Syria is all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds, with arguments raging for and against a United States military response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syria’s troops against civilians. I know it”s the epitome of #firstworldproblems to admit this, but I haven”t paid attention the way I should. Kids, back to school, schedules, blah blah excuse-blah. But when people started yelling about war and Iraq and WMD, I knew it was time to educate myself.
It took seconds to discover just how volatile the situation was on Saturday. I read reports that civilians, the Syrian government, and the rebels (the Free Syrian Army or FSA) all were preparing to be bombed. People were off the streets, prices of gasoline and water were climbing, and across the world, people were demonstrating both for and against military strikes. As I read through The Guardian”s live blog of Friday and Saturday”s events, my heart raced, wondering if strikes were occurring at that very moment. As the world waited for President Obama”s press conference Saturday afternoon, I read as much as I could in an effort to get a bird”s eye view.
Here”s what I know.
1. The conflict in Syria is a civil war sparked in March 2011 by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s massive and deadly overreaction to peaceful demonstrations against his government.
In”9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask,” Max Fisher, foreign affairs bloggers for the Washington Post, explains.
The killing started in April 2011, when peaceful protests inspired by earlier revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia rose up to challenge the dictatorship running the country. The government responded — there is no getting around this — like monsters. First, security forces quietly killed activists. Then they started kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing activists and their family members, including a lot of children, dumping their mutilated bodies by the sides of roads. Then troops began simply opening fire on protests. Eventually, civilians started shooting back.
(The entire 9 Questions post is well worth your time, though you will probably want to do something that makes you happy after you read it – it”s a real downer.)
2. The rebels who oppose the Assad regime, or the FSA, are by no means innocent.
You will find good guys and bad guys on all sides (and it appears there are more than two sides). Dr Rodger Shanahan, former peacekeeper in Syria and non-resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy explained this in an article posted by an Australian news agency, “10 simple points to help you understand the Syria conflict.”
“The militias were a combination of local area tribal groups, deserters from the military [who had been conscripted despite holding anti-government beliefs] and disaffected locals.”
Then a combination of Jihadists, some from Syria and some from elsewhere, joined the FSA. Some even came from the faraway Caucasus region – where accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev originally hailed from.
So in other words, you had genuine Syrian freedom fighters joined by people with their own Islamist agendas. But because the FSA was underarmed and undermanned, they had little choice but to form a loose coalition with these volatile new kids on the revolutionary block.
3. The situation inside Syria is desperate.
A Syrian colleague of mine, Mike Ghassali, described the situation inside Syria in a press conference this weekend. It is a real humanitarian crisis, and that doesn”t even count the thousands who have fled to refugee camps in Lebanon. Ghassali responded via email to my questions about the situation with this statement: “The west should be aligned to identify the third parties involved who are enticing the west to act with violence against Syria as a nation, not only against the government. Any act against Syria now will just make the country bleed even more without a good outcome.”
This was a plea I read over and over again – bombing Syria will punish the wrong people by increasing the suffering of civilians in the country.
4. Syria has strong allies, including Iran, Lebanon, and Russia, so many fear that air strikes on Syria could be the spark that sets the Middle East ablaze in war.
Russia”s foreign ministry has condemned any possible military action: “Unilateral use of force without UN Security Council authorisation, no matter how limited, is a clear violation of international law, and will undermine prospects for a political and diplomatic resolution of the conflict in Syria.”
Turkey and Jordan are regarded by Damascus as hostile neighbours and could face repercussions. But it is Israel and Lebanon that are most vulnerable to any fall-out from a US strike against Syria.
The head of Iran”s Revolutionary Guard has said a US attack on Syria would lead to the “imminent destruction of Israel”.
Israel”s defence ministry says the Iranian-backed armed group Hezbollah has up to 70,000 rockets capable of striking Israeli targets.
Any attacks on Israel from Hezbollah could, of course, lead to retaliation against targets inside Lebanon. And sectarian violence in Lebanon, which has increased during the Syrian conflict, could further destabilise the country.
5. The United Nations sent weapons inspectors into Syria last week to investigate allegations that sarin nerve gas was used in an attack outside Damascus last week, killing at least 1,429 civilians, more than 400 of whom were children.
After drama over whether they would be granted access to the sites, and whether the delay would compromise the integrity of the samples, the inspectors did investigate, gathering tissue and soil samples. They left Syria for Belgium on Saturday, delivering the samples to laboratories for testing.
All last week, member countries of the United Nations argued over what to do in response to this alleged violation of international law. US Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that first responders had provided the US definitive evidence of the use of chemical weapons, but many other nations (including the UK, Italy, Germany, and Russia) insisted that any action must wait on the results of the inspections and be undertaken by the United Nations together, not independently.
The UN said it had asked the chemical weapons team to expedite its report into the use of the weapons. “The secretary general took note of the announcement by President Obama yesterday on the referral to Congress. He regards it as one aspect of an effort to achieve a broad-based international consensus on measures in response to any use of chemical weapons,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
“Use of chemical weapons will not be accepted under any circumstances,” he added, asking that the investigation mission “should be given an opportunity to succeed”.
