STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — As world events rapidly unfold over Syria’s chemical weapons, one thing is clear: The three most influential world leaders on the Syria crisis have proved to be Pope Francis, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama.

The Pope has positioned himself as the foremost champion of finding peaceful solutions to the conflict, and Putin has demonstrated in recent days that he has the capability to deliver diplomatic alternatives to the punishing military strikes favored by Obama over Syria’s chemical weapons.

Register staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith spoke with Daniel Kempton, a two-time Fulbright Scholar and an authority in international conflict who serves as vice president for academic affairs at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The Register asked him how he viewed the moves made by the three major players — and how they could help bring Syria toward peace or lead to an ever-expanding circle of war.


Where do things stand right now with Syria? It looks like there are serious alternatives on the table, but President Obama is still pressing for a military option.

At this point, President Obama, to some degree, has boxed himself into a corner, because he used the argument that we should intervene specifically because of the problem of chemical weapons.

In a way, it was a bit odd, because, by many estimates, over 100,000 have died in Syria’s civil war, and only a small percentage have died from chemical weapons. Nevertheless, the president focused on this as the problem and used this as a pretext for a military strike.

The problem is the Syrians have now found a plausible way to take it off the table, saying they’ll hand over their chemical weapons to international control, which I largely expect will be Russian control. This means the problem that the president identified as a pretext for a strike is now plausibly gone.


Should the president pull back from the threat of using military force at this juncture?

Church teaching would suggest he should do so, because he identified the problem not as the civil war itself — and the injustices that are occurring — but the legal technicality of chemical weapons.

I would have argued from the beginning that killing your civilian population, whether you’re doing it with chemical weapons or conventional military means, is both illegal and inappropriate.


Do you think a just-war case could have been made for getting involved in Syria?

I think a just-war case can be made, but I’m not sure we’re ready to make it yet. One of the conditions of just-war theory is that all avenues — everything that is reasonable — have been exhausted. Given that we’ve identified a particular problem, and there has now arisen a particular solution — putting Syria’s chemical weapons under international control — I think the president is obligated to look at that very seriously.

In the last 30 years, there is a growing notion that just war can be used not only to defend yourself, but also to defend those who are undefended. In other words, a humanitarian intervention. I think that is the clearest argument here in Syria, because U.S. security interests could be harmed by the type of intervention the president is proposing.


How so?

Because of Syria and Iran’s ties to Hezbollah. If we undermine the Syrian government, we could:

a) help al-Qaida and

b) infuriate the Syrian government to the extent that it would help Hezbollah launch attacks against the U.S.

Keep in mind that, prior to 9/11, Hezbollah is the terrorist organization that had done the most to kill Americans, particularly in Lebanon, where they had blown up a Marine barracks.


So intervening militarily in Syria does not seem to have a win scenario for U.S. security interests or the Syrian people, if I understand you correctly?

That’s a fundamental problem, because one of the tenets of just-war theory is that there has to be a reasonable expectation that you are going to make things better. In other words, just-war theory is not based on the past. It’s not retribution for past injustice. It is to prevent the future loss of lives. So you have to make the argument that somehow your intervention is going to make things better for the future.

In this case, you could make it worse for the Syrian population by exacerbating the civil war, possibly leading to an outcome not in the interests of the Syrian people  — and actually increase the threat to your security. 

The president is correct on the legal grounds: that the use of chemical weapons is a violation of international law and is immoral. But that does not make the case in and of itself for punishing Syria — you don’t have an international right to go bomb someone to punish them for past behavior; you have to use just war to prevent future causalities.


Is the Russian diplomatic effort a vindication of Pope Francis’ position that dialogue has potential to resolve the conflict in Syria?

I think you see a more assertive Vatican in this crisis than we have seen in recent years — not since the great collaboration of John Paul II and President Reagan. The Vatican has taken a more active position, and I would argue that it’s already been somewhat effective. The Vatican has been urging the G20, including President Putin, to look for and advocate peaceful solutions.


What about President Obama’s efforts?

Rhetorically, President Obama has also done that. But he hasn’t led the diplomatic effort. This is part of the frustrating thing for the American public. We are left in the awkward position of seeing President Putin  — who is traditionally no friend of human rights, certainly at home  — being a more effective advocate of international peace and, frankly, a more creative diplomat in this particular situation.

Now whether President Putin is genuine in his looking for a mutually acceptable solution or not, we don’t know yet. We have to see what the Russian offer means and what the Syrian acceptance means. But I think it shows Pope Francis was clearly correct in saying all means for a peaceful solution had not yet been exhausted.


Do you think Pope Francis has been able to change the conversation about Syria?

I think he has had an effect on the conversation. We don’t know what is happening behind the scenes yet, but his more assertive position may have been part of what caused others to start looking for the more creative solutions we have seen, and coming from Moscow in particular.


What about the bigger picture of the Syrian civil war? Are there any solutions on the horizons?

I haven’t seen anything that solves the larger problem. That’s the troubling thing about the Russian proposal. It boxed in President Obama. Instead of focusing on the larger humanitarian crisis in Syria — the loss of life among the Christian community, a huge toll on the civilian population — the president focused on the very specific red line: the use of chemical weapons.

Now, he needs to make a new argument about the humanitarian problems and the need to do something about that. The Russian proposal does not do that.

You need to solve the civil-war problem, and that is going to be a delicate, long-term problem.


What happens if President Obama gets congressional approval to use force and then launches an attack on Syria? Could it provoke a wider regional war?

I do think there is a credible threat of escalation there. If Congress were to support it, and the president were to act, I think there is a credible possibility that it could create a greater regional war. By that I mean Iran directly involved in support of Syria (it is involved already behind the scenes), and it could justify a possible attack on Israel and put Israel in a precarious situation.

But the U.S. should also be very wary about the use of Middle-Eastern terrorist organizations to commit acts of global terrorism against the United States itself. I believe that is being somewhat overlooked. Hezbollah killed more Americans than any other terrorist organization before 9/11 and has deep ties to Iran and Syria. It could very well serve as a proxy organization to attack the American homeland directly. That is what I think President [Bashar] Assad was signaling when he suggested that an attack from the U.S. would be met with all available means.


Lastly, what do you think is the viability of Pope Francis’ six-point peace plan? Do you think it can get all parties to sit down and talk peace at the conference table in Geneva?

The Pope is trying to do what needs to be done. And that is to get the major parties, including those behind the scenes, at the table and to speak directly with each other about what are (and are not) the acceptable outcomes. Once we go into negotiations, there are limits to what we might achieve. But we have to have those negotiations to find a solution that would serve both American and Russian interests.