Is Syria the New Iraq?

Is Syria the New Iraq? July 13, 2013

“All politicians take their decisions on the basis of national or political interest and explain them in terms of altruism.” –Abba Eban

The ongoing crisis in Syria, especially in relation to the mounting speculations and now certainty of U.S. involvement, has been prompting a spate of comparisons to last decade’s debacle du jour in Iraq.  I find the emerging parallels disconcerting on at least two levels.

First of all, this foreign policy deja-vu demonstrates a chronic failure of imagination, specifically in the ease with which we default to the tired dichotomy of military intervention vs. inaction in the face of any international crisis.  For a case in point, in a New York Times op-ed a couple of months ago, Bill Keller made the case for repeating history under the assumption that This Time It’s Different.  After disclaiming that he had been left “gun-shy” when his self-described reluctant hawkishness regarding the Iraq invasion “turned out to be a humbling error of judgment,” Keller proceeds to list several differences between the current situation in Syria and the one ten years ago in Iraq as reasons this lesson in humility should be forgotten.  Keller is of course correct to note the urgency of the humanitarian situation in Syria, but he is fatally mistaken to conclude that “getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq,” which seems to mean applying the same devastating non-solution and expecting better results.  So much for being gun-shy.

The editors of America have noticed the same arms-or-nothing dichotomy at play, saying,

Many believe the choices in Syria are limited to military action (“doing something”) or sitting on the sidelines and letting the death toll climb (“doing nothing”). The United States must reject both options.  The question is not if we should intervene, but how.

They go on to propose nonviolent humanitarian intervention that is very much along the lines of what the Catholic hierarchy is advocating, both within and beyond the United States (which I will discuss in more detail a bit later).  And an earlier remark illustrates why the lessons of past mistakes bear reminding:

Instructed by past experience, the public should be skeptical about a nation’s stated reasons for entering a war. War is often justified for selfless, humanitarian reasons, but states typically do not intervene unless there is some compelling self-interest.

This observation is reminiscent of that of Abba Eban cited above, which was an epigraph to a chapter of a college textbook of mine and has stuck in my mind ever since (and which apparently was uttered around the time of our earlier escapades in Iraq under Clinton in the 1990s).  It’s hard to say precisely what all has motivated Obama’s decision to arm Syrian rebels, but it is unlikely that it simply comes down to altruism, and some suggest that his prior hesitancy may have been more shrewd than dovish.  Alan Berger of the Boston Globe describes it as the “let-it-burn” strategy and concludes,

Whether or not Obama would describe his Syria policy as a distillation of cold national interest calculations, what he has done and not done fits that definition. When it comes to analyzing the behavior of nation-states, you can rarely go wrong assuming the most cynical scenarios.

Building on Berger’s analysis, Stephen Walt of Foreign Policy adds,

Berger doesn’t claim that this strategy is a conscious ploy on Obama’s part, and it is hard to feel good about a policy that helps prolong the suffering of so many people. And the history of both Lebanon and Afghanistan warns that letting a country burn for years can have far-reaching consequences. But Berger’s interpretation of Obama’s Syria policy supports the idea that the president has a pretty strong realpolitik gene. And as the president’s policies have shown, when forced to choose between peace and the chance to undermine an adversary at low cost, political leaders normally choose the latter course.

For a response that is more truly motivated by concern for the dignity of human lives, we do much better to look to the Church, whose leaders have been consistently calling for nonviolent solutions to the Syrian crisis.  The Canadian bishops, responding to a worldwide appeal from Pope Francis, have launched a campaign to aid Syrian refugees.  On the US side, Catholic Relief Services board chair Bishop Gerald Kicanas and USCCB Office of International Justice and Peace director Stephen Colecchi have also echoed the Holy Father’s appeal, including calling for “an arms embargo.”  The same USCCB office has recently sent letters to the US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State urging nonviolent solutions and stressing concerns for both universal human rights and the endangerment of the region’s persecuted Christians (the former written by Bishop Richard Pates who chairs the Committee on International Justice and Peace, and the latter co-written by Bps. Pates and Kicanas).  As the second letter (dated June 19) concludes:

Instead of arming both sides, the international community should be emphasizing the need for a negotiated solution to the conflict. The introduction of more arms simply increases the lethality of the violence and contributes to the suffering of the Syrian people.

The Syrian people urgently need a political solution that ends the fighting and creates a future for all Syrians, one that respects human rights and religious freedom. We ask the United States to work with other governments to obtain a ceasefire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial and neutral humanitarian assistance, and encourage building an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities.

Which brings me to my second major concern: the volatility of Middle Eastern Christian communities, which are only further imperiled when American militarism is added to the mix.  Andrew Doran of The American Conservative recently picked up on this tragically ironic and underreported dimension of the Iraq/Syria connection, detailing how “the conflict in Syria and the American invasion of Iraq are linked by a common thread: the failure of the U.S. to consider the effect of its foreign policy on vulnerable religious communities, especially Middle Eastern Christians.”

