Military-Political Decisions and Christian Witness
Ever since the use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21st, the possibility of a military intervention in Syria by Western powers has provoked passionate debate.
Any forecast on the political or military outcome of the present crisis would be rash, as political positions shift with dizzying rapidity. Nevertheless, it seems important to reflect on this extraordinary moment.
Immediately after the attack of August 21st involving chemical weapons, ‘red lines’ were said to have been crossed, justifying outside military action. Some asked why: the alleged 1400 dead are far outnumbered by the estimated 100,000 killings in the awful ‘conventional’ civil war in Syria. Yet the use of chemical weapons rightly causes a special and almost universal repulsion, and would justify strong action, if the regime of Bashar-al-Assad could be proved responsible.
The heritage of Western governments’ own practice has rebounded on them, undermining the trust (crucial at times of crisis) of their own publics and of other states: the manipulation of evidence by the US and British Governments in the case of Iraq in 2003; the conduct of France & the UK in Libya in 2011, securing UN backing for a humanitarian intervention in Libya, but far exceeding their mandate; and the USA’s own use chemical weapons on a massive scale and over several years, horribly afflicting the Vietnamese to this day.
With its members notably differing among themselves, the EU has been until recently unable to take a distinctive position. At the G20 Summit, it rightly insisted that there can only be a ‘political solution’ not a military one. Probably no one would deny that. The central question is whether or not a political solution requires military intervention, or whether an outside military intervention would end the chance of a negotiated solution, at least any solution mediated by the West. The EU also endorses the new ‘USA-Russia initiative’, which, in its view, could lead to a peace conference.
The response of Christians has been powerful and coherent, though of two kinds.
On the part of Pope Francis, for example it has focused on appeals and of acts of public witness and exhortation. The historically unprecedented day of prayer and fasting in St, Peter’s Square drew 100,000 people, and was supported and embraced by leaders of other faiths including Islam.
Other approaches have focused rather on moral evaluation, often making use of the classic ‘Just War’ criteria. The Primate of the Anglican Communion Archbishop Welby, for example, argued that we are nowhere near a situation of ‘last resort’. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has appealed to the criterion of proportionality: in other words, that action requires a reasonable certitude that the intervention will avert more evil than it will inevitably cause. The United States’ bishops judge that a military attack ‘will be counterproductive’. One such consequence might be to expose Christians in the whole region, seen as allies of the West, to even more vicious reprisals than at present. Another is that amidst a civil war punishment of the Assad regime is necessarily effective support of the rebels, however extremist they may be.
The Church neither has complete military information, nor offers a detailed political solution. It has a commitment of two thousand years to Syria, a cradle of Christianity; yet never relies on the discourse of national interests (which inevitably collide, as every Security Council debate shows). It has the powerful conviction that a military attack by an outside power would be an extraordinary evil, especially for the poorest. Therefore it would need an extraordinary justification. This has not yet been provided.
Frank Turner SJ