As debate intensified over proposals for a limited U.S. strike in response to the Syrian government’s apparent use of chemical weapons, the PCUSA was listed among the organizations endorsing an August 28 letter to President Obama. “While we unequivocally condemn any use of chemical weapons …,” the signers said, “military strikes are not the answer.” They counseled the President: “Instead of pursuing military strikes and arming parties to the conflict, we urge your administration to intensify diplomatic efforts to stop the bloodshed.” The letter was released by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a pacifist organization. Besides the PCUSA , other endorsers included agencies of the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ as well as leftist groups such as Code Pink and Progressive Democrats of America.
On August 30, PCUSA Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons published his own statement asking the President and Congress to consider unspecified “nonviolent forms of intervention.” The denomination’s Office of Public Witness suggested on the same day: “Instead of exacerbating the conflict with military strikes, the United States should seek an international agreement on an arms embargo and back dialogue that alone can end the horrific violence.”
“Limited engagement is never truly limited,” the stated clerk warned. Any U.S. military action, he said, would be “likely to escalate the conflict further, and to bring our country directly into another war in the Middle East.” Parsons insisted that “[n]ow is not the time to feed the violence and instability that has claimed the lives of over 100,000 Syrians, driven 3.4 million Syrians from their country, and displaced an additional 6.8 million Syrians from their homes.”
The AFSC letter, the stated clerk and the Office of Public Witness all seemed reluctant to affix blame for the reported chemical attack of August 21. The office referred to “the alleged use of chemical weapons” by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It, like the stated clerk, offered its opinions “regardless of who perpetrated the attack.” The AFSC letter referred hypothetically to “any use of chemical weapons.”
Parsons “condemn[ed] the use of chemical weapons” as a “violation of international law.” But he asserted that the responsibility for addressing any such violation lay with the United Nations Security Council rather than with the United States and its allies. “We do not doubt that justice is needed,” the stated clerk explained, “but question the unilateral and inevitably selective role the United States has too often played, too often leading to greater violence, terrorism, and instability.” He criticized “policies of our government that help to fuel conflict in Syria and proxy wars across the Middle East.”
“Now is the time for all outside parties to cease all forms of intervention in Syria,” Parsons declared. “States and non-state actors must stop feeding the conflict in Syria by sending weapons to the government and to opposition forces.” The stated clerk did not name any offending outside parties other than the United States.
The Office of Public Witness noted that “given the British Parliament’s refusal to support joining the United States in such an action [against Syria], the United States does not currently have much support for military action in the international community.” It encouraged PCUSA members to “urge the administration and members of Congress … to hold off on military action and renew the efforts for a diplomatic solution” in Syria.
The PCUSA advocacy office looked to “the United Nations and other governments to contain the violence, restore stability in the region, provide humanitarian assistance, and encourage the building of an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens.” The office expressed a quasi-pacifist conviction: “It is only through nonviolent means that we can hope for radical change that leads to a just peace.”
Neither the stated clerk nor the advocacy office nor the AFSC letter said what should happen if “efforts for a diplomatic solution” continue to come up short. None advised what to do if Syria’s ally Russia continues to use its veto to block any action by the UN Security Council. None suggested any course of action in case Russia, Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, and other Sunni and Shi’ite jihadist groups continue to pour weapons and fighters into Syria. None considered the possibility that there might not be any side in the Syrian civil war that is committed to “building an inclusive society that protects the rights of all citizens.” These are the tough choices that President Obama and the U.S. Congress now face.
PCUSA officials are basing their current lobbying on a resolution adopted by the denomination’s General Assembly in July 2012. That resolution urged the U.S. government “to support a mediated process of cessation of violence by all perpetrators, including the Assad regime and armed opposition groups; to call for all outside parties to cease all forms of intervention in Syria; to support a strong and necessary role for the United Nations, possibly including observers and peacekeeping forces; and to refrain from military intervention in Syria.”
The PCUSA appears so far to be the most vocal of major U.S. denominations in opposing any military strike against Syria. Most other church bodies have been more cautious about pronouncing a firm “yes” or “no.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops relayed a carefully worded statement from the Vatican that “the path of dialogue and negotiation between all components of Syrian society, with the support of the international community, is the only option to put an end to the conflict.”
The U.S. National Council of Churches “urge[d] President Obama to use restraint in deciding upon military solutions.” While “condemn[ing] the use of chemical weapons by the government of Syria that has killed and maimed thousands of innocent children, women, and men,” the council said it was “deeply skeptical that U.S. military action against Syria will prevent future attacks. Indeed, we fear such action may have consequences beyond U.S. planning and control, including more death and widespread destruction.”