If there's one point of agreement about
Syria and the latest atrocity there – the
chemical weapons attack on Douma, in eastern
Ghouta – it's surely that everyone is
utterly sick of politicians' platitudes.
We have had enough of people telling us
it's unacceptable. Enough of calls for a
ceasefire, for dialogue, for negotiations,
for sanctions. Enough denunciations from the
pope, the archbishops, the World Council of
Churches. Enough referring it to the UN.
Reuters A child is treated after an alleged
chemical weapons attack on Douma.
All these things make people feel better,
but they don't stop the killing. This is
because at the head of the Syrian government
is a man who does not care what people think
of him and what people say. He knows he can
do what he wants, and that the people who
could stop him won't do so because they are
weak and cowardly.
The failures of the West in this
particular case can be traced back to a vote
in the British parliament in August 2013.
More than 1,400 people were killed in sarin
gas attacks in eastern and western Ghouta.
Public anger was intense; a 'red line', as
President Obama put it, had been crossed.
The prime minister, David Cameron, put it to
the house that a military response was
In what was arguably the most shameful
act of any parliament for generations, a
combination of political opportunism,
misguided idealism and moral cowardice saw
The vote gave Obama the excuse he needed
to remain quiescent. Nothing was done.
Cameron had argued that the gas attack was
'a humanitarian catastrophe, and if there
are no consequences for it, there is nothing
to stop Assad and other dictators from using
these weapons again and again'.
He was right. Since then chemical weapons
have been used repeatedly against
defenseless civilian populations.
There is, for Christians, an enduring and
irreconcilable tension between being people
of peace and defenders of the weak. At one
end of the spectrum there is the pacifist
who believes all military activity is wrong.
At the other is the Second Amendment devotee
who believes the only answer to a bad person
with a gun is a good person with a bigger
Most of us live in the contested area in
between. We abhor violence and wince at its
glorification in military parades and at the
rhetoric of conquest. But we know that wars
sometimes have to be fought and we are
reluctant to sacrifice the children of Douma
on the altar of our tender consciences. We
don't want people to die in airstrikes. But
we don't want people to die coughing up
their lungs after a gas attack, either. And
a point is reached where we cannot avoid the
choice: where sanctions, threats and appeals
have all failed because the perpetrator
laughs at them, perhaps there are only two
things left: do something, or do nothing.
There are times when doing 'something' is
worse than doing nothing. The history of
intervention is littered with examples. But
doing nothing is a choice, too. It's not a
way of washing our hands of the situation,
Pontius Pilate-like. As the late Jo Cox –
herself a former humanitarian aid worker –
wrote in a Policy Exchange report from 2017
(The Cost of Doing Nothing: The Price of
Inaction in the Face of Mass Atrocities): 'I
still firmly believe that a legitimate case
can be made for intervention on humanitarian
grounds when a Government is manifestly
unwilling or unable to protect its own
civilians. Sovereignty must not constitute a
licence to kill with impunity.'
If we feel at all responsible for what's
happening in Syria – as fellow human beings,
let alone as members of nations whose
actions precipitated the catastrophe there –
we must, at least, acknowledge that the
choice is clear. If Mr Trump, Mrs May and Mr
Macron opt for action we shouldn't wring our
hands and wonder whether they're being too
hasty. They are in office to exercise power,
wisely and courageously, and most of us are
thankful that we aren't in their place.
There is, perhaps, an opportunity to say,
'Enough' to the use of chemical weapons,
whatever other horrors might still be in
store for the innocent victims of Syria. Has
the West yet learned that inaction is a