Scylla and Charybdis were both sea monsters in Greek mythology. Tradition located them on either side of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Scylla was viewed as a rock shoal and Charybdis a whirlpool, and both were considered sea hazards to all passing tars. According to Homer, Odysseus opted for the loss of some of his sailors and spared his entire ship by choosing the lesser of those two evils.
The story crossed my mind again recently, as I was discussing the contemporary realities of Syria with an Italian journalist. After all, whether one looks at Al-Raqqa in the northern parts of this broken country, at its heartlands of Damascus or Aleppo or even at Dara’a in the south where it borders with Jordan, there are many perils facing Syria today - not necessarily Homeric mythological creatures, mind you, but rather everyday threatening realities.
In fact, I recall quite vividly my visit to the Syrian ambassador in London some three years ago when we discussed the start of those uprisings in the southernmost parts of Syria. I recall our conversations over a cup of Arabic coffee when I indicated to the ambassador that the young and educated Syrian president should reach out to those demonstrators and help open up the space in Syria for its 22 million citizens. The sins of the fathers should not be visited upon their sons, I argued with the genial ambassador, in a clear allusion to past Syrian atrocities in Lebanon (against both Lebanese and Palestinian elements incidentally) as well as the Hama massacres of February 1982 that stayed largely out of the media limelight at the time since the world did not possess the social media tools that are omnipresent today.
But of course my advice went unheeded, not that the ambassador could have made much difference to the course of events in Syria. After all, those major decisions are taken by a compressed group of grey suits surrounding the president as well as by those proxies who are now fighting the war against some rebels alongside the Syrian army.
Given my stubborn belief in the universality of fundamental freedoms and the precious dignity of every single human being, and my horror at the way the six-month peaceful demonstrations were initially brutalised across Syria, I sided with the opposition rebels. I wanted the status quo to alter enough so that the men and women of this cradle of Arab history and nationalism would hone their talents freely and usher the way forward for the whole Middle East North Africa region.
Alas, the uprisings were instead weaponised by the Assad regime - slowly but surely, first with bullets and then with bombs, AK-47’s, RPG’s, tanks, MIG fighters or helicopters and finally – allegedly – with chemical weapons. On the side of the opposition rebels, men and women the likes of Moaz Al-Khatib, Suheir Atassi, George Sabra, Burhan Ghalyoun and many others were bleeding control. The rebellion was being cleaved into those outside the country and those inside it, and it was becoming clearer every day that the opposition forces were dyslexic both in their efficiency and strategy.
As a result, the refugee numbers expanded in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan (and to a much lesser extent in Iraq and Egypt) to well over two million and those inside Syria rose to more than four million. Schools, hospitals or clinics were damaged, lives and livelihoods were lost and we suddenly witnessed rampant sectarianism amongst communities going hand-in-hand with mounting Islam-ism. Whether the fault of the regime or else of those radical factions, the country was witnessing the smaller communities (Alawites, Christians and perhaps even Druze) hedging their bets against the majority Sunni rebels whilst many Al-Qaeda affiliates were streaming in the reverse direction from Iraq back into Syria in order to impose a Shari’a-led caliphate along with the implementation of an austere bigotry that excluded all others.
Mind you, our own inertia in the West – be that in North America or the EU – warrants a few mea culpas too. Despite timid attempts by France or the UK, we let things slip beyond control either for the sake of our own geostrategic interests or else for our peace of mind. Russia and Iran helped the regime survive the rebellion, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies supported the rebels, whilst the West burnished its idealism by talking the talk but hardly walking the walk. President Obama simply did not want to go to war – even an ‘unbelievably small’ war! Consequently, as Michael Young argued in his recent piece, the United States allowed a vacuum to form and then fretted when that vacuum was filled by jihadists.
Today, with the disarmament experts in Syria trying to dismantle the stockpiles of chemical weapons, let us not forget that the actual challenge is to stop the conventional war. So here is my own deal. Would Russia and Iran stop aiding and abetting the regime and would Saudi Arabia and Turkey desist also from aiding and abetting the rebels? What about sucking the heavy oxygen out of further global one-upmanship by disempowering both sides long enough to marginalise those alien or home-bred jihadis and give transition by negotiation a fighting chance - at least for the sake of Syria?
Given the facts on the ground, now is perhaps the intelligent time to contain the horrendous deaths as well as raw anger. Why? Because the alarming alternative for this 30-month war will be a macabre spectre that continues to haunt Syria, extend to its neighbouring countries, with more refugees, further radicalisation of society and a Somalia-like failed state.
Could we live with this lose-lose outcome? Should we not resolve this conflict by avoiding both Scylla and Charybdis before it truly is too late and we find ourselves - to use another favourite idiom - between the devil and the deep blue sea?
© 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