Western air strikes not the answer, say Syrian clerics

by Madeleine Davies
Crisis:a scrabble for survivors after a building collapsed under fire from pro-Assad forces

AS US forces prepared to launch strikes on their country, Syrian clergy have urged the international community not to pursue military action, warning that it would have ramifications across the globe.

The Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Mgr Antoine Audo, has warned that there could be a “world war”.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister backed down from recommending that Britain take immediate military action against Syria. This came after the Labour leader Ed Miliband said that he wanted to see more evidence that the chemical attack that took place last week in Damascus was the work of President Assad’s regime.

The motion to be put before the House of Commons on Thursday afternoon now states that “every effort” must be taken first to secure the backing of the UN Security Council, “to ensure the maximum legitimacy for any such action”.

It attributes the chemical attack to the Assad regime, and calls for a “strong humanitarian response” that “may, if necessary, require military action”. It also notes “the failure of the United Nations Security Council over the last two years to take united action in response to the Syrian crisis”. However, it welcomes the work of the UN team investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and states that its findings should be considered by the Security Council before it decides on a response.

On Wednesday, Britain put a resolution before the UN Security Council authorising all necessary measures under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter to protect civilians from chemical weapons. This could include military action, which would be expected to take the form of using missiles to target military sites in Syria.

The resolution has secured the unanimous backing of the National Security Council, which Mr Cameron chaired on Wednesday.

The position of the Government, published on Thursday, states that the legal basis for military action would be “humanitarian intervention”, to “relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons”. It sets out how, even if the Security Council blocked action, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures on this basis.


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The UN team investigat­ing the use of chemical weapons in Syria

Credit: AP

The UN team investigat­ing the use of chemical weapons in Syria

On Tuesday, the Syrian-born director of the Awareness Foundation in London, the Revd Nadim Nassar, said: “I can hear the drums of war deafening the people by empty words, eloquent arguments and deep political analysis – exactly like what happened when the war started against Iraq.

“Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, have been killed, and the Western governments did not move in any serious way to use diplomatic means to stop the bloodshed in Syria, and suddenly and miraculously they decided to act and attack to add fuel to the fire. . .

“We still have not learned that bringing the different parties of any political conflict to the table of negotiation is the way to find a solution to the conflict more than providing weapons to them so that they destroy each other.

“The Western governments are supporting the Syrian opposition with millions, and we all know that the one who pays sets the rules of the game. Couldn’t they twist the arms of the oppposition to come to the negotiation table, and ask Russia and China to do the same with the regime, since they support it with money and weapons?”

On Tuesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury told The Daily Telegraph: “The Government and the Americans are seeing intelligence nobody else sees – I just think we have to be very careful about rushing to judgement. . .


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Defiant: the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, denied allegations


Defiant: the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, denied allegations

“The things which MPs will have to bear in mind in what is going to be a very, very difficult debate is firstly, are we sure about the facts on the ground? Secondly, is it possible to have a carefully calibrated re- sponse including armed force, if you are sure about the facts on the ground, that does not have unforeseeable ramifications across the whole Arab and Muslim world?” There was no “good answer” to the crisis, he said.

The Archbishop is expected to speak during a debate on the use of chemical weapons in Syria in the House of Lords on Thursday afternoon.

On Thursday morning, Anjum Anwar, dialogue-development officer at Blackburn Cathedral, said:

“I believe that Assad needs to be removed, however I am not convinced that intervention should come from the US, or that we should follow suit.

“We know that his regime is crumbling, so the organic process should be allowed to happen. We have allowed Assad to carry out atrocities for years, and we have known about it. So the question that I would like to ask is: why now?”

She suggested that “We need to listen to his Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and probably less to past Prime Ministers.”

“I fully endorse what the Archbishop of Canterbury has said,” she said. “We need table talk. We can’t be a bull in a china shop. We have seen what happened in Iraq and what happened in Afghanistan and Libya. My fear is that intervention could become a war. And that would fragment communities all over the world including the United Kingdom. Experience tells us that we need Assad at the table, and we need to talk. I think he is ready. But I am not convinced that miltary intervention is the way forward for peace.”

