Syria: How Can We Fix This?

Pope Francis caught even BuzzFeed’s attention over the weekend when expressing his views on possible foreign intervention in Syria via Twitter:

And to hammer home the point that the Catholic Church is against launching missiles into Syria, bishops here in the United States have launched a campaign of sorts against a possible war. In an e-mail blast, bishops implored Catholics to:

Contact your two U.S. Senators and your Representative and urge them to vote against a resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria. Instead, ask them to support U.S. leadership, in collaboration with the international community, for an immediate ceasefire in Syria and serious, inclusive negotiations for peace.

So, what’s actually going in Syria?

If you have some time, check out this breakdown from the Washington Post, but here’s the gist. The ruler of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is a despot who has cracked down on protests with lethal force aimed at rebels and civilians alike. Over the past two years, more than 100,000 Syrians have perished. Now, the regime has employed chemical weapons to kill hundreds more. The use of chemical weapons is against international norms, as they don’t discriminate, instill terror, and generally give their targets no chance at escape. So, some American political leaders say, the United States must respond with military force to demonstrate to the world that there are consequences to using chemical weapons and to take a stand against the general hell facing the Syrian people. The United Nations’ refugee agency estimates that some 2 million Syrians have fled the war-torn country.

So given that, why’s the Church against military intervention in Syria?

Jesuit Tom Reese presents a thorough roundup in the National Catholic Reporter of how some Christian moral theologians are interpreting the situation. Would this be a just war? (Remember, though, that Secretary of State John Kerry told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee today that this would not be a war, but a military conflict.) Reese lays out the criteria for a just war — just cause; last resort; possibility of success; proportionality of response; and legitimate authority — and how different theologians view the current situation. It’s worth recalling that in the buildup to the war in Iraq, the U.S. bishops, and Pope John Paul II, determined that the United States did not have a case for a just war. Apparently Pope Francis and U.S. bishops feel Syria fails to meet the criteria as well.

Of course, some may say that it’s easy for the pope, bishops, and academics to protest against war. They don’t, after all, have the responsibility to protect populations. And how can someone not want to step up and help the innocents being slaughtered by a tyrant hell-bent on preserving his power? Have they not seen the photos of the dead children who succumbed to sarin nerve gas?

Even with all this evidence, why is it so difficult to get behind military intervention?

Those of us in our 20s and 30s are nothing if not optimistic, determined to take on the world, molding and shaping it into our positive image. We volunteer in unprecedented numbers. We start nonprofits in our spare time. We are convinced of the goodness of humanity and we stop at nothing to see this goodness thrive. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, we believe, truly, that there is nothing wrong with the world that cannot be fixed by what is right with the world.

But this situation in Syria challenges all that. We see evil, and our natural instinct is to ask, how can we fix this? The reality may be, however, that there’s little for us to do. It’s downright depressing to stare at evil and realize there may be nothing we can do to stop it. What happens if we really are left with nothing but prayer? What if even weapons and war don’t stop the evil? What if our actions simply cause more suffering and death?

The situation in Syria looks at our desire to right wrongs in the face and laughs. A dictator is gassing children and families to death? Let’s bomb him! Granted, our bombs will kill additional children and families. Collateral damage. Should the current regime falter and fail, those that rise to power will seek revenge, not only on their former oppressors, but also on those dropping bombs from the sky. It’s a pattern that those living in the United States should recognize by now. The enemies of our enemies aren’t always our friends.

So what are we left with? It appears our elected representatives are ready to grant President Obama the authority to carry out limited attacks in Syria. Going to war is one issue that appears able to unite the left and right. More will die. And the cycle of suffering will continue. Of course, there is a chance that American missiles will deter future atrocities, and perhaps even slow the carnage in Syria. Gray abounds, even as we seek black and white.

As for me, I’ll join Pope Francis this Saturday, fasting and praying for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and around the world. Will it stop missiles, end terror, and bring peace to Syria? Probably not. But perhaps prayers and witness will inspire some in power to consider alternatives pathways to peace. After all, without this hope for peace, we, as Christians, are really left with nothing much at all.