Vinoth Ramachandra

The Syrian Dilemma

Posted on: September 6, 2013

The Internet tempts us all to become instant “experts” on every issue we read about. It is a temptation that Bloggers find difficult to resist- but resist we must. For even the professional analysts who are invited to pontificate on TV news channels and chatshows seem to have no more wisdom as to what should be done right now in Syria than the rest of us. But, unlike us, they get paid fat fees for looking wise and spouting clichés.

So, in response to people asking me what should be done in Syria, my answer is simple: “I don’t know”. And how am I expected to know when I have little idea of what is happening in a country that I have never visited, and about which I have to depend on a global news media that is selective and prejudiced most of the time? As for trusting Western governments and their “intelligence” agencies, enough has been said on this Blog over the years about the idiocy of such a suggestion. Liberal democratic governments lie to their citizens as much as do despotic regimes.

What, then, should ordinary citizens be doing long before situations become intractable, like in Syria today?

They should be asking questions in letters to the newspapers or directly to their elected representative, or in Internet forums. (I am addressing readers living in relatively democratic countries, where access to media and politicians is possible). This is more demanding than offering half-baked solutions.

Following the horrendous chemical weapons attacks on the 21st August, trying to find the right questions to ask is a challenging exercise. But here are my own, given in the hope that readers of this Blog will also offer theirs:

(1) Why do we express moral revulsion at chemical weapons only after they have been used? Why are those governments (or private companies sponsored by governments) which have developed these weapons not the target of international sanctions? (The former head of Syria’s chemical weapons unit defected and is now living in Turkey- is he not also morally culpable for the 21 August attacks?)

(2) Which countries have deployed chemical weapons in the past, and why have their heads of state not been prosecuted before the International Criminal Court?

(3) If chemical weapons are intrinsically evil (as I agree they are), because they do not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants and because they are designed to torture and not just kill, does not the same apply to nuclear and biological weapons? If so, should all those governments that possess these weapons of mass destruction not be labelled “terrorist states” from a moral point of view?

(4) Are not all those states which have fuelled the civil war in Syria with their arms shipments to both sides morally culpable?

Some of the commentary in the media, and even among academics, is quite ludicrous. London’s conservative Daily Telegraph called Obama “a reluctant warrior” forced to deploy US military might to protect civilians in Syria (but not, apparently, in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Somalia). On the other side, some of the anti-American rhetoric is equally pathetic. American “unilateralism” is condemned, but not France’s unilateral military interventions in Mali, Ivory Coast and other former French colonies. And are we not grateful, with hindsight of course, for India’s military intervention to prevent genocide in East Pakistan in 1971 and the Vietnamese invasion (albeit belatedly) in Cambodia to stop Pol Pot? Neither of the latter actions were authorised by UN resolutions.

I also find irrelevant the argument about the “illegality” of any Western intervention. The argument, voiced in several eminent circles, is that what makes an act of war legal, apart from self-defence, is the Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, authorising the use of force in response to a threat to international peace and security.

However, what may be illegal can still be moral. International law is slowly catching up on what would be considered normal moral practice (e.g. using force to protect a neighbour whose life is threatened). A more serious criticism of any military intervention in Syria is the possible widening of the conflict; as well as the lack of clarity in the aims of such an intervention. That is why I said it is a difficult decision and not as clear-cut as many armchair pundits on either side seem to think it is.

As long as the five permanent members of the Security Council have a right of veto on any UN resolution, and they remain the biggest arms dealers in the world, the UN will remain a dysfunctional organization. It is beyond reform. It needs to be replaced by new international institutions comprising democratically elected representatives and a global law enforcement capacity.

Finally, should not populous democracies like India and Brazil be urged to take on a more global role when it comes to international diplomacy? India has been a disastrous “superpower” in the South Asian region, largely because of self-serving politicians and an expensive but poorly-trained army. But it does have some competent civil servants and academics. And if it could be persuaded to take an active peace-making role in areas of the world where it does not have any vested interests, economic or military, would not this reduce the perception of “Western hegemony”? As long as India and Brazil only posture on the world stage as “major economies”, their criticisms of the US ring hollow.