On Wednesday night, Open Doors UK & Ireland, a charity supporting persecuted Christians, sent a letter to the Prime Minister, under the signature of Lisa Pearce, its deputy chief executive.

Ms Pearce writes of a meeting a few weeks ago with church leaders from Syria in Lebanon. One urged her to tell the British Government how dangerous it would be if the West were to become militarily involved in the crisis. He told her: “Through sending arms to our countries and through meddling in our internal affairs what is happening is that the militias and people on the ground see these countries as Christian countries. They don’t know any different. They assume that they are sending arms as Christians and so we are the ones that take the brunt of it. They want to revenge themselves on these countries so they take their revenge on the Christians in the country.”

The Syrian church leaders were “emphatic that the priority for the international community was to support an inclusive Syrian-led political process to find a political solution”.

The letter also quotes Philip Jenkins, Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, who has warned: “Any Western intervention in Syria would likely supply the death warrant for the ancient Christianity of the Middle East.”

On Monday, Bishop Audo told Vatican Radio: “If there were a military intervention, I think this would lead to a world war.”

A UN team is currently in Syria investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. The latest allegations concern the Ghouta area outside Damascus, on the morning of Wednesday of last week, where more than 300 civilians, including children, are reported to have been killed. Any use of chemical weapons would violate international law.

On Thursday this week, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said that the team would leave Syria by Saturday morning. On Wednesday, he said “The Security Council must at last find the unity to act. It must use its authority for peace.”

On Tuesday, the Arab League issued a statement saying that it held the Assad regime “fully responsible for the ugly crime”.

Also on Tuesday, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, said that the allegation that the attack was the work of the regime was “categorically baseless”. The regime has blamed opposition fighters for the attack, and warned that any “act of aggression” by the West would strengthen radical fighters linked to al-Qaeda.

Mr Cameron said on Tuesday: “There is never 100-per-cent certainty; there is never one piece, or several pieces of intelligence, that can give you absolute certainty. But what we know is this regime has huge stocks of chemical weapons.

“We know that they have used them on at least ten occasions prior to this last wide-scale use. We know that they have both the motive and the opportunity, whereas the opposition does not have those things, and the opposition’s chance of having used chemical weapons, in our view, is vanishingly small.”

He emphasised: “This is not about getting involved in a Middle Eastern war, or changing our stance in Syria, or going further into that conflict. It’s nothing to do with that. It’s about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by. . . It must be right to have some rules in our world, and to try to enforce those rules.”

The Joint Special Representative of the UN and the League of Arab States, Lakhdar Brahimi, said on Tuesday that he was still confident that the Geneva II conference to broker a political solution to the conflict would take place “at some point”. His team was working to bring together the regime and the opposition.

On the same day, the UN’s top political official, Jeffrey Feltman, met with Iranian officials, who said that the country was committed to facilitating a political solution. Mr Feltman emphasised that the UN rejected a military approach to the crisis.

A YouGov poll published by The Sun on Wednesday showed that half of the respondents opposed the use of British missiles against Syria, compared with 25 per cent who were in favour.

On Thursday morning, Janet Symes, Head of Middle East at Christian Aid, echoed calls for a political solution to the crisis.

She said: “An escalation in military engagement is likely to worsen an already precarious humanitarian situation; leading to more civilian casualties and further destruction of infrastructure. It has the potential to jeopardise humanitarian access without bringing an end to the conflict any closer.”

The Barnabas Fund has called for a day of prayer for Egypt and Syria this Sunday. It reports that, last Saturday, about 20 Christians were killed in a shooting perpetrated by opposition fighters in the Wadi al-Nasara area of Syria.

Paul Vallely

Question of the Week: Do you support military action in Syria in response to the chemical attacks?