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The right response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons

Syria’s use of chemical weapons in an attack on Douma last weekend, killing 40 people, is but the latest in a series of such outrages. President Assad’s forces used them in an attack on the suburbs of Damascus in August 2013.

 They repeated this in April 2014 on the towns of Talmenes and in March 2015 on Sarmin. Several other similar attacks have been alleged and in August 2016 the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) condemned Syria for all these acts. In December 2016 at least 53 people were killed in what was thought to be a nerve gas attack and in April 2017 a chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun caused the USA to attack the Syrian base from which the attack had been launched.

Chemical weapons are not new. Mustard gas was used in the 1914-18 war. CS gas and pepper spray are still used by police in riot control but the most serious are nerve agents such as that used last month against Sergei and Yulia Skripal are relatively new. The production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons are banned by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention which is administered by the OPCW. Syria acceded to the Convention in 2013 and is supposed to have destroyed all its chemical weapons then.

President Trump, who ordered the air strike on Syrian bases in 2017, is now talking about further strikes. The French Government is backing that and the UK has been asked to join them. Theresa May has called a Cabinet meeting for 12th April but the Opposition wants the matter to be debated by Parliament when it reassembles on 16th. They point to the precedent in August 2013 when David Cameron sought approval for British troops to join the fight against the so-called Islamic State and MPs voted 285 to 272 against doing so.

The case for joining the Franco-American action is that doing nothing effectively recognises the normality of Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Critics will say that it is too late for that; it should have been done in 2013. They also argue that the American strike in 2017 did not achieve that objective. Moreover, they fear that military action now might also trigger war with Russia and Iran, Syria’s staunch allies.

What are the alternatives? The United Nations was created to defuse situations like this and work for peace. In 2014 a resolution to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court was supported by 65 member nations.  The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres who took office in 2017, has repeated those calls but to no avail. Both were blocked by Russia and China, two of the five permanent members of the UK Security Council, which is the body that would have to make that reference.

Polling by Times Newspapers revealed that only a fifth of voters “believe that Britain should launch missiles on Syrian military targets. More than two-fifths oppose action with the remainder undecided”. (12.4.18). A Russian ambassador has warned that any strike would be resisted and the planes and ships involved would be attacked. That could mean war with Russia and probably explains the public opinion the poll found.

No-one wants war given the hugely destructive power of modern weapons but our 20th century history surely taught us that peace at all costs is not a genuine peace. Appeasement allows the bullies to get their own way and justice is denied. Nevertheless, Jesus was sure that “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Mindful of that St Paul urges us to pray for “all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2:2). That is probably all most of us can do and those who have to decide how to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons on its own people, and those people too, all need serious believing prayer now.

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