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9 Responses to "The Syrian Dilemma"

Dear Vinoth,

Thank-you for posting “The Syrian Dilemma.” I have shared it not only with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN) via Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/emergingscholars), but also a number of personal friends via other streams. In other contexts, Daryl Byler’s* “Don’t strike; shame the perpetrators” (Op-ed, Richmond Times Dispatch, 9/5/2013, http://www.timesdispatch.com/opinion/their-opinion/columnists-blogs/guest-columnists/byler-don-t-strike-shame-the-perpetrators/article_f8a21f45-c6b9-52bc-a12d-45636c3051fd.html, has come to my attention. I also shared Byler’s Op-Ed with ESN.

With Arab relatives, some living in Beersheba (Israel) and others in the same small town in which I live in the United States (a story for different time/context), I find Middle Eastern conflicts difficult to navigate. With regard to conflict in general, although I have come to embrace and desire to advance non-violent love, e.g., http://www.bic-church.org/about/issues/english/violence.pdf, at times I confess wrestling with whether I am becoming too idealistic/utopian.

We cannot turn back the clock and live in a different era — earlier eras were marked by more personal brutality to one’s enemy, not giving me a more positive perspective on the violence of war and those engaged in it. Modern science, as other times of great advancement across the globe, can be and have been used for good and for evil. Who with the capability to remain in power will say, “No!” to find themselves defeated by their enemy? Christ alone.

The current array of weapons exist and they have the ability to be used because of a wide variety of factors. Due to The Fall, the presence of significant power structures, and the pervasive nature of sin, it is hard in my context not to be considered part of the problem by a large portion of the world (including some of my own extended family and those who I connect with on campus, some from other parts of the creation). As such what does it mean to be a little Christ (or a small part of a Big Body of Christ across the globe) . . . spreading the salt, light, and leaven of Christ? What does it mean to continually listen to and follow what the Lord teaches through His Word, Spirit, people (across time/geography), and creation?

Sometimes it does involve encouraging one’s students/faculty to say, “No!” to the research grants, even what one may consider one’s very livelihood when it is tied to military ends. I had some of these conversations when I served InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA at Carnegie Mellon University. Going back a few decades, I’m not sure how I would have done in the middle of an international conflict such as World War II, one in which the United States was not the aggressor and a number of the scientists fled ethnic persecution in Europe. The creators of napalm in the basements of Harvard had little sense of the short or long term impact of their scientific endeavors. As with the atomic bomb, it took an industrial machine to create, store, transport, deploy, and continue to develop such killing agents marked today by pictures which leave one aghast — crying out, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come!”

As you begin your post, I likewise don’t know what to say. In the messiness of the real world, there are no simple answers. I find confessing that I don’t know what to say a good place to start. Then I confess complicity with evil/sin/brokenness, pray, seek to ask good questions, listen, write to representatives (and encourage others to do likewise), engage in dialog on campus — e.g., encourage future health care professionals in the ‘call to care’ for those on the receiving end of the violence of war, explore the best use of science, raise the question of public policy making with a vision for all of God’s creation . . . How true that in our ministry in higher education, we are in a vital place for this conversation, not just as we intersect with experts, but as we have an opportunity to connect with, engage, even help “shape” future experts/decision makers. Thank-you for beginning this conversation. Please forgive me for this being ‘off the cuff.’ Looking forward to refining my perspective and understanding in a number of venues, including on-line international dialog with brothers and sisters in Christ. To God be the glory!

*Note: Byler is the executive director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. He graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1988 and has 25 years of diverse peacebuilding experience, including serving as the recent Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Mid East director.

Day-by-Day by His Grace,

Tom Grosh IV

A question that I would like to have answered:
Why do war crimes in Syria justify intervention when war crimes in Africa are essentially ignored (even when there are precious/rare resources like cobalt at stake)?

Rape is a war crime: http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2008/sc9364.doc.htm

An introduction to the conflict in DR Congo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLV9szEu9Ag

Excellent question, Josiah.

