Here's the difficult truth on Syria: bombing is not the answer

By Simon Barrow
April 14, 2018

Syria is one bloody mess at present. President Assad is grasping back control of a country wracked by civil war through brutal, ruthless and savage means. Many of his opponents (including ones courted by the west) are even more brutal, ruthless and savage, however. Chemical weapons are in the hands of jihadi groups as well as state actors. Reports as to who has done what are confusing.

In the midst of this situation the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed only yesterday that the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) team is on its way to and will start its work as of Saturday 14 April 2018.

Knowing this, knowing that demands for proper parliamentary scrutiny were growing, knowing that the US was intending to act without sanction under domestic or international law and procedure, knowing that there is no immediately discernible path from airstrikes to stopping the use of chemical weapons, knowing that there is no 'end game', knowing that there is a distinct possibility of hugely damaging unintended consequences, and knowing that senior military figures (including the former head of Britain's Armed Forces) are advising against bombing, Prime Minister Theresa May nevertheless agreed to commit the UK airforce to raids on Syria. 

This action amounts to a new, but not unprecedented policy: 'bombing on suspicion' (in order to further political purposes that have little or nothing to do with the victims you claim to be acting for, let alone the new ones you will create). This is nothing short of shameful, irresponsible, illegal, immoral and dangerous. No matter how much war propaganda is pumped out in the coming hours and days, that will remain the case. 

As Professor Paul Rogers of the Oxford Research Group has pointed out for OpenDemocracy, there is no easy, immediate and clear-cut solution to the situation in Syrian, and things are made worse by the current antagonism between the west and Russia. He goes on to say:

"By far the strongest argument against attacks is that war will most likely make matters much worse. Nevertheless, some other approaches can be recommended.

* Do everything, in any way possible, to support the United Nations Secretary-General, quite likely the best incumbent of that post in decades albeit he faces a near-impossible task.

* Britain, in spite of current relations with Russia, still has half-decent diplomatic relations (not counting Boris) with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. Recall those ambassadors and other key regional staff for an intensive meeting in London, also with Washington and Moscow ambassadors, to share approaches and ideas in closed meetings not chaired by politicians. By this means get the considered views of experienced diplomats and then listen to them.

* On the basis of these and other inputs, seek to formulate plans for cooling tensions that might be pursued in the coming days and weeks and aiming for a renewed peace process. This will be very difficult but if the UK eschews support for a military escalation it may be in a position to do so with other like-minded states, and is one of the very few countries with the professional diplomatic competence and experience to even be in a position to try.

"In the longer term, and in recognition of the appalling failures of recent years (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere), expend serious and sustained effort to enhance and expand UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding capabilities. Work to strengthen and fully resource the International Criminal Court and the process of establishing and supporting war-crimes tribunals," concludes Professor Rogers.

These are wise, considered words. The idea that bombs will solve things for Syria or stop the use and proliferation of nerve agents is not the 'realism' it claims, it is malign and dangerous fantasy. The truth is (as is often the case) much more difficult and messy than that. Bombs are not a  solution in Syria: international and civil political, diplomatic and legal action will in the end be the only way forward. More deaths simply adds to the mounting tragedy. All possible pressure should be taken to press the US, French and UK governments to cease military action and return to politics -- and this time a politics which starts with the needs of those most vulnerable, not the power-interests of the interventionists. 

Right now it might seem that shaming, condemnation, exposing evidence and moral pressure will have little influence on those determined to use warlike means to strengthen their own positions in the guise of 'assistance'. But again, those are the best 'weapons' you and I have, and we as citizens, as people of faith, or as people of no religion but goodwill should use them thoughtfully but firmly. 

As a Christian, I also want and hope that church leaders will understand that the way of Christ is not about bombing, but about absorbing death and wrongdoing by seeking the life that is God's gift. The way of peacemaking is never easy. It is far more difficult than bombing. But it is the only one that offers a future for those bloodied and victimised by injustice, abuse and war.

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© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia.  

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.