September 19, 2020

Fr. Ernesto on the Syria Crisis


Note from CM: This was posted on Aug. 29, 2013 at Fr. Ernesto’s blog, OrthoCuban. He graciously gave permission to reproduce it here. When he wrote me, Fr. Ernesto added this update:

Since my original blog post was written, the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, who lives in Damascus, His Holiness Pope Francis I of the Roman Catholic Church, and my Antiochian head in the USA, Metropolitan Philip, have asked the USA to not intervene militarily in Syria at this time.

The Syriac Orthodox Church Archbishops the Roman Catholic Pope, and the Melkite bishops of the area have called for a day of prayer this coming Saturday, 07 September, for the situation in Syria. I think that is a good idea. We often cite God, and seldom ask him.

 * * *

Syria, Intervention, the World, and Polls
by Fr. Ernesto Obregon

Right now the USA is about to decide whether to intervene in Syria or not. As an Antiochian priest, what happens in Syria concerns me. It concerns me because our Patriarch is headquartered in Damascus, Syria. Thus, both the incredible slaughter and the possible intervention concerns me.

Today, the government of President Obama received an incredible blow. The House of Commons of the United Kingdom voted to forbid intervention in Britain. It appears that the Prime Minister is going to honor the vote and not try to find some way around it.

What about the USA? Well, most polls show that over 50% of all Americans favor intervention in Syria. It breaks down in the following way:

To date, every survey about a hypothetical strike on Syria after chemical weapons use shows Republicans more supportive than the general public, than Democrats, and with a majority of Republicans on board. The Washington Post and Pew Research asked about whether the US should intervene if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians. According to Pew, 56 percent of Republicans were on board compared to 46 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of the population; The Washington Post has 67 percent of Republicans supporting an attack, compared to 55 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of all adults.

More generally, CNN asked whether chemical weapons use would justify strikes on Syria. Here again, Republicans were most supportive. 73 percent of Republicans thought strikes would be justified, compared to 64 percent of Democrats.

A couple of other polls are equivocal in their response. What none of these polls are asking is the moral question — Do we have the moral and ethical right to intervene in Syria? Oddly enough, here is where both Tea Party conservatives and leftist liberals agree. They both say, “NO.” From Sen. Rand Paul to Sen. Marco Rubio, those who tend toward libertarianism are clearly against intervention. In the same way, Sen. Carl Levin and Rep. Barbara Lee, who usually support peace, are fully against intervention.

But, this does not answer the moral question. Do we have the moral authority to intervene in Syria? And here is the problem. We are pulled between our emotional response and the historic position of Saint Augustine.

There is little doubt that Americans want to right wrongs. It is part of our culture. But, our view of righting wrongs is somewhat limited, if we are honest with ourselves. We know what we want to fix, but we do not know what to do once we have begun to fix it. Thus, we can win the war, but we have severe problems in winning the peace. And, when we go in based on false information, such as Iraq, we undermine our very moral underpinnings in addition to being mired in someone else’s culture trying to turn them into us.

It is no surprise that Saint Augustine argued that “princes” ought not to get involved in war unless they are directly attacked. The dangers of making a mistake are higher than the moral pain of watching a foreign “prince” kill his own subjects. It is most ironic to me that on this subject, both the Tea Party right and the progressive left are in united agreement. Anytime Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Carl Levin are in agreement, we need to pay attention.

[Note: Inevitably someone will bring up Germany and World War II. Let me remind you that even in that case, the USA was only partially involved in the war, and only by way of providing supplies to the Allies, until we were directly attacked. If we follow the example of World War II, then we need to wait.]


  1. Great post!

    Have you seen this?,33752/

    I think if I was Syria I would prefer we just nuked them.

  2. Steve Newell says

    One of the sad ironies of Middle East politics is that it was the dictators who provided protection for Christians and the Church. If you look at Iraq, Syria and Egypt, the Christians had protection from Islamic forces that want to remove all Christians from the Middle East.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Very often the only choice is between the Assads/Saddams and the Mullahs.

    • Well, history seems to point that way. Yugoslavia, Iraq, Egypt…

      I supported the war in Iraq… having now had time to see the effects, Ibelieve it destablized things, caused instability within the country between suuni, shite and kurd, pretty much chased out any christian enclaves, and made for a stronger Iran.

      Egypt is much weaker and unstable.

      Libya is much weaker and unstable

      Syria, no friend of the United States at least provides some stability. Once that government falls it will be on to Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Further confusing the issue, this has sparked a Rapture/End-of-the-World Scare based on some passages from Isaiah about Damascus. And an accompanying Muslim End-of-the-World Scare.

    And so Christians For Nuclear War ride again — “It’s Prophesied, it’s Prophesied…”

  4. David Cornwell says

    One of the best arguments from a secular point of view on staying out of this conflict is found in an article in “The New York Review of Books” by David Bromwich entitled “Stay Out of Syria!.” I’m not going to give a link, but it can be found online by a simple Google search.

    Fr. Ernesto, thank you. I wish we in the Church would open our ears to those from the past who have sound advice for us now. We keep getting ourselves deeper and deeper into affairs of which we have little understanding.

  5. The best and most succinct argument. Thanks, Padre.

    A refresher on St. Augustine’s Just War Theory can be found here:

    • Good link, Ted.

      For what it’s worth, I wrote up a summary of the Just War Criteria, and how the proposed action in Syria measured up to those. It is here:

      • Excellent, Daniel. I put up a post today too against a Syria attack, but very different. I was pleased with it until I discovered that the 1984 quote it revolved around turned out to be unreliable, from an embellished secondary source; so I had to rework it with genuine quotes that are clumsy and wordy. Oh, well.