See, too, my post “Selective Justice” on 12 May 2012.

1. To me is sounds like using weapon against each other is fine, normal, ethical, but using a chemical weapon is crossing boundaries.
2. The weakness of Mass Media nowadays is that it can be abused easily: used as an informative weapon. And the nature of information is that depending on how much one shares the others will make up their mind about the situation. People believe what they see and hear, and by dozing the information Mass Media manipulates the public opinion. Only God knows what exactly is going on in Syria and it’s hard for us to make up a decision on which side to stand. May be on the side of Grace & Mercy?

Sergei, there are important moral differences within the conduct of war (or in police action). I mention in my Blog post why I believe that chemical weapons are intrinsically evil- i.e. there is no justification for their use in any circumstances (unlike guns)

Although I did contact the offices of my elected representatives in Washington DC, sadly I did not read your post prior to the phone calls. The information would have given me more food for thought. In short, and for a variety of reasons, I do not want to see the U.S. and its allies use military force regardless of how “limited and narrow” the operation is. That said … if the intelligence information about the use of chemical weapons is correct, I find myself struggling with the moral implications of my viewpoint.

Matthew,
I concur, you’ve found the crux of the matter, “I find myself struggling with the moral implications of my viewpoint. ” [Wrestling with Richard B Hays 'Moral vision of the New Testament' eventually convinced me that a non-violent response is the Christ-like response.]

From a faith perspective, should I put my faith in politicians to deliver a blunt response which they call ‘justice’, or should I put my faith in the eschatological justice of YHWH, can I do both, or is there an option I’ve overlooked? If I put my faith in politicians, then I feel that I am complicit with them. For if I affirm that it is good that some die so that others may live, am I not guilty of harbouring murderous thoughts? Or am I thinking of ‘the bad guys’ in purely abstract terms in order to attempt to avoid the moral implications of my desire that intervention occur? Is there a position which can be held without making me sin?

My faith needn’t be as big as a defence force or even as big as a gun, it need only be as big as a grain of mustard. As an oversimplification, to take action in this conflict, I could trust an army, pick up a gun, or pray. If I am against violent intervention, do I pray sufficiently for the redemption of all the perpetrators of injustice in this conflict? In other words, do I actually believe that YHWH’s kingdom is coming here on earth as it is in heaven? [I certainly feel convicted that I ought to be praying more.]

It seems to me that the avenues of action available are rather limited. I know that if America sets foot in Syria, the leaders of my nation will also send our troops to war because they are seeking closer economic ties with America, whatever the cost (and the election is still a year away). All I can do is pray. And I know that if someone who is surrounded by militants/soldiers comes to the realisation that Jesus is Lord, they are going to count the cost of following him. Attempting to leave would be desertion, punishable by death. Death comes to us all, I pray that Christ comes first.

Selective justice and complete disregard of justice nationally and internationally will remain problem in the US as long as special interest groups influence/determine US politics and government.

My question is: should we worry about reprisals against Christians in the event of a strike by the US in Syria?

see – http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/09/05/christians-american-and-syrian/

According to last night’s address to the nation by President Obama, he had delayed the vote in congress to see the outcome of the diplomatic efforts involving Russia. Hope this works.

One of the least reported aspects of the war in Syria and the unrest in Egypt is the effect it is having on the ancient Christian communities. It is a terrible indictment of our ignorance that we don’t seem to know or care that these communities are under serious threat of extinction. (see report on potential demise of Egyptian Christianity http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/09/15/3848945.htm, closure of St Catherine’s monastery http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/05/mount-sinai-monastery-egypt-closure, or the threat to Syrian Christians http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24023858)

So perhaps one practical thing we might do is to find ways to express our solidarity with these communities.

(Of course, this is not to suggest that we don’t stand also up for Muslims being bombed and killed. Just that these ancient Christian traditions are being neglected and overlooked by the majority of Christians in the west when they should be indispensable to our Christian story. One wonders what the reaction in the States or the UK would be if an evangelical community was under such threat of extinction….)

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