More violence won’t bring Syrian peace

  • September 8, 2013

TORONTO - As U.S. President Barack Obama and Western allies continue to debate whether military action is the answer to Syria’s Aug. 21 chemical weapon use on its own citizens, Christian observers are uniformly warning of grave consequences and urging more diplomacy.

“The path of dialogue and negotiation is the only option for putting an end to the conflict and violence that each day causes the loss of many human lives, especially among the unarmed population,” said an official Vatican statement at the end of King Abdullah II of Jordan’s visit with Pope Francis Aug. 29. 

Pope Francis has condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria that U.S. officials say killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children, but the Pope called for a negotiated settlement to Syria’s civil war.

“Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake,” he said. “War begets war, violence begets violence.

“I exhort the international community to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace in that country without further delay, a peace based on dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people.”

After failing to receive wide support for plans to launch retaliatory air strikes against Syria, U.S. President Barack Obama has decided to seek congressional approval before launching any attack. Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird has said Canada would support American air strikes, but Canada would not participate in a military mission. 

“The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has heard from its Middle East partners that any strike will only intensify the world’s worst refugee crisis,” said D&P executive director Michael Casey. 

“We are witnessing the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide. There are two million refugees and 5.1 million people displaced within the country and there is no doubt that a military intervention will only increase these numbers, putting more pressure on host communities and the need for humanitarian assistance.”

A U.S.-led strike or not, the Canadian arm of Caritas Internationalis will continue its participation in Church efforts to help Syrians, Casey works with want dialogue and diplomacy, not bombs.

The Archdiocese of Toronto’s Office for Refugees has heard from United Nations experts that a military strike would likely push one million more refugees into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. As many as 100,000 crossed borders as soon as the White House said it had confirmed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons on civilians in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus.

“In a situation like this, when there is an overwhelming sudden exodus, the consequence can be that these countries at one point will close their borders, or the incoming refugee population can really impact the stability of these countries,” said Office for Refugees executive director Martin Mark.

ORAT currently has a list of 200 Syrian Christian refugee families who are candidates for resettlement in Toronto. The archdiocese’s refugee workers are looking for parishes willing to sponsor and host the families.

“I do not believe the political processes have been invoked sufficiently in the Syrian crisis to bring Russia and China, as well as the United States, the U.K. and France into a political solution,” said Douglas Roche, former Canadian disarmament ambassador to the United Nations.

Roche warns that nobody knows the result or how many civilian casualties will come from bombing runs over Syria.

“What kind of an exit strategy? How would you know you have won?” Roche asked. “The military strategy is completely deficient.”

That the United States unilaterally cancelled a Sept. 3 meeting with Russian diplomats in The Hague shows an absence of trust and unwillingness to consider non-military options, Roche said.

“This vigilante approach to international crises is damaging to the building of processes for peace through the application of international law,” he said. “We’ve got to do this in a way that doesn’t bring military options up at the first sign of a crisis.”

While war may not work, Tozun Bahcheli , a political science professor at London, Ont.’s King’s University College, isn’t all that hopeful about diplomacy either.

“The only options I suppose would be diplomatic, which if the intention is to stop the civil war would be ineffective,” Bahcheli told The Catholic Register. “At the same time I must add in haste that military action by the United States or by other Western or Middle Eastern allies of the United States is unlikely to end the civil war definitively. It is uncertain just what kind of consequence, what kind of result, military action would achieve.”

A strike against the Assad regime may be more about maintaining the credibility of the U.S. government than an agenda for peace.

“Its credibility is on the line. It has said in the past, more than once, that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line,” Bahcheli said.

Western outrage over chemical weapons use has been rather selective, said the Turkish-born scholar. Iraq used chemical weapons on a much larger scale during its eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s and there was no red line.

“They have been used in the past as well with hardly any murmur from the international community,” said Bahcheli.

The expatriate Syrian community in Toronto looks at the civil war in their homeland and sees a future in which Christians are further marginalized and Syria is split along sectarian, religious lines, said Fr. Estephanos Issa, Syriac Orthodox pastor of Toronto’s St. Barsaumo parish.

“We don’t know whether Syria will be divided — whether there will be Shia cities and Sunni cities and Christians will have to live with either one,” he said.

Issa believes the Assad regime’s military strategy hints at a plan for partition of Syria.

“They have been very selective in defending their borders,” he said. “In some areas that are Sunni, Syria is not really putting the effort in. They are looking for strategic places and centres. It’s as if the Assad regime has in mind that they want to keep certain areas and surrender the rest to the Sunnis.”

It’s not unreasonable to suppose an Islamist government for all or part of Syria in the future, said Bahcheli. And that would be bad for the Christians.

“These fears are credible,” he said. “Chances are the replacement of the Assad regime will be led by an Islamist government and the Islamist faction in Syria, particularly the Jihadis, are extremely upset with the Christians because they consider that the Christians are supporters of the regime — which actually they are not.”

An attack on Syria may fulfill at least some of the conditions for a just war when considering just war principles laid out by St. Thomas Aquinas, said Paul Flaman, a moral theologian at Edmonton’s St. Joseph’s College.

“To deter an unjust aggressor to protect civilian populations, that’s certainly a legitimate objective,” he said. “It’s legitimate to protect the innocent from unjust aggression.”

But any action must be prudent.

“You don’t want to make it worse, which could be a possibility,” Flaman said. 

In the present situation, the United States has to do more to assure Russia its interests will be protected before it can get Security Council agreement on a military strike, said John Siebert, executive director of the Waterloo-based Christian think tank Project Ploughshares. 

“You need to give the Russians something that can allow them to save face. I don’t think the Americans have been all that forthcoming,” he said. 

The appropriate response is to hold individuals responsible for their actions before a court of law, said Roche. 

“The International Criminal Court has got to be strengthened in its enforcement powers so that it can do this,” he said.

There’s nothing naive, pacifist or isolationist about rejecting war in a circumstance where no one can predict the outcome, said Roche.

“Violence will not solve the problem. We ought to engage Syrian civil society beyond the warlords. That’s essential,” he said. “I firmly believe that dialogue is a principal instrument in the resolution of conflict. There has been insufficient dialogue between the United States and Russia.”

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