01/08/2013 12:13 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

Retribution or Reconciliation: On Syria's Future

Damascus has become feeble,
she has turned to flee and panic has gripped her;
anguish and pain have seized her,
pain like that of a woman in labor.

-- Jeremiah 49:23-29

Syria has been a geopolitical center for millenia. The seat of various ancient kingdoms and empires, it's historic capital Damascus is recognized as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And so it may seem inevitable that it has seen its share of tumult. Yet even against the backdrop of this expansive history -- pockmarked as it is by coups, revolts and massacres -- the devastation that has currently befallen the Syrian people is a human and moral catastrophe. A catastrophe that is all the more tragic because it is the result of one man's unwillingness to grant his countrymen's simple demand of freedom, and because of his savage use of force to suppress that demand. Over the past two years, Bashar Assad and his regime have steered Syria's descent into a civil war, which, according to a recent U.N. estimate, has taken more than 60,000 lives.

It didn't have to be this way. When Hafez Assad died in 2000, after an oppressive, ruthless and sometimes savage 30 years in power, many nurtured hopes that his son Bashar would usher in a new era of reform, openness and democratization. Despite his pedigree, domestic and international voices were prepared to give Assad the younger the benefit of the doubt and refrain from ascribing the father's evils to the untested son. Indeed, Bashar had a unique opportunity to turn away from his father's autocratic model and bring Syria into the community of nations. But soon after assuming power, Assad punctured these hopes by failing to implement promised reforms and then cracking down on pro-democracy activists. By the time the "Arab Spring" arrived in Syria, his brutal response to peaceful protests was almost predictable.

Experts debate how and when Assad will fall (who knows exactly how much longer he will cling to power and how many more will die before he is deposed?), but most agree that the Assad regime will not survive the civil war. And in the aftermath of his departure, the Syrian people will face another monumental challenge: Will his removal mark the beginning of another cycle of coups, revolts and massacres, or will it signify the beginning of a real "Arab Spring"? More to the point, when the Syrian people are finally given a chance to determine the direction of their country, will they choose retribution or reconciliation? This question is pivotal in no small part because it will determine whether Syrians resurrect tyranny or embrace liberty.

History has shown that the establishment of a new regime in traditionally non-democratic states is a time of brutal reprisal and score-settling, motivated more by exacting revenge than administering justice. But what really is the difference between revenge and justice? Here, two seemingly contradictory biblical verses offer guidance -- the oft-quoted and much misunderstood admonition in Exodus: "But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise" (21:23-25); and the less-conspicuous proscription in Proverbs: "Do not say, 'I'll do to them as they have done to me; I'll pay them back for what they did'" (24:29). The two verses can be reconciled by the fact that the former speaks of justice while the latter inveighs against revenge. Justice is about harmony: in the civil sense -- restitution, in the criminal sense -- punishment proportional to the offense. Revenge, on the other hand, is about inflicting punishment for the sake of retaliation, not for the sake of restoring balance.

If Syria is to recover from its disastrous two-plus years and bleak 60+ years, there must be a reconciliation. Indeed, the Syrian people should seek justice, but that does not mean imputing guilt and inflicting punishment on entire communities and demographics: "The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them" (Ezekiel 18:20).

And just like the clean slate given to Bashar Assad upon his assuming power, so must the next government be given the benefit of the doubt, whatever its constituent parts. There are pundits that retort, "better the devil you know than the devil you don't." But when a ruler has proven himself to be oppressive and barbaric, and his own people are enduring slaughter to cast off his rule, is it really our place to try and dictate the outcome that best serves our interests?

Eventually, the Syrian people will elect new leaders. If these leaders choose the path of retribution and tyranny, then they will follow the path Assad is on. But they should at least be given the opportunity to prove themselves. We can only hope that they learn from history.