Compassion and conflict

This is a longer blog than I would wish. But the subject doesn’t allow of anything else.

I’ve been reading the early pages of Richard Flanagan’s novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, about the brutal skirmishes between British and Vichy France troops in 1941, with Palmyra and Tripoli both figuring in the conflict. It brings home again how key down the centuries Syria has been, as a pivotal territory in the battles between countries and empires. And how, until recently, Aleppo and Palmyra had survived.

The Australian troops who came out of Syria alive then found themselves Japanese POWs after the fall of Singapore, suffering a different and sadistic brutality – the main theme of course of the novel.

On another tack …back in the 1960s Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth for Social Service in South Vietnam. It ‘drew young people deeply committed to acting in a spirit of compassion’.  They refused to support either side in the Vietnamese conflict and ‘believed that… the true enemies were not people but ideology, hatred and ignorance’. Several were kidnapped and murdered. (Quotes from Mobi Ho’s introduction to Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness.)

The juxtaposition of these two conflicts in not intended to draw out any comparisons. In Vietnam the School was at least able to function, at a sometimes terrible cost. Syria in 1941 and today is a different and terrible kind of all-out conflict.

But compassion – is there any room for compassion in conflict? The battle in Syria is a battle for a way of life, against a perverted ideology. The practice of compassion is such circumstances is a mighty challenge. But compassion, and specifically the saving of life, must come before any desire or insistence on retribution or punishment. If in this case there is scope for working with the Assad regime – not an easy case to argue – and by extension with Iran, and also with Russia, then we should do so.

The PM in the House of Commons today spoke of Assad ‘butchering his own people’. Even so, treating with the Assad regime, and bringing to an end one conflict, may be the only way in which we can focus on IS and Al-Qaeda, with whom we can never treat. I’m sure this is already being discussed behind the scenes: it will take extraordinary diplomacy to achieve.

We should not delay. I read today that an Al-Qaeda-related group has seized a strategic airfield in Syria near Idlib. The momentum is still moving in the wrong direction.

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