Editorial: Next steps in Syria

As if, after all these decades of war and terrorism in the Middle East, the world needed more proof that the region is stubbornly immune to conflict resolution, we now have Syria.

That nation is locked in a death spiral that began with a popular uprising against a dictatorship and descended into a religious and ethnic war with no end in sight. The government has ruthlessly waged war on its own people. An estimated 100,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced, including 1 million children. Many are flooding into neighboring countries and overwhelming refugee relief efforts.

It is critical to remember that part of the moral obscenity is that the Syrian people themselves are bearing the brunt of the suffering.

The most recent outrage is an apparent nerve gas attack on a Damascus suburb in late August. The attack left hundreds dead and thousands injured. Images of the rows of dead children and convulsing victims have galvanized demands for Western powers to take some sort of action. The Obama administration, which has been extraordinarily cautious in the face of great pressure to intervene on the side of the rebellion, seems convinced that the Assad regime is guilty and must be held accountable.

According to Secretary of State John Kerry, the attack was a “moral obscenity.” He said the U.S. government would hold the Syrian government accountable for a “cowardly crime.” But as has been clear for months, the Western powers are in a difficult position. On the one hand, the rebel coalition dedicated to overthrowing the Assad regime consists of fractious militarized groups including Sunni Islamic extremists and Al Qaida. The enemy of our enemy may be our friend, but in the age of terrorism, even that cliché has its limits. On the other hand, the Assad regime is backed by Muslim and Christian minorities who know they will suffer a terrible fate under an Islamist victory, but it is also backed by Hezbollah, another terrorist organization.

There are few good options available, despite the insistence by Western allies that military action must be taken. The pressure to do something to hold the regime accountable is mounting, but what? A missile strike is unlikely to be much of a deterrent. No fly zones are difficult to enforce. There is no stomach for more direct military involvement. America recognizes that its options are limited. Military retaliation will not be as simple as it was in Libya, with Syria reportedly having a much more robust air defense system. In addition, who the good guys are is far less clear than who the bad guys are. Lastly, the Middle East is a minefield of unintended consequences, as we have seen in Iraq, Libya and Egypt.

The truth is that this is only the latest in a series of conflicts that show the limits of violence and the limit of power. There is no “quick fix” to this horror, which makes it all the more important to listen to Pope Francis when he reminds us that “it is not confrontation that offers hope to resolve problems.” The chief Vatican diplomat in the region has also urged prudence and caution on the part of international leaders.

At the same time, it is critical to remember that part of the moral obscenity is that the Syrian people themselves are bearing the brunt of the suffering. In Jordan and in Lebanon, the refugees threaten to overwhelm local resources, but the international community has been slower to provide aid than provide arms. For Americans looking for ways to help these desperate people, our own Catholic Relief Services is partnering with Caritas Lebanon and Caritas Jordan to provide much needed assistance in the refugee camps. 

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor; Sarah Hayes, executive editor