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William MurphyAugust 29, 2013
Free Syrian Army fighters run to take cover from snipers loyal to President Bashar Assad near Aleppo International airport in Syria Aug. 28. (CNS photo/Molhem Barakat, Reuters)

The ongoing tragedy of Syria’s civil war becomes more complicated and more worrisome each day. At risk in this struggle is not only a nation, but a region made up of many nations that play various roles in a conflict that has become increasingly murky. I have been praying daily at Mass for a resolution of the conflict for the good of Syria and the Syrian people. As usual the poor and the innocent are the ones who suffer most. This is a war that highlights once again the enmity, seemingly ever present, between Shia/Alawite and Sunni groups, as well as groups within each of these major Muslim traditions. And yet we must also have concern for the others within Syria who suffer alongside their neighbors and fellow citizens. The story of a Syrian and a Greek Bishop captured by Chechen mercenaries and then “traded” to Syrian rebels is a dramatic example of what is happening all too often to Christians whose roots in Syria go back to apostolic times.

Complex Challenges

A civil war presents political, military, cultural and societal challenges, yet there are clearly important ethical issues at stake as well, and these ought to guide political judgments and help determine the scope and limits of certain action. For example, international conventions set limits on certain kinds of weapons, including chemical weapons, because they are ethically and morally repugnant. 

There are two factors that have complicated this conflict tremendously. The first is the composition of the “rebel forces.” Whatever group or groups first began this uprising to overthrow the dictatorship of Bashir al Assad, today they are not limited to Syrians. In addition the groups are in no way working harmoniously with one another, nor do they all share the same aims. Some are unabashedly Syrian, the majority of whom are Sunni. They have been joined by mercenaries from places like Chechnya and even from as far away as the United States. There is ample evidence that many of these groups are or are linked to Al Qaeda. Others represent equally radical terrorist groups.

The second outside factor is the involvement of nation states in varying ways and with almost as many different goals. Thus Saudi Arabia has been, as usual, providing funding for Sunni rebels who may indiscriminately but knowingly go to Al Qaeda. Russia and China are allied with the current regime. The European Union claims to be in favor of the “rebels” without being able to offer any real help in resolving the situation. Turkey acts for Turkish interests. Hezbollah is acting for its own interests. The United States is acting as strangely as one could imagine. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced early on that President Bashar al-Assad “had to go” and that the U.S. supports the “rebels” without knowing who they were and later having to admit that “we don’t support all rebels, only those who agree with us on wanting to overthrow the dictator.” Since then Secretary of State John Kerry seems equally baffled and baffling. He has traveled to the Near East six times in the past six months with little or nothing to show for it.

Of very recent is a third issue. The specter of the use of chemical weapons has become more focused, and charges are being made by the United States and European countries that the Assad regime is using them. There are reports of victims whose bodies show signs of chemical weapons having been used. The Syrian government has finally allowed outside inspections. Yet some officials in Washington have argued that this move came too late. Russia is warning the United States not to jump to conclusions. Pope Francis is calling for dialogue not threats, negotiation not ultimatums. Whether chemical weapons are being used needs to be determined and checked. But then the questions remains: Which side is using them? We already have seen the effect during the previous administration of rushing into a country under uncertain or false pretenses. Prudence would seem to demand that the current administration not make a similar mistake. Some groups and countries may want to overthrow the Assad regime, but what are the consequences? And what happens to all the innocent who already are suffering from this civil war exacerbated by the special interest of outside groups and outside nations?

Are there are other actors who can make a difference? The United Nations is functioning—or not—in its usual way and, despite messages from the secretary general, has nothing substantive to contribute to the resolution of the situation. Most recently the Security Council expressed deep concern over the possibility of the use of chemical weapons and applauded the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for his leadership. The calls for a conference are correct, but to date they have not even produced an agreement on a place to meet, not to mention any commitment from the warring groups to participate. I suspect that Mr. Assad might have reservations about participating in such a meeting when the United States and the European Union announce ahead of time that such a conference is intended to work out the means to remove him from the very role he is fighting to keep. And as far as the “rebel forces” are concerned, it is unlikely they are interested unless they have a guarantee that they are coming to a meeting to achieve their goal. Despite this, there is absolutely no evidence that they have an agreement among themselves regarding a future Syrian government or any willingness to do anything but to continue to fight it out among themselves.

One speaker at last month’s annual gathering of experts at the Aspen Institute summed this up neatly when he said that there are two realistic options that can emerge from the current situation and both of them are repugnant: either Mr. Assad will win and he will continue to rule but with even greater repression of the Sunni and others who fought his regime; or the rebels will gain control and there will be years and years of ongoing conflict among themselves. This situation could mirror the one in Iraq and perhaps be even worse due to its potential to perpetuate an unstable Syria that in turn threatens the stability of the neighboring countries in the Middle East.

