As Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited one of the impromptu Syrian refugee camps that have cropped up along the border, Syrian children held up a cardboard sign that pretty much says it all: "We are dying and the world is watching." Thousands have fled the Syrian army's pacification program in Jisr al-Shughour where Syrian soldiers apparently turned their weapons against each other after a handful revolted against orders to fire on unarmed demonstrators.
Many nations have condemned the brutal crackdown on dissent that is putting a bloody finish to this Arab Spring, and there is movement for a further condemnation from the United Nations of the increasingly isolated Assad government. But don't hold your breath waiting for a more meaningful intervention from the global community. The international "responsibility to protect" (R2P) defenseless civilians from their own governments has already been called into play in Libya. It appears that confronting the presumed threat there means that the actual murder of civilians that is actually taking place this week in Syria and Sudan will not be confronted. I don't mean to discount the danger Muammar el-Qaddafi represented to his own citizens—he essentially threatened to liquidate Benghazi after all. I only note that the events of the past few days are painful evidence of how far the international community actually is from presenting a credible counterforce to state actors that become a threat to their own people.
Libya, of course, offers a more amenable target for intervention. Getting involved in Syria and Sudan promises to be complicated and messy; boots on the ground and confronting forces not likely to quickly back down and such business. Besides, who would do the intervening? The U.S. is distracted elsewhere; Europe's diminished capability is likewise otherwise engaged in Libya. Despite memories of Rwanda and the fact that Sudan is the often cited justification for the advent of R2P in international relations in the first place, it looks like no one has the stomach or the capability to field a large-scale intervention there. The U.N. is, meanwhile, owing to the obstructionism of Russia and China, barely capable of putting together a resolution that at least verbally condemns Assad.
But it is fair to ask if it is the uncertain outcomes the Arab Spring itself that may have diminished any enthusiasm for a strong humanitarian-based intervention in Syria. While the West recoils in horror from the various and persistent outrages being committed by forces loyal to the Assad clan, the Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Aleppo, Syria, a Jesuit, makes a public relations case for the regime. The Syrian government must resist the uprising, said Bishop Antoine Audo. In quelling forces of "destabilization and Islamization," it has, he said, the people's backing. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Audo accused the media, specifically the BBC and Al Jazeera, of propagandizing against the Assad regime and ignoring the threat to stability and purported outrages committed by agitators for democracy.
As church leaders caught off guard in Arab Springing nations have before him, Bishop Audo worries about the outcome of all the social upheaval and the possibility of ethnic and religious-based reprisals in the aftermath of a presumed regime collapse, preferring the devil he knows in Assad to whatever religious furies might be unleashed by a widespread destabilization in Syria. "The fanatics speak about freedom and democracy for Syria, but this is not their goal," he said. "They want to divide the Arab countries, control them, seize petrol and sell arms. They seek destabilization and Islamization....Syria must resist—will resist. 80 percent of the people are behind the government, as are all the Christians."
He suggested Syria could suffer the same fate as a post-Saddam Iraq, where the Christian minority quickly became a target of violence and intimidation from all sides. "We do not want to become like Iraq" the bishops said. "We don't want insecurity and Islamisation and have the threat of Islamists coming to power. Syria has a secular orientation. There is freedom. We have a lot of positive things in our country."
Syria's 1.5 million Christians have lived in peace and in truth there is no small threat to them in the unleashing of new forces, even democratic ones, in a new Middle Eastern order. But what a choice to have to make is Audo's: to accept, even promote the necessarily cruel hold on power maintained by the Assads or embrace a hope in the possible liberation offered by a new and undoubtedly chaotic Syria. The church in Syria shows a traditional preferential option for stability with Audo's statement. It will certainly come off badly if the Assads end up on a midnight flight to exile soon, but it won't exactly look terrific if it turns out to be on the deeply tarnished winning side in this confrontation either. The next few weeks will call for good survival instincts and diplomatic dexterity. Let's hope Bishop Audo is up to the challenge.