Pope Francis’ plea for peace in Syria and a day of prayer defined what much of the world fervently hopes is the end result of what is an appalling civil war.
Almost simultaneously, The White House released video clips of children and old people gassed and dying from an attack of chemical weapons, weapons the world proclaimed were above and beyond the norms of civilization a hundred years ago and agreed to ban them from use in war forever.
The Pope saw the use of force to be immoral; the Obama administration saw the use of chemical weapons as immoral. This appears to be an unsolvable moral dilemma that gives shelter to both sides, to those who oppose U.S. limited intervention in Syria and the rationalization for the advocates who want to strike. It is not. To use one immoral act may be the only way to achieve the moral goal of peace
Peace, defined as a negotiated end to the conflict that stops the slaughter, is a wish, a prayer, and a hope, but to get there may require more violence. So many are expressing a belief that if the world put pressure on the Assad regime, embargoes, or so many of the nonviolent strategies tried to change the behavior of Iran or North Korea, Assad would find his way to the negotiating table.
It is not just any negotiation we should seek. It is negotiation in good faith that would end the conflict and also protect the Christian and Alawite minorities in Syria from being wiped out by Sunni victors. The specter of the ethnic cleansing of the Balkan wars has been invoked as the reason to protect the Assad regime from collapsing because of U.S. intervention.
That view is neither logical nor is the goal achievable. The question is how can anyone from the outside of Syria convince Bashar al Assad that it is in his interest to negotiate in good faith? So long as he has allies of Russia and Iran to supply him with weapons or trading partners in China, embargoes and economic pressure or world condemnation would not work. So long as he perceives he is winning, that he controls every major urban city, as he does now, why should he give away ground or power?
Something must change. Either the West arming the moderate opposition or a strike that would take out Assad’s air and delivery systems so that the playing field is so leveled the futility of continued bloodshed will be obvious to both sides. The sad part is that combatants who holster their weapons of mass destruction will still draw out the shed of civilian blood for a long time with conventional methods, but a strategic strike by missiles and air that levels the playing field would have quicker results. What about collateral damage of missile and air strikes? It all depends upon the surgical skill of those able to carry out the mission, and only the U.S. has that capability.
That is the lesson of the NATO intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s. Until air strikes took down the Serbian air force, the Bosnian Serbs/Serbia itself, saw no reason to come to the table. The massacre of 7,000 men in the killing fields of Srebrenica and the shelling of Sarajevo and Dubrovnik caused moral outrage throughout the world, but moral condemnation was not enough. The reality of those desperately seeking or keeping power is that they only understand the use of sticks and stones, because words would never hurt them. The skill of U.S. armed forces, without boots on the ground, kept resulting civilian casualties to a bare minimum and resulted in the Dayton accord that ended the bloodshed while protecting the minorities.
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