It is comparatively easy to wag one’s finger at any and all of the actors in this situation. And my own thoughts can only be offered as a possible beginning to what might have a minimal chance of some limited success. My suggestions might call for difficult actions, but they are inspired by the constant appeal of both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis for constructive dialogue, encounters and agreements that would attempt to bring an end to violent conflict and establish some kind of civil collaboration even if it is only an agreement to stop killing one another. The suggestion goes principally to the United States whose words and actions so far demonstrate neither real plan nor even much of an understanding of the Middle East in general and Syria in particular.

Neutrality and Credibility

I would suggest the United States cease to be a cheerleader for the rebels and instead become truly neutral. That means no arms or aid to the rebels, and no more empty rhetoric. Second, the United States must speak from a position that is honestly embraced and adhered to. We must acknowledge that the United States has no interest in whoever is going to emerge as the leader of Syria so long as that leadership treats its citizens with justice and fairness. Then the United States might regain some small bit of credibility in the region. U.S. citizens who are partial to “rebels” will be furious. Those who like to see our country “exercise muscle” will see this as a cave in. Those want the United States to rule the area might look on this as an unacceptable abdication of responsibility. And some will say the United States is giving the place to Russia and China, which is a possiblity. Still, the leadership of the United States is moot at this point for a number of reasons, some beyond U.S. control, many because of basic flaws in American knowledge, understanding and policy in the Middle East.

Yet, if the United States and its Western allies stood for basic goods as the Holy See has consistently argued, without trying to manipulate one group or another and without interpreting what forms of leadership other countries must have, I believe a good argument can be made that this tragic situation can eventually be brought to a conclusion.

From that vantage point the role of the United States does not end. In fact it can finally begin. First must come a clear commitment to allow foreign nations to decide the form of government and the powers of a government for their own country. Then our government, and all nations, would have to become truly neutral instruments regarding factions. We should become the insistent voices for dialogue and the exercise of prudent political compromise within Syria on the part of all participants in a war that is a civil war. 

Pressure should be placed on all the outside forces to cease arming and encouraging either side. This is the only way to reduce the scope of the war and the killing. It is the only way to make Syrians on both sides realize that it is their conflict and they have to fight it out without counting on outside weapons, soldiers and support that have led to expansion and to deepening of the violence. If they have fewer and fewer means to fight, then there will be a greater possibility that they can be encouraged to sit down and negotiate with one another.

The United States will have to use what is left of its influence to pressure those Arab countries to pull back support for the rebels. Russia and China need to be persuaded that this is not the place to exercise their military muscle in order later to have political influence. In addition, they should pressure Iran to remove itself as a military supplier to the Syrian government. The U.S. and European leaders will have to eschew their own rhetoric and talk sense without the “soft leftist” posturing that passes for political wisdom.

Foreign Policy Implications

Such steps could mark the beginning of a gradual re-assessment of U.S. policy that must also have as a goal the liberation of the United States and the world economy from an overdependence on Middle East petroleum. Therefore it would behoove the U.S. government immediately to reach an agreement with Canada for the building of the pipeline to transmit Canadian and Alaskan oil into the United States. That action combined with any and all sensible development of alternative fuel sources would boost the U.S. economy and encourage new investment and stabilize the international economic political scene. With the tranquility of knowing what one does have can come the serenity of being able to set goals instead of reacting to events.

This also could lead to a renewed dialogue between the U.S. and Iran. The new president of Iran is being hailed as a moderate. We should be open to that and see what can come of it. If the United States were to attempt to assume the role I suggest in Syria, it might constitute a clear signal to Iran that our nation is open to more constructive dialogue regarding the proper use of nuclear power and the issue of nuclear weapons.

That immediately brings up the question of Israel, our staunch ally and our partner in a relationship we have been jeopardizing because of our lack of clarity and our seeming waffling in the Middle East. Israel will not want us to contribute to the pacification of Syria in terms of the nation’s short term interests: a Syria in turmoil is too busy to attack Israel. But is Israel better off with a destabilized Syria or a Syria where the Muslim brotherhood takes control, or worse? Iran remains the great threat and possibly a nuclear threat to Israel, but what is the price of constantly isolating Iran? Perhaps we can get nowhere with Iran but has anyone really tried to do so with realistic goals based on understanding Persian culture and Iranian political history? Would it not be advantageous to both the U.S. and Israel’s ultimate best interests for the U.S. diplomatic activity and Israel’s strategic and political goals to continue to be supportive in a relationship of strong allies? They can have many shared goals and indeed a common strategy on those issues where it is needed. But would it not be advantageous to both countries to be able to pursue interests proper to each with a certain legitimate autonomy? This could enhance the independence of one from the other, allowing each to pursue its own interests without jeopardizing common interests.

