow citizens. The capture of a Syrian and a Greek Bishop by Chechen mercenaries who then “traded” them to Syrian rebels is a dramatic example of what is happening all too often to Christians whose roots in Syria go back to apostolic times.
If one grants that a civil war is a civil war, then the involvement of many different forces and groups, especially from outside forces, merits particular attention and deserves to be evaluated. While this is primarily a political, military and cultural/societal set of challenges, there are clearly important ethical issues that ought to guide political judgments and help determine the scope and limits of certain action. For example, international conventions set limits on certain kinds of weapons, including chemical weapons, which ban such use but which should be outside consideration and use because they are ethically and morally repugnant.
There are two factors that have complicated this conflict tremendously. The first is the composition of the “rebel forces”. Whatever group or groups first began this uprising to overthrow the dictatorship of Bashir al Assad, today they are not limited to Syrians. In addition the groups are in no way working harmoniously with one another. Nor do they all share the same aims. Some are unabashedly Syrian, the majority of whom are Sunni thus representing the ongoing tendency to violent strife between Sunni and Shia. They have been joined by mercenaries from places like Chechnya and even from as far away as the United States. There is ample evidence that many of these groups are or are linked to Al Qaeda. Others represent equally radical terrorist groups bent on their own ends.
The second outside factor is the involvement of nation states in varying ways and with almost as many different goals. Thus Saudi Arabia has been, as usual, pouring money into Sunni rebels that often indiscriminately but knowingly go to Al Qaeda. Russia and China are allied with the current regime. The European Union makes noises of being in favor of the “rebels” without being able to offer any real help in resolving the situation. Turkey acts for Turkish interests. Hezbollah is acting for its own interests. The United States is acting as strangely as one could imagine. The former Secretary of State Clinton announced early on that Mr. Bashir al Assad “had to go” and that the U.S. supports the “rebels” without knowing who they were and later having to admit that “we don’t support all rebels, only those who agree with us on wanting to overthrow the dictator”. Since then the new Secretary of State Kerry seems equally baffled and baffling as he travels for six times in the past six months to the Near East with little or nothing to show for it.
Of very recent date is a third issue. The spectre of the use of chemical weapons has become more focused and charges are being made by the United States and Europe that the regime is using them. There seem to be victims whose bodies show signs of chemical weapons having been used. The Syrian government has finally accepted to having outside inspections. Yet some officials in Washington are labeling this as “too late”. Russia is warning the U.S. not to jump to conclusions. The Holy Father is calling for dialogue, not threats, negotiation not ultimatums. Whether chemical weapons are being used needs to be determined and checked. But then the questions remains which side is using them. We Americans have already had a prior administration that used the argument that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which justified our waging war. That proved not to be the case. Prudence would seem to demand that the current administration not commit the same folly. Some groups and countries may want to overthrow the Assad regime. But what are the consequences? And what happens to all the innocent who already are suffering from this civil war exacerbated by the special interest of outside groups and outside nations?
Are there are other actors who can make a difference? The United Nations is functioning – or not – in its usual way and, despite messages from the Secretary General, has nothing substantive to contribute to resolve the situation. Most recently the Security Council expressed deep concern over the possibility of the use of chemical weapons and applauded the U.N. Secretary General Moon for his leadership. The calls for a conference are correct but to date they have not even produced an agreement on a place to meet, not to mention any commitment from the belligerents to participate. I suspect that Mr. Bashir might have reservations about participating in such a meeting when the United States and the European Union announce ahead of time that such a conference is intended to work out the means to remove him from the very role he is fighting to keep. And as far as the “rebel forces” are concerned, they are uninterested unless they have a guarantee that they are coming to a meeting to achieve their goal even though there is absolutely no evidence that they have an agreement among themselves about a future Syrian government or any willingness to do anything but to continue to fight it out among themselves as various power groups are doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One speaker at last month’s annual gathering of experts at the Aspen Institute summed this up neatly when he said that there are two options and both of them are repugnant: the only realistic options that can emerge from the current situation are either Bashir will win and he will continue to rule but with even greater repression of the Sunni and others who fought his regime; or the rebels will gain control and there will be years and years of ongoing conflict among themselves that will mirror Iraq and perhaps be even worse in its potential to continue an unstable Syria that in turn is a constant threat to destabilize even further the neighboring countries in the Middle East.
It is comparatively easy to shake a finger at any and all of the “actors” in this situation. And my own rather simplistic thoughts can only be offered as a possible beginning to what might have a minimal chance of some limited success. My simple suggestions are probably unworkable but are inspired by the constant appeal of both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis for constructive dialogue, encounters and agreements that would attempt to bring an end to violent conflict and establish some kind of civil collaboration even if it is only an agreement to stop killing one another.
The suggestion goes principally to the United States whose words and actions so far demonstrate neither real plan nor even much of an understanding of the Middle East in general and Syria in particular.
