WASHINGTON — Days after Pope Francis’ worldwide fast and vigil for peace, new developments have given hope that a U.S. military strike can be avoided and that diplomatic action can achieve peaceful solutions to Syria’s bloody civil war.
With the world bracing for President Barack Obama to order strikes against the Syrian military over its alleged use of chemical weapons, the Syrian government announced Tuesday that it would accept Russia’s overture to put its chemical-weapons stockpile under international control for eventual destruction.
Even so, President Obama made his case Tuesday night in a televised address to the nation that Congress should give him the authority to punish President Bashar Assad and his government with air strikes for their alleged role in a chemical-weapons attack that reportedly killed more than 1,400 persons, including more than 400 children.
“The images of this massacre are sickening,” Obama said. The president argued that a “limited” military strike would have the aim of deterring Assad from using chemical weapons and degrading his military. He added that the U.S. strike would make Assad and others “think twice” about using chemical weapons.
“Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver,” he said.
However, Obama also told the nation that he asked Congress to postpone its vote on authorizing military force, which appeared headed for defeat early this week, in favor of giving the Russians and the U.N. Security Council time to develop a plan to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.
Syria’s brutal two-year civil war, waged between the Assad government and rebel forces increasingly dominated by Islamist and al Qaeda fighters, has claimed more than 100,000 lives, created 2 million refugees and displaced 4 million Syrians in the country.
Polls show the American people intensely oppose any intervention in the conflict. A New York Times poll conducted before Obama’s speech showed 75% of Americans believe Assad’s regime is responsible for the chemical-weapons attack, but 62% also believe the U.S. should stay out of trying to solve international conflicts, and 66% said they were “very concerned” U.S. military intervention would ignite a broader war in the region.
This broad U.S. public opposition to military intervention aligns with the perspectives of the U.S. bishops and of many other prominent Catholics who believe that the Russian proposal, as well as other alternatives, including the international war-crimes tribunal proposal floated by Catholic U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., deserve to be explored further prior to any further consideration of the use of American force in Syria.
The Russian Proposal
For now, a U.S. military strike appears more remote since Syria announced Tuesday that it would accept Russia’s proposal to hand over all its chemical weapons to the international community for subsequent destruction and join the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.
The disarmament proposal still must take concrete form. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are meeting in Geneva Thursday to hammer out the details. Russia earlier rejected a U.N. Security Council proposal favored by the U.S., France and the United Kingdom that would authorize military action if Syria failed to abide by their terms.
President Vladimir Putin told Russian television Tuesday that Russia’s proposal will only work if the U.S. backs off plans to strike at Syria’s military.
“You can’t really ask Syria, or any other country, to disarm unilaterally while military action against it is being contemplated,” Putin said.
This week’s events appear to have validated Pope Francis’ repeated declarations that dialogue can move Syria toward peaceful solutions more than military action. The Pope has emerged as the de facto leader of a world peace movement, making his case through traditional and social media, diplomatic channels and a dramatic day of fasting and prayer vigil in Rome that gathered more than 100,000 pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square praying for peace.
Daniel Kempton, an international conflict expert and vice president for Academic Affairs at Franciscan University of Steubenville, said the Vatican under Pope Francis has been “far more assertive” than in recent years in leading the diplomatic effort for peace.
He pointed to Pope Francis’ strong appeal to G20 leaders meeting in Moscow to take collective action and lay aside one-sided interests. “It’s already somewhat effective,” he said.
But Kempton said the United States was now in the “awkward position” of seeing Putin, who has a spotty human-rights record in Russia, taking the diplomatic lead.
“We’ll have to see what the Russian proposal means and what the Syrian acceptance means,” Kempton said. “But I think it shows Pope Francis was clearly correct in saying all means for a peaceful solution had not yet been exhausted.”
House Alternative: War-Crimes Tribunal
A bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans in the House is the chief obstacle to Obama obtaining authorization for U.S. military action in Syria.
Rep. Smith, who is chairman of the House congressional panel that oversees global human-rights issues, has proposed instead the establishing of a Syrian War Crimes Tribunal to punish not only those responsible for chemical weapons attacks, but also rebel and government soldiers responsible for other atrocities.
“There is a compelling, moral imperative to immediately establish a comprehensive way to hold accountable all those on either side, including Assad, who have slaughtered and raped in Syria,” Smith said in a statement.
The proposed war-crimes tribunal, introduced as House legislation this week with bipartisan co-sponsorship, would provide a “nonlethal alternative to missiles and bombs” that could kill or maim innocent Syrian civilians, escalate the conflict and put U.S. military personnel at risk, Smith explained.
He said international war-crimes tribunals set up in Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Yugoslavia have proved effective in bringing war criminals to justice for their crimes and would not add to the violence.
“Unlike air strikes, a war-crime tribunal neither indirectly assists jihadist forces in Syria, nor does it foster anger against Christian and other communities in Syria,” he said.
Syria’s Catholic leaders vehemently have opposed a military strike against Assad’s regime, warning that it could further destabilize the war-ravaged country and lead to intensified attacks on the country’s Christian minority by Islamist rebels.
Senate War Support Softens
The Russian plan has helped create more resistance in the Democrat-led U.S. Senate against legislation that would authorize Obama to have 90 days to conduct air and missile strikes against Assad’s forces.
Some senators are putting together alternative legislation that would give the international community time to secure Assad’s chemical arsenal, but also give the president the option to intervene militarily if Assad failed to comply.
Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., have proposed giving Assad a 45-day ultimatum to destroy his weapons before authorizing force against his government. It would require the U.S. president to give a “long-term strategy” on how to prevent chemical weapons in Syria.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., has also proposed amending the 90-day authorization to use force currently before the Senate along similar lines to the Manchin-Heitkamp proposal.
Msgr. Stuart Swetland, an ethics professor at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., said Tuesday morning that the punitive strikes considered by Obama and the Senate have not been considered a “just reason to go to war” since 1925.
“You go to war to protect innocents,” he said. “If you talk about a humanitarian intervention to protect innocents, that’s a whole other type of intervention, which is not what the administration has been talking about.”
Msgr. Swetland, who served in the U.S. Navy in the Middle East, said that war is only a legitimate moral option once “reasonable chances of peace have been exhausted.”
“We must see if these recent developments bear fruit before we consider more direct intervention,” he said.
Bishops Reject Armed Force
The U.S. Catholic bishops have opposed military intervention, and in a statement released Sept. 10, they said that, while they unequivocally condemned chemical weapons as a “heinous crime against humanity,” other avenues exist to bring resolution to the conflict.
The bishops urged the U.S. government to pursue alternatives, including working with other governments to “obtain a ceasefire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial humanitarian assistance and encourage efforts to build an inclusive society in Syria.”
Said the bishops, “Instead of employing armed force, our nation should work with the international community and direct all of its considerable diplomatic capabilities to initiate dialogue and negotiation.”
Staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.