Syria: between Scylla and Charybdis

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The Bishops’ Middle East North Africa (MENA) consultant, Dr Harry Hagopian, offers his latest article on the situation in Syria.

The piece is taken from Dr Hagopian’s website.

Harry Hagopian is our main studio guest for the popular podcast series Middle East Analysis.


Scylla and Charybdis were both sea monsters in Greek mythology. Tradition located them on either side of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland.

Scylla was viewed as a rock shoal and Charybdis a whirlpool, and both were viewed as sea hazards to all passing tars. In fact, according to Homer, Odysseus decided to accept the loss of some sailors rather than that of his entire ship by choosing the lesser of those two evils.

Gradually, and with frequent use, this story entered idiomatic use and it can be best described by another favourite – and rather apposite – idiom of mine that refers to the devil and the deep blue sea.

This story came to my mind again this week when I gave a long interview to SIR, an Italian news agency, where the journalist Daniele Riccho and I discussed the contemporary realities of Syria. After all, whether one talks about Al-Raqqa in the northern parts of this broken country, in its heartlands of Damascus or Aleppo or heading toward Dara’a in the south where it borders with Jordan, there are many dangers facing Syria today – not necessarily Homeric mythological creatures, mind you, but rather everyday gruesome – and equally perilous – realities.

In fact, I recall quite vividly my visit to the Syrian ambassador in London some three years ago when we discussed the start of those uprisings in the southernmost parts of Syria. I recall our conversations over a cup of Arabic coffee when I indicated to the ambassador that the young and educated Syrian president should extend a hand to those demonstrators and help open up the space in Syria for its 22 million citizens. The sins of the fathers should not be visited upon their sons, I argued with the genial ambassador, in a clear allusion to the Syrian atrocities in Lebanon (against both Lebanese and Palestinian elements incidentally) as well as the Hama massacres of February 1982 that stayed largely out of the media limelight at the time since the world did not enjoy the social media tools that are omnipresent today.

But of course my advice was not heeded, not that the ambassador could have made much difference to the course of events in Syria. After all, those major decisions are taken by a compressed group of advisors around the president as well as by those proxies who are now fighting the war against the rebels alongside – dare I add instead of – the Syrian army.

Given my stubborn belief in the universality of fundamental freedoms and the dignity of every human being, and my horror at the way the six-month peaceful demonstrations were brutalised across Syria, I sided with the opposition rebels. I wanted the status quo to alter so men and women in one of the most important cradles of Arab history and Arabism could develop their talents freely and lead the way forward in the whole Middle East North Africa (MENA) region.

But the uprisings were alas weaponised by President Assad and his regime – slowly but surely, first with bullets and then with bombs, RPG’s, tanks, MIG fighters or helicopters and finally – allegedly – with chemical weapons. On the side of the opposition rebels, men and women the likes of Moaz Al-Khatib, Suheir Atassi, George Sabra, Burhan Ghalyoun and many others were bleeding control. The rebellion was being cleaved into those outside the country and those inside it, and dangerous signals were being emitted that the opposition forces were dyslexic in their efficiency and also strategy.

So the refugee numbers increased exponentially in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan (and to a much lesser extent in Iraq and Egypt) to well over two million and those inside Syria rose to more than four million. Schools, hospitals or clinics were damaged, lives and livelihoods were lost and we suddenly witnessed rampant sectarianism amongst communities as well as mounting radical Islam-ism. The regime was pitting the smaller communities (Alawites, Christians and perhaps even Druze) against the majority Sunni rebels whilst Al-Qaeda affiliates were streaming in the reverse direction from Iraq back into Syria in order to impose a Shari’a-led caliphate along with an austere bigotry that excludes all others.

But our inaction in the West also warrants a few mea culpas. We let things go beyond control either for the sake of our own geostrategic interests or else for our peace of mind. Russia and Iran wanted to help the regime survive the rebellion, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies supported the rebels, whilst the West burnished its idealism by talking the talk but refusing to walk the walk. President Obama simply did not want to go to war – even an ‘unbelievably small’ war!

Today, with the disarmament experts in Syria trying to dismantle the stockpiles of chemical weapons, I still struggle for a win-win situation. The real challenge now is stopping the conventional war, so here is the deal! Would Russia and Iran stop supporting and arming the regime and would Saudi Arabia and Turkey desist also from supporting the rebels? What about sucking the oxygen out of further one-upmanship by coercing the main protagonists to the [Geneva 2] negotiating table – kicking and screaming – to pursue the UN-friendly transition agreed to in the previous [Geneva 1] negotiations? Would all parties agree it is high time to contain the abominable deaths and also the fulminant anger region-wide?

The frightening alternative for this 30-month war will be that the macabre spectre will continue to haunt Syria, extend to its neighbouring countries, with more refugees, further radicalisation of society and a failed state not unlike Somalia.

Could we live with this outcome? Or should we resolve it by avoiding both Scylla and Charybdis before it is too late?