I would suggest the United States cease to be a cheerleader for the rebels and become instead truly neutral. That means no arms or aid to the rebels and no more empty rhetoric. Second from a position that is honestly embraced and adhered to, namely that the US has no interest in whoever is going to emerge as the leader of Syria so long as that leadership treats its citizens with justice and fairness, the US will regain some small bit of credibility in the region. Liberals will be furious, at least those who are partial to “rebels”. Conservatives who like to see our country “exercise muscle” will see this as a cave in. Those on any or no side who want the U.S. to rule the area might look on this as an unacceptable abdication of responsibility. And some will say the US is giving the place to Russia and China which may in the end to some extent happen. But no one knows that. We do know that the leadership of the United States is moot at this point for a number of reasons, some beyond U.S. control, many because of basic flaws in American knowledge, understanding and policy in the Middle East.
Yet, if the United States and its western allies stood for basic goods as the Holy See has consistently argued, without trying to manipulate one group or another and without interpreting what forms of leadership other countries must have, I believe a good argument can be made that this tragic situation can eventually be brought to a conclusion.
From that vantage point the role of the US does not end. In fact it can finally begin. First must come a clear commitment not to decide what belongs to the citizens of a country to decide the form of government and the powers of a government. Then our government and all – without exception – from outside Syria would have to become truly neutral instruments regarding factions. Instead we make our own the appeals of the two Popes and become the insistent voices for dialogue and the exercise prudent political compromise within Syria on the part of all participants in a war that is a civil war.
Pressure should be placed on all the outside forces to cease arming and encouraging either side. That may seem to some to be cynical. But it is the only way to reduce the scope of the war and the killing. It is the only way to make Syrians on both sides realize that it is their conflict and they have to fight it out without counting on outside weapons, soldiers and support that have led to expansion and to deepening of the violence. If they have fewer and fewer means to fight, then there will be a greater possibility that they can be encouraged to sit down and negotiate with one another.
The US will have to use its influence – however much that may be – to pressure those Arab countries to pull back support for the rebels. Russia and China need to be persuaded that this is not the place to exercise their military muscle in order later to have political influence. In addition, they should pressure Iran to remove itself as a military supplier to the Syrian government. The U.S. and European leaders will have to eschew their own rhetoric and talk sense without the “soft leftist” posturing that passes for political wisdom.
This could be the beginning of a gradual re-assessment of US policy that must also have as a goal the liberation of the US and the world economy on an overdependence on Middle East petroleum. Therefore it would behoove the US government immediately to reach an agreement with Canada for the building of the pipeline to transmit Canadian and Alaskan oil into the US. That action combined with any and all sensible development of alternative fuel sources would boost the US economy and encourage new investment and stabilize the international economic political scene because with the tranquility of knowing what one does have can come the serenity of being able to set goals instead of reacting to events.
This also could lead to a renewed dialogue between the US and Iran. The new President of Iran is being hailed as a moderate. We should be open to that and see what can come of it. Certainly if the U.S. were to attempt to assume the role I suggest in Syria, it might constitute a clear signal to Iran that Iran may or may not accept as a way for a more constructive dialogue regarding the proper use of nuclear power and the issue of nuclear weapons. No one can guarantee that. But it certainly would not hurt.
That immediately brings up the question of Israel, our staunch ally and our partner in a relationship we have been jeopardizing because of our lack of clarity and our seeming “waffling” in the Middle East. Israel will not want us to contribute to the pacification of Syria in terms of her short term interests: a Syria in turmoil is too busy to attack Israel. But is Israel better off with a destabilized Syria or a Syria where the Muslim brotherhood takes control or worse? Iran remains the “great threat and possibly a nuclear threat” to Israel. But what is the price of constantly isolating Iran? Perhaps we can get nowhere with Iran but has anyone really tried to do so with realistic goals based on understanding Persian culture and Iranian political history? Would it not be advantageous to both the U.S. and Israel’s ultimate best interests for the US diplomatic activity and Israel’s strategic and political goals to continue to be supportive in a relationship of strong allies? They can have many shared goals and indeed a common strategy on those issues where it is needed. But would it not be advantageous to both countries to be able to pursue interests proper to each with a certain legitimate autonomy that would enhance the independence of one from the other to pursue each on its own interests that would enhance the respective national goals without jeopardizing their common interests?
Finally Jordan and Lebanon deserve more attention than either is getting. Jordan is an important strategic asset in the region. King Abdullah is not his father but he is the King of Jordan. He too needs support including especially logistical support in face of the refugee problems that have an inordinate influence on the fate of Jordan. He needs support because of terrorist factions who are always ready to cause internal disruptions in that country. Lebanon is always the forgotten state. Yet it has survived and has flourished even against all odds. It is in the interests of all that we continue to encourage Lebanon and Lebanese leadership, despite all its fractiousness, to continue to make the Lebanese experiment work and continue to be a force for dialogue both internally in their country and, increasingly, in the Middle East.
These few thoughts are tentative and invite response, critical or positive, but always with a commitment to peace, justice, equity and freedom with the promotion of the dignity and human rights of every person and the common good of peoples and nations everywhere. Yet tentative and limited as they are, I believe they lead rather clearly to a very solid and valid position: there are no solid grounds that can justify outside forces, including the United States to either into this conflict which can only become more violent, more destructive and more destabilizing, greatly undermining the possibilities of peace based on justice, freedom and the dignity of every person. In the perspective of just war theory, I believe it can clearly be stated that to do so would be morally and ethically wrong
August 23, 2013