THE BLOG

Syria: Where to Now?

20/09/2013 10:50 BST | Updated 19/11/2013 10:12 GMT

So it seems that we now have a Russo-American deal of sorts over those nasty chemical weapons in Syria.

It is quite true that President Putin spared President Obama's blushes with an astute (and also self-interested) deal that purportedly gets rid of those Syrian chemical weapons. However, as I peruse this deal or listen to the numerous press conferences following the talks that took place between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov in Geneva, I have this niggling feeling that it leaves the door wide open on what happens next in the war between the Assad regime (with its allies) and the opposition rebels (with their allies). Would this proposal to destroy those weapons be another clever ploy to save the Assad regime only to mire the country down into further violence? After all, the Assad regime was claiming only a fortnight ago that it did not even possess any chemical weapons! Or could this be a confidence-building measure that would create a win-win solution and lead up to a negotiated settlement at the Geneva II table? Which big elephants in the room should be invited to the table of negotiations not only in terms of the main protagonists but also of their allies?

In fact, is it so simple that the survival of the Assad regime is the only antidote against extremist Islamist factions - just over 10,000 altogether, with a great many of them being foreign and self-appointed jihadis who have no business in this conflict - in Syria? Or perhaps should the antidote to the current violence be the reinforcement of those forces under the Supreme Military Command of General Salim Idris who want to maintain a multi-confessional and pluralist Syria and who do not wish to go down the road of religious vendettas or ethnic cleansing?

Today, I worry about those Syrian refugees. They now number over 2 million men, women and children in neighbouring countries (such as Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey) and another 4 million inside Syria itself. Those numbers would certainly increase (I have seen this happen during wars and earthquakes) if the bombardments with conventional arms continues unabated (as is happening right now) and I do wonder sometimes if we in the West are so clueless or naïve to expect Jordan and Lebanon to shoulder this burden alone only to have their economic - and therefore also political - structures crumble inevitably! Could we imagine the regional and global unintended - and dire - consequences of such a meltdown?

It is also one of my jobs to worry deeply about the diverse indigenous Christian communities in Syria - largely Orthodox and Catholic but also Anglican and Reform - who are equally bearing the brunt of the ongoing violence across many parts of the country. My own Armenian community has a substantial presence in Aleppo and I often talk to them and wonder about their hopes and fears too. But I equally worry about the many other communities such as the Druze, Kurds, Sunnis or Alawites who are all caught on the horns of a big dilemma in terms of their security or welfare. As Jeremy Bowen reported for the BBC from Damascus last week, "the religious mosaic of different sects is breaking up".

Yet, I also know from my own decades-long experiences with the political and ecumenical vagaries of the MENA region that bemoaning constantly the fate of Christians - the quaint and historic village of Maaloula comes to mind here - and assuming that all Christians unreservedly support the Syrian regime as it is claimed by some hierarchs does them a huge disservice and exposes them to further perils. After all, many Christian have many opinions in Syria! Besides, the exodus of indigenous Christians from the MENA region - from 20% in the early 1900's to less than 5% today - did not start with the so-called Arab Spring. It has been going on for many decades. In fact, one key issue is that many Christians, unlike many Muslims, do not look at their nationalism and citizenship through the lens of their religious identity.

Sometimes, as I discuss Syria with colleagues, I wonder out loudly why we in the West stood by silently for well over two years without showing any hands-on concern or adequate compassion towards the Syrian population and then rushed to act with such alacrity. Much as using chemical weapons is indeed a crime against humanity, so are the deaths of 117,000 human beings. And so is the desperate need within parts of Syria for water, electricity, shelter or food, hospitals, clinics, doctors and medicines, let alone the rampant poverty and indiscriminate destruction being visited upon Syria.

How true it is that the MENA region has become a veritable hornet's nest. Yet, despite this maelstrom of expert confusion and constant shifts, the political slipups and sleights-of-hand, I always think first and foremost of all those men, women and children who are the hapless and fearful victims of a sorry war that augurs further anarchy and atrocity. For me, the deal over chemical weapons is not the only qualifier. True, it is a huge achievement to rid a regime of an arsenal - perhaps one of the largest in the world - of toxic agents in its possession. But it is not the real issue for me.

Let me be bold enough to suggest what I consider the real and pressing issue: does this CW deal that focuses exhaustively on chemical weapons mean that we have alas decided that we will simply not pay Syrian deaths much mind at all ... so long as they die in conventional ways only? And if that is indeed so, what does it really say about us?