6. Using chemical weapons is not only a violation of international law, it changes the rules of engagement in war in truly terrifying ways.
Max Fisher in the 9 questions article says,
War is going to happen. It just is. But the reason that the world got together in 1925 for the Geneva Convention to ban chemical weapons is because this stuff is really, really good at killing civilians but not actually very good at the conventional aim of warfare, which is to defeat the other side. You might say that they’re maybe 30 percent a battlefield weapon and 70 percent a tool of terror. In a world without that norm against chemical weapons, a military might fire off some sarin gas because it wants that battlefield advantage, even if it ends up causing unintended and massive suffering among civilians, maybe including its own. And if a military believes its adversary is probably going to use chemical weapons, it has a strong incentive to use them itself. After all, they’re fighting to the death.
So both sides of any conflict, not to mention civilians everywhere, are better off if neither of them uses chemical weapons. But that requires believing that your opponent will never use them, no matter what. And the only way to do that, short of removing them from the planet entirely, is for everyone to just agree in advance to never use them and to really mean it. That becomes much harder if the norm is weakened because someone like Assad got away with it. It becomes a bit easier if everyone believes using chemical weapons will cost you a few inbound U.S. cruise missiles.
This is the catch-22 of the crisis. Choosing to do nothing sends a message that the Geneva Convention ban on chemical warfare has no teeth. But, whether the strikes target the chemical weapons (assuming they are there), the troops or bases, or Assad himself, the risk of all-out war and of hard-line Muslim fundamentalists coming into power are great.
This article in the Wall Street Journal, “,” discusses the pros and cons.
“We better send a very clear message, in a unified way, that we”re not going to tolerate proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, let alone their use,” [House Intelligence Chairman Mike] Rogers said Sunday on CNN. [Rogers has strongly supported a targeted strike on Syria.]
Israeli and Arab officials, who have been the most aggressive in seeking to punish Mr. Assad, said Sunday they worried Washington”s delay could end up emboldening Damascus, as well as Iran and Hezbollah. ”Obama wants to stay neutral on everything—Egypt, Syria,” said a senior Arab official working on the Syrian conflict. “Sometimes middle ground doesn”t work.”
7. President Obama announced Saturday afternoon that he will not authorize air strikes against Syria without authorization from Congress.
This was a shocking turn of events based on the reactions (though many who have been following the situation point to the fact that only France was willing to join in such strikes, while Italy, Germany, and the UK all decided against it). The announcement was met by sighs of relief in the US, cries of dismay by Syrian rebels, and derision from countries aligned with Syria who insisted that this is a sign that the United States is no longer a world superpower.
I”ll be honest. Reading these stories made me cry, especially reading of the horrors experienced by civilians. This article by Matthew Shadle on the Washington Post summarizes in four sentences what has been provoking tears as I read all weekend:
More than 100,000 people have died in the conflict, at least half of them civilians. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have indiscriminately killed the residents of neighborhoods and villages in their efforts to defeat the rebels. Rebel forces have massacred and tortured captured soldiers, most notoriously in an incident captured on video in which a rebel ate the heart of a dead Syrian soldier. Islamist groups forming part of the opposition have also allegedly perpetrated violence against non-Sunnis in the north of the country.
I don”t have any earth-shattering conclusions when it comes to the political situation. None of the options promise real solutions, though some have far worse potential consequences than others. But I don”t need to know. I don”t need to have an opinion on the politics of a situation to recognize that people are suffering.
What I do know is that as Christians, we cannot look the other way. We must not. But when seeking the right course of action, we must not confuse action with violence. Violence begets violence, not peace.
I know this isn”t easy to live out. While I believe that Jesus calls us to non-violence, I also know that he requires me to defend and help the widow, the orphan, and the helpless. When someone is being bullied, you take down the bully… but we ought not use the bully”s methods lest we become bullies ourselves. Which brings me full circle back to non-violent action.
What non-violent actions are open to us? Prayer, for starters. Pray for those making difficult decisions with no good options. Pray for peace, specifically that someone would rise up in the FSA to lead them to peace talks. Pray for those who stay in Syria in spite of the war and the violence, for those who have fled their homes, and especially for those who have lost loved ones to the war.
We can also give. Donate to credible organizations providing relief for refugees in the form of food, medical care, and permanent housing. Here are some places to start:
- Mennonite Central Committee, committed to nonviolent peacemaking, including loving those who might be considered enemies.
- UNICEF, providing emergency relief to children and refugees in Syria
- , providing medical assistance both within Syria and in camps receiving Syrian refugees outside the country
- UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency provides extensive resources for those interested in helping, including this list of partners providing assistance to Syrians
Find out if any refugees have been relocated to your area and if so, reach out to them. They are strangers in a strange land. We should make them feel welcome.
Let”s not confuse non-violence with inaction. People are suffering. We must act.
P.S. A bonus link for those interested in learning more: The 23 Twitter accounts you must follow to understand Syria