A quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing. Neville Chamberlain’s words at the time of the Sudetenland crisis in 1938.
But in many ways more apt for the situation in Syria, and most of the other flash-points we have witnessed from afar over the last decade or so.
Are we really confident that we understand exactly what is going on there? And therefore feel adequate in the face of the questions which don’t directly affect many, if any of us, that can be summarised as ‘ what can be done?’
There are members of this church who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the situation for most of us is one of guilty and impotent bystanders.
Anger, confusion, fear seem to unite us with the politicians who insist ‘something must be done’ even as they struggle to decide on what , and to what end.
These are just some of my musings on the subject, based on the little I know, in an attempt to get some bearings. I offer no solutions!
Firstly a fact which verges on the tragic
The Assad regime has been enthusiastically supported by the large minority Christian population- until the war started, about 10% of the population.
If Jesus was going to visit the world today Syria is one of the few remaining places he could probably make himself understood, for Syrian Christians still speak a version of his native language Aramaic. They are probably the oldest Christian community in the world and have made Syria their home because first under the French and then under the Assad dynasty they have found one place in the Middle East where they have, until recently been safe and been able to thrive.
Many Syrian Christians now live in California where, mostly, they vocally oppose American Air Strikes, because since the civil war started they have become vulnerable. Bishops have been murdered and kidnapped and many of the refugees in Lebanon and Turkey are from that community. Those left in Syria are genuinely terrified of being the victims of jihadi attack. The Syrian Christian presence also partly explains Russia’s involvement and seemingly blind support for the country. Historically Russia has seen itself as the protector of Orthodox Christianity, although nowadays Russia’s role appears little more than cynical opportunism.
The Assad regime has been appalling and generated the kind of dark humour that only deeply oppressed peoples come up with. The travel writer William Dalrymple in his classic book about the state of the region that used to be the Christian Empire of Byzantium, ‘From the Holy Mountain,’ Tells this story.
In the days of a President Assad senior a taxi driver working in Damascus, while stationary at a traffic light, was careered into from behind by a limousine with clouded glass windows.
Being hot tempered he leapt from his car and started ranting at the occupants of the car behind, adding a few insults about their ancestry, making allegations that it was marked by the absence of fathers and the involvement of camels.
Suddenly a window was wound down, and a hand came out, holding a visiting card with nothing on it but a telephone number. The car then sped off.
The taxi driver’s car was wrecked, so deciding to extract some compensation from the perpetrator,, he went to a public telephone box and rung up the number. When the phone was picked up he started pleading for financial reparation, but was greeted only with silence. So he started getting angry again and let out another stream of insults.
After about five minutes a very quiet voice asked’ Do you know who you are talking too?’
The taxi driver said, ‘no’.
You are speaking to Hafez al-Asad, said the sinister voice on the end of the phone. I happen to be the President of the Syrian Arab Republic.
I know who you are , said the taxi driver, but do you have any idea who you are talking to?
No, said the voice, a bit taken aback.
Thank God for that, said the taxi driver, and slammed the phone down, and ran back to his car before the secret police could trace the call.
I am not one of those people who often sits down and reads Newspapers from cover to cover, and often miss in depth conversations on Newsnight, so one question I have had is who are the Alawites? We all know they important as the main ethnic and religious group in the regime, although they are a small minority in the country as a whole, but who exactly are they?
I did find it instructive to discover that they are, like our own Ahmaddiya community, regarded in the Islamic world as barely Islamic at all. Also like the Ahmadiyya, part of their unpopularity has come as a result of geo-politics. They were favoured by the French because they were less hostile to Western occupation and were thus recruited into the army. But their current alliance with the other non Sunni Muslim groups in Syria goes way back and accusations have been levelled at them regularly that they have adopted Christian and even pre- christian religious ideas.
That they will drink alcohol and eat with non- Muslims is another reason that they are treated with suspicion. They have earned a triple dose of hatred from Islamists, being seen as secular, not really muslim as well as supporters of a tyrant.
Whatever the motivation of the Asad regime, it is clear that fear is a large motive for many of its supporters.
And lastly a reminder of the concept of the Just War, which has long been the official Christian line to decide on the morality of military action. I must warn though that I am not personally convinced that it is a perfect instrument for calculating a moral position.
The First Crusade which had the genuine objective to rescue Jerusalem and its large Christian minority, at that time possibly a majority, from Saracen occupation and oppression, was at its launch a fairy good model for a just war doctrine, and included an achievable aim as required, which it duly accomplished, but the mess and horror that came in its wake proved that reality has the last word over theory.
Just War theory demands among other things, the protection of civilians, proportionality and the chance of success. Bombing attacks, however smart, tend to miss.
Maybe by the time I read this, there will be Western attacks on Syria; whatever the situation, we can, without fear of glibness, continue to pray. There is a saying, which originated in the terrible fighting between American and Japanese troops in World War 2- There are no atheists in fox holes- This notion that a threat to what we most value- our own lives- elicits prayer, can be applied to all that matters to us. The slaughter of innocents and all the terrible dilemmas of war demand prayer if we seriously believe that loving our neighbour is a divine command. It is not something which we can be not bothered about.
And we can act. What has been described as the greatest refugee crisis for 20 years, has led to other vulnerable countries such as Lebanon taking huge numbers of fleeing people. We rightly worry about the domino effect of military action, but we should also be concerned about the consequences of mass displacements of people. That is something we can do something about.
Medicins Sans Frontier and The Red Cross.