No Time to Be Silent

Rev. John L. McCullough | September 9, 2013

As originally published by Huffington Post, 09/09/2013, 3:15 p.m.

This week, the 67-year-old humanitarian agency I lead signed a contract to provide humanitarian assistance to – among others – Syrians fleeing for their lives.

It’s not a job any of us want. It’s also not a job we can accomplish while keeping silent.

The use of chemical weapons is an outrageous act of inhumanity and cowardice. None of us can afford to be oblivious to such atrocities no matter where they are perpetrated. Time and again, the international community has witnessed the devastation of political and military despots. Given the prospect of their own demise, these despots seem bent on taking a lot of other innocent people with them. In the face of yet another fast-developing humanitarian crisis, now approaching 6 million refugees and internally displaced persons, I cannot be silent.

While we debate the future of President Bashar al-Assad, the most urgent issue is the protection of millions of Syrian people who are already being victimized. The international community must act to prevent the displacement or even worse, the deaths of women, children and men who are for the most part powerless, and who simply want to get on with their lives.

Deploying missile strikes to teach a lesson to the Syrian government or the Iranians is shoddy diplomacy. There is no end game. Even before the proverbial “red line” was crossed, I do not believe the Assad government quivered in fear of a U.S. attack any more than it does now. It faces a greater internal threat.

Having been in Iraq as member of a delegation working to prevent that war I saw very little evidence of Saddam Hussein preparing Iraqis for “Shock and Awe.” American intervention or that of any other country was not his preoccupation, and I suspect the same is true of al-Assad and the Syrian people. Years later we see the continuing evidence not only of how devastating that war has been for the Iraqi people and other nations, but also how difficult it is to restore peace.

It is unfair to saddle President Barack Obama with the suggestion that he has somehow abdicated the power of the presidency for not striking immediately. This is an act of self-discipline that should be applauded because, if nothing else, it at least has given us space to consider other options.

I agree with Secretary of State John Kerry when he notes that a failure to act by the international community will result in a more emboldened Assad. What I cannot reconcile is once again reverting to what appears to be the standard military option. There is a humanitarian option. As a person of faith, I believe that if we act to respect the dignity of Syrian refugees by deploying massive assistance in the form of food, clothing, shelter and, if necessary, relocation, this will do far more to enhance American standing in the region.

Rather than missiles, now is time to fully utilize the diplomatic channels available to the United Nations.

The United States should work tirelessly to engage the members of the Security Council in a dialogue that is not predicated on pre-conditions, but which honors each other’s respective interests in the region. Sadly, we cannot undo the tragedy of chemical warfare, but we do have the opportunity to ask Kofi Annan to go back to Damascus supported by a delegation of diplomats from Russia, China, the Arab States, Turkey, as well as the United States.

Now is the time to tell Assad in no uncertain terms the international community is prepared to bring formal charges before the International Criminal Court. Crimes against humanity cannot be tolerated. We cannot fully provide assistance to the Syrians we aim to serve unless we speak out — for those who have endured the unimaginable horror of this civil war, and for the innocents who would be failed by a military option.

Rev. John L. McCullough is President and CEO of CWS.