After describing how numerous Iraqi Christians, under worsening persecution following the 2003 US invasion, have found some measure of protection in the Kurdish north, Doran makes the connection to Syria:

Today Iraqi Kurdistan is assimilating refugees from another neighboring country torn apart by sectarian violence: Syria. Among the refugees are more Iraqi Christians, who originally fled to the relative freedom and tolerance of Syria, only to find themselves again fleeing persecution, often hunted by Syria’s rebels. Many of these rebels are members or affiliates of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network. The Obama administration, bewilderingly, has chosen to support Syria’s rebel groups without any apparent thought of the consequences. The extent of covert support remains unclear, though reports suggest it is significant. As in Iraq, the insurgent campaign in Syria targets priests, the most visible symbols of the Christian faith.

Few people are raising the connection between American military activity and the persecution of Christians, but another who has done so is Senator Rand Paul, who, as a near-lone congressional dissenter on the question of military intervention, has been critical of the Obama Administration and fellow Republicans alike.  The enigmatic Senator Paul has earned notoriety as something of a GOP foreign policy maverick (and seems to be a good deal more dovish than our Democratic president, for that matter), and he recently took “the decimation of Iraqi Christian communities” as well as potentially “aggressive measures in Syria that could lead to a similar fate for the Christians of that country” (to quote Daniel Larison’s summary) as a starting point to make a Christian case against preemptive war.

Reminding us of the need to learn from our country’s “history of often picking sides in Middle East conflicts to its own detriment,” Paul wrote in a recent CNN opinion piece,

The situation in Syria is certainly dire. At least 70,000 people have died, and al Qaeda is making confirmed inroads into the country. No one wants to see Syria become a bastion of extremism. But like other American interventions in the past, U.S. involvement could actually help the extremists.

There is also the quandary of nearly 2 million Christians who are uncertain of what to do. The Christian community in Syria has traditionally sided with, and been protected by, Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It is troubling to think that American arms may be given to Islamic fighters who may in turn be firing them at Christians….

Empowering Islamic extremists to achieve questionable short-term goals does not serve America’s long-term security or interests. Nor does it serve the interests of nearly 2 million Christians in Syria who fear they could suffer the same fate as Iraqi Christians who were abused and expelled from that country as radical Islamic forces gained influence and power.

The additional irony that Paul may or may not be noticing is that, by adding fuel to the fire, we may be fueling the general ill will in the region toward Americans – and by an unwarranted association, toward Christians – even among the very people we are now arming.  Today, Iraqi Christians are falsely associated with the American military presence, despite their own presence far predating the existence of Islam, let alone of America.

Courtesy of Fr. Najeeb Michaeel. Used by permission.

This, for me, is where it gets personal.  Previously, when I saw the word “Iraq,” I simply saw an issue.  But now that I know someone directly affected by the situation there, I can’t see it without seeing a person – and behind that person, a community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ making a faithful effort to witness to reconciliation in the midst of a precarious situation.


The still unknown fate of the two kidnapped Syrian bishops, who had themselves been on a humanitarian mission to secure the release of kidnapped priests, and the more recent death of Fr. François Murad indicate that the situation of Christians in Syria is no less volatile.  The visibility of the clergy as representatives of their faith communities makes them a particularly vulnerable target, and the laity are being increasingly targeted as well.  That being the case, we shouldn’t need to be reminded to consider the perspective of our Syrian co-religionists when thinking about foreign policy, but we do, and John Allen has done us that service:

Makers of American foreign policy aren’t exactly famous for giving robust consideration to the views of people on the ground when they craft strategy, but even so, it’s worth pondering what Syria’s Christians are saying about our new willingness to arm the country’s motley assortment of rebel forces….

As is well known, the Obama administration recently announced that the U.S. will provide small arms and ammunition to the rebels, apparently in the hope that by denying Assad an outright military victory, pressure will be increased for a negotiated solution. Critics charge that the cure may be worse than the disease, paving the way either for Iraq-style chaos or the Egyptian-style rise of an Islamist regime, and in either case setting up Syria’s Christian minority for special hardship.

Once again, the magisterial response to the situation is worth taking seriously.  Pope Francis has repeatedly urged the pursuit of a peaceful solution with a touch of personalism, appealing to the humanity of the bishops’ kidnappers and calling war “the suicide of humanity because it kills hearts.”  Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, voiced the Vatican’s concern for Christians in Syria and throughout the Middle East at last month’s Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches, reminding them and the entire Church of the Christian responsibility to “never ever respond to hate with hate” and to “share the urgent needs of so many brothers and sisters.”

The prioritization of national interests over human rights (particularly religious freedom) on the part of much of the international community, by contrast, was duly chastised in a recent Tablet editorial.  After pointing to the connection a few others have made between increased armament and religious persecution, the editorial adds, echoing the political skepticism of Berger and Walt cited above, “Realpolitik prevails: an amoral world where nation states do not have values, only interests.”

But such an approach does not represent truly Catholic priorities.  That is why I am especially grieved by how easily national interests can trump catholicity.  Whether or not we actually know people in the places where our own country is involved militarily, we should care about how Christians in those places are affected by our country’s foreign policy if we believe in the catholicity of the Church.  And furthermore, we should care about how the broader populations are affected if we believe in the universal human dignity that the Church teaches.

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