        Everyone: write your senators and representatives. Google their homepages, scribble an e-message, and click Send.

  6. Dan Crawford says

    Given their embrace of the crudest forms of Social Darwinism, it is more than surprising that Tea Party extremists have “moral” reservations. There ought to be more voices raised against this threat to involve us in yet another war. Yet we have seen what has happened to the Christians in the Middle East when we naively believe that Muslims embrace democratic principles. We are in the midst of a real moral quagmire, but I refuse to believe that the only way we can resist is by carrying on another war.

  7. I think this is the kindest treatment of Augustine by an Eastern Orthodox I have ever read.

    • Ox, we do call him Blessed, and admire much of his writing, especially his beautifully heartfelt devotional works.


  8. I agree that military intervention will only worsen the situation and potentially escalate and spread the violence.

    All this is happening while Fukushima continues to dump 100 tons of plutonium-laced radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean each day, with only a news blurb here and there and no apparent U.S. involvement in a crisis which could result in an incalculable human and natural disaster for centuries to come. I don’t know what the U.S. could do, or even if Japan wants the help, but if there was ever an international crisis begging for intervention, it sure seems that one should be at the top of the list.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I don’t know what the U.S. could do, or even if Japan wants the help, but if there was ever an international crisis begging for intervention, it sure seems that one should be at the top of the list.

      How can that ever compete with “LOOK! IT”S KIM KARDSAHIAN!!!!!”?

  9. Vega Magnus says

    The United States should not get involved in a civil dispute where there is no clear objective or clearly defined good guys.

  10. I keep thinking about several points in all of this.

    A) We are having this conversation in the US because, and only because, we’re a superpower. Might doesn’t make right, but it does make “possible.”

    B) We’re talking so much about military intervention because we have come to associate diplomacy — an area in which Christians should be front and center — with a lack of true resolve and an over-eagerness to compromise. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are weenies.

    C) Is there a distinction to be made between genocidal gassing (e.g., the Nazis on the Jews and gypsies, Saddam on the Kurds, etc.) and “ordinary,” if illegal, use in general war, as appears to be the present case?

    D) The conversation in the US would be entirely different if Assad were targeting Christians (which he’s not) instead of generic, rebel-held areas. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying this, and if so, what does this mean?

    E) Along similar lines, Christian Zionists fear that Syria might gas Israelis in an expanded conflict. Again, what does the fact that Israelis might be in danger rather than ordinary Syrians say here?

    F) “If we follow the example of WW II, then we need to wait.” Wait until when? Assad won’t attack us, so we wait forever. Waiting to use force is probably still the right thing to do, and we should instead focus our efforts on diplomacy, but I don’t think our reluctance to rescue European Jewry circa 1940 is any sort of blueprint for action, to say the least. December 7, 1941 was just another day in Dachau.

    • On Point F, it is also a consideration that the British Parliament voted against involvement and the UN will not act. Only the Arab council has finally (and desperately) said that someone should do something, but they will not do it themselves. My answer would be to wait until we are not alone.

      It is not sufficient to claim that all others are wrong and that we have the right to make the ultimate judgment. It is not sufficient to claim that the world always disagrees with us, because there is clear historical proof that they do not.

      The point made was that we wait until we are clear that what we are doing is moral.

  11. I’m not going to join the general support on this thread for not doing anything; I think the moral calculus involved is extremely complicated and ambiguous. With assassination (drone attacks) being a primary tactic in American military foreign policy, the non-discriminating nature of technological warfare and the lack of proportionality in our responses to threats real or imagined, there is no way to fit any of what we do into Augustinian just war theory. Remember, folks, it’s not just about having a just cause, according to Augustine; equally important is waging war in a just manner.

    But regarding the question of U.S. involvement in WWII: isn’t the real question whether America should have gotten involved in the war sooner? If it had, would a significant amount of the carnage have been prevented? Might some of the genocide against Jews, and some of the mass killings of others, been averted? We had plenty of intelligence about what was going on in Germany; we turned a blind eye. Was that the “right thing” to do?

    I don’t know what the right thing to do is now; I don’t think anyone does. Everything is grey, and blood red.

    • Had we gone in sooner, the resistance in the USA would have been monumental. There was a strong isolationist movement in the 1930’s in the USA.

      But, we did help in non-violent ways, if you go to the site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, you will find the following, “Nor was it always clear to Allied policymakers how they could pursue large-scale rescue actions in Europe. … Nevertheless in 1939 and 1940, slightly more than half of all immigrants to the United States were Jewish, most of them refugees from Europe. In 1941, 45% of all immigrants to the United States were Jewish. After the United States entered the war in December 1941, the trickle of immigration virtually dried up, just at the time that the Nazi regime began systematically to murder the Jews of Europe. Despite many obstacles, however, more than 200,000 Jews found refuge in the United States from 1933 to 1945, most of them before the end of 1941.”

      It is one of the ongoing American myths that somehow we did not help and that we ignored the situation. The Holocaust museum says the opposite.

  12. For Christians, would that our evangelical leaders had the moral courage to speak out as one of our heroes of the faith did in his day:

    “I wish that Christian men would insist more and more on the unrighteousness of war, believing that Christianity means no sword, no cannon, no bloodshed, and that, if a nation is driven to fight in its own defence, Christianity stands by to weep and to intervene as soon as possible…” C.H. Spurgeon

  13. Adam Tauno Williams says

    Moral courage? I don’t even see how we get to moral argument. I understand the impulse to “do something”. But what is there to do? I can only discuss the morality of some specific course of action. I don’t see how they’re is anything to be done; we cannot ungas people. And bombing who would possibly accomplish what? There is no positive course of action which tempts us; just the impulse to “do something”. That’s just politiking with weapons.