Finally, Jordan and Lebanon deserve more attention than either is getting. Jordan is an important strategic asset in the region. King Abdullah II needs support, including logistical support in the face of the refugee problems that have an inordinate influence on the fate of Jordan. He needs support because of terrorist factions who are always ready to cause internal disruptions in that country. Lebanon is always the forgotten state, yet it has survived and has flourished even against all odds. It is in the interests of all that we continue to encourage Lebanon and Lebanese leadership, despite all its fractiousness, to continue to make the Lebanese experiment work and continue to be a force for dialogue both internally in their country and, increasingly, in the Middle East.

These few thoughts are tentative, yet I believe they lead rather clearly to a very solid and valid position: there are no solid grounds that can justify outside forces, including the United States, to ether into the Syrian conflict which can only become more violent, more destructive and more destabilizing, greatly undermining the possibilities of peace based on justice, freedom and the dignity of every person. In the perspective of just war theory, I believe it can clearly be stated that to intervene militarily would be morally and ethically wrong.

(Photo credit: Catholic News Service/Molhem Barakat, Reuters)

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Catherine McKeen
8 years 8 months ago
When the struggle is far from home, it's easy for Bishop Murphy to urge neutrality and reason. It was a different story in his dealings with local Catholics who joined Voice of the Faithful in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals. There was no neutrality then from this bishop: we were called dissenters, treated as enemies of our church, banned from meeting in our own parishes. Priests who supported us were silenced. Neutrality was not in his lexicon then.
Mary Sweeney
8 years 8 months ago
Well said.
Mary Sweeney
8 years 8 months ago
Best article I have found on discernment in conflict situations - and from someone who has walked the walk, not just talked: http://www.scarboromissions.ca/Scarboro_missions_magazine/Issues/1990/February/taking_sides.php
8 years 8 months ago
The article as it stands on its own is well written if not a bit arrogant, partisan and political in tone. The issue is one of hypocrisy. Where was Bishop Murphy's moral leadership when George Bush invaded Iraq under the pretense of WMDs? Bishop Murphy, Cardinal Dolan, the USCCB, previously silent during the moral outrage of the Iraq war are suddenly vocal during the Obama administration. It's as if the bishops are trying to regain their moral authority lost in their disastrous handling of the issue of sexual predation of youth by parish priests. Too much for me to stomach.
E.Patrick Mosman
8 years 8 months ago
I see my comment has been deleted so much for dialogue. E.Patrick Mosman | 9/7/2013 - 7:32am "Perhaps we can get nowhere with Iran but has anyone really tried to do so with realistic goals based on understanding Persian culture and Iranian political history? " What does the understanding of Persian culture and political history do with the militant Islamic ayatollahs ruling Iran today? What is needed is a deep and unbiased understanding of Islam not as a religion but as a dominating force that seeks to control the world. One must also study and understand the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood its philosophical foundation, its ultimate goals and writings of the Brotherhood's Sayyid Qutb who remains a significant and influential thinker in the Muslim world to this day. Professor Muhammad Qutb, Sayyid’s brother, was a teacher and mentor to the young Osama Bin Laden, who has grown to lead the radical Islamic terrorist movement. Today’s radical Islamic groups, such as al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, have borrowed much from the thought of Qutb in justifying their vision for the world and the violence they promote. The Thought of Sayyid Qutb: Radical Islam's Philosophical Foundations Statesmanship Thesis Recipient of the 2004 Charles E. Parton Award by Luke Loboda. http://www.ashbrook.org/publicat/thesis/loboda/home.html Qutb's writings influenced Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri an Egyptian and follower of Sayyid Qutb who is currently the leader of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization. By the age of 14, al-Zawahiri had joined the Muslim Brotherhood. The following year the Egyptian government executed Qutb for conspiracy, and al-Zawahiri, along with four other secondary school students, helped form an "underground cell devoted to overthrowing the government and establishing an Islamist state." It was at this early age that al-Zawahiri developed a mission in life, "to put Qutb's vision into action." These are the people held powerful position in Egypt and are involved in Syria and our President and diplomats ignored, or more likely agreed with, the Brotherhood's past, present and future goals the destruction of Western civilization and the ultimate rule of Islam.

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