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The Syrian dilemma

The Syrian civil war continues to flummox politicians of all persuasions. More than 100,000 have been killed, two million have fled abroad and over four million displaced from their homes. 

Worse still the Assad regime has now employed the nerve agent Sarin killing 1,400. Sarin is classified as a weapon of mass destruction, banned by the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993.

Last week MPs were recalled to debate what should be the UK response. The motion before them included the possibility of “military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons.” The motion was defeated by 272 to 285.

There is no political disagreement about the unacceptability of using chemical weapons. Nor is there any disagreement about the need for humanitarian aid for the refugees and Syria’s neighbours to which they have fled. They now constitute 25% of Lebanon’s population and 8% of Jordan’s. Britain is the second largest supplier of aid, having already given nearly £400 million. The motion was defeated because the Labour Party withdrew from an agreement between Messrs Cameron and Miliband and 39 coalition MPs voted with them. If it seems impossible that anyone should oppose appropriate action to prevent the use of chemical weapons, a majority of MPs and apparently of the public were anxious to avoid a repeat of British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Libya might have been a better reference point because it involved no British ‘boots on the ground’ and only surgical bombing of airfields to stop the air force attacking its own people. What positives can be taken from this baffling business and what more can be done to end the suffering and prevent further use of chemical weapons? First, at home, we can ignore the hysterical talk of the Prime Minister being humiliated by Thursday’s vote. Constitutionally he had no need to consult Parliament about possible military action and he was the first PM to do so. On losing he humbly accepted the result and showed real respect for parliament. That President Obama followed his example was a more accurate comment than our shallow newspaper headlines. Britain still has a role to play in this drama.

Other countries need persuading to match our levels of humanitarian aid, especially for the neighbouring nations to which refugees have fled. Even more crucial is a diplomatic drive to draw all parties into a peace making process. However improbable this currently appears, if Syria’s allies, Russia, China and Iran could be persuaded to back a Geneva peace conference, they could pressure the main combatants to participate. Sooner or later President Assad has to recognise that he cannot win and remain in office. Too many have died and the use of Sarin destroyed his credibility.

Christians should be praying for such a peace process, mindful of Jesus’ teaching about peace-making (eg. Matthew 5:9; 43-48)