For the past few days, I have been sucked into a world of arguments that are either calling for an almost immediate attack on Syria in order to punish the regime for what is largely held as chemical attacks on towns and villages in the eastern Ghouta outskirts of Damascus, or else for staying out of what could turn into a consuming morass for us.
So would an attack be ill-advised, or would inaction encourage dictators to gas their people in the future too? After all, our recent history is replete with interventions in different parts of the world. From Guatemala and Panama in 1983 and 1989 all the way to Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Libya, we have shown enough gumption but we have not always recovered successfully from our interventionist campaigns.
Let me highlight a few points that prey on my mind and make my assessment even more cautious.
• For well over two years, we have almost stood by and allowed an initial peaceful uprising turn ugly. We have witnessed armed groups muscling in without any response. But now, almost too abruptly, we have leapt from political hibernation to a hyperactive determination that would launch American-led punitive attacks. Why?
• I happen to believe that the Syrian regime is in all likelihood responsible for those heinous crimes. But could we not slow down a little and take intermediate steps that calibrate our response at a more discerning pace?
• We should also wait to read the report of the UN inspectors: true, the UN will not necessarily reveal the identity of the perpetrators, but they will at least confirm beyond doubt that chemical weapons were used so we do not face dubious charges again that we have fabricated those facts to suit our political purposes.
• I am very familiar with the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region and I fear that Western attacks - no matter how modest or limited - could well trigger a raft of unintended consequences that range from collateral damage of civilians that would galvanise the anti-Western discourse to an even more massive outflow of refugees that the creaking economic and social structures of Lebanon and Jordan simply cannot cope with anymore.
• The indigenous Christian communities in Syria are equally caught between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand is a dictator whose oppressive regime snuffs out all fundamental freedoms that endow human beings with their dignity. On the other hand are increasingly radicalised groups of extreme Islamist jihadis and takfiris who wish to eliminate any ‘infidel’ presence in Syria and are even opposed to the majority of Muslims too.
So given my misgivings on our recent flurry of activities, let me suggest a few forward-looking suggestions:
• Let us think strategically in terms of objectives and not only tactically in terms of punishing the regime. Let us assess what we mean by ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the likely case that recourse to the UN ends with failure.
• Let us realise that such limited attacks will not truly alter the facts on the ground and the situation is bound to get worse no matter our decision in the next few days. Moreover, if we attack but fail to make a noticeable dent, President Assad and his regime would gloat about their triumph and continue with their wanton attacks.
• We should turn this crisis into an opportunity: with Russia on a back foot and Syria clearly anxious about the Western reaction, is it not possible to coerce the Syrian regime to sit at the negotiating table for a Geneva II style of negotiations that could usher in the transitional period. Do we not owe it to the people of Syria to try it?
• Most importantly, and since we seem to talk about crimes against humanity, we should also mobilise our long-term efforts by seising the International Criminal Court that would eventually try those accused of crimes.
Like numerous other analysts, I watched a couple of days ago the somewhat noisy and impulsive debate over Syria in our own House of Commons in London. I suspect the West might well send a shot across the bows of this ruthless regime. But how we do it will perhaps make the difference between an ethical response that could matter and an unethical one that renders this cauldron of confusion even denser.
In fact, the debate at the House of Commons gave me at times the vivid impression that we were still in 2003 and discussing Iraq. So let us at least make sure that the consequences of our necessary actions today will not be Iraqi-like too.
Finally, but most toweringly for me, let us think of those hapless Syrian men, women and children in Syria today.
© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian