WASHINGTON — The Melkite archbishop of Aleppo expressed regret and disappointment at Thursday’s U.S. missile strikes in Syria, saying he hoped for “a political solution.”
“We were very sorry,” Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo responded to Thursday’s missile strike by the United States on a Syrian government airbase near Homs, in retaliation for what the U.S. said was a chemical attack conducted by government forces on civilians.
The archbishop had hoped the U.S. “would have done something toward peace and reconciliation and a political solution” in Syria and would first have investigated to prove that forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were indeed responsible for the use of chemical weapons.
The U.S. launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat Syrian airbase near Homs on Friday morning (local time), destroying several warplanes and killing six. Several civilians were injured, but all of those killed and seriously injured were soldiers. The missiles were launched from two destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea.
President Trump said the attack was in response to the deaths of dozens of Syrians from poison gas on Tuesday following a bombing in the Idlib province by Syrian government forces.
About 98 have died so far from the gas and more than 5,000 are injured, a doctor on the ground in the area, Dr. Ahmad Dbais from the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, told CNA. They showed symptoms of exposure to sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent, and not chlorine, he said.
Trump blamed Assad and his forces for conducting a chemical weapons attack, a violation of international law and a war crime. Assad, for his part, has denied the culpability of Syrian forces in the deaths, and his Russian allies said that Syrian bombs had hit buildings where Syrian rebels were manufacturing chemical weapons, spreading the gases.
The Syrian airbase used for Tuesday’s bombing was targeted on Thursday by U.S. forces, President Trump noted.
“Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children,” the president stated from Mar-a-Lago, Florida, on Thursday night. “Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.”
Russia’s military was informed of the strike in advance, the Pentagon has said.
Leading U.S. bishops called Friday for a political solution to the conflict in Syria. The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, and the head of the International Justice and Peace Committee, Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, issued the joint statement.
“The use of internationally banned indiscriminate weapons is morally reprehensible,” they stated of the chemical attacks. “At the same time, our conference affirmed the call of Pope Francis to attain peace in Syria ‘through dialogue and reconciliation.’”
“The long-standing position of our conference of bishops is that the Syrian people urgently need a political solution. We ask the United States to work tirelessly with other governments to obtain a cease-fire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial humanitarian assistance, and encourage efforts to build an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities.”
In late 2012 and throughout 2013, several reports came out of Syria alleging the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against the Syrian people. In September 2013, U.N. chemical weapons inspectors confirmed that sarin was used in one of the attacks taking place Aug. 21, 2013. Estimated death tolls from these attacks range from at least 300 to as many as 1,500 killed. More than 3,600 people were wounded in the attacks.
On Sept. 7, 2013, Pope Francis held a vigil for peace in Syria and other conflicts around the world. “Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace,” Pope Francis said of the vigil.
After criticism of the attacks from the United States and the international community, U.S. and Russian delegations helped to strike an agreement in September 2013 requiring Syria to disclose its chemical weapons and facilities to the global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The organization moved to shut down and dispose of the facilities and weapons, and by the end of 2014, Syria’s chemical weapons were declared destroyed, along with 24 of the 27 chemical weapons production facilities.
However, U.S. intelligence reports indicated that Syria had not disclosed the entirety of its program to inspectors. Furthermore, reports kept surfacing of continued use of chemical agents in attacks against civilian targets in 2014, 2015 and 2016. In 2015 and 2016, the OPCW and U.N. partners conducted a fact-finding investigation into some of these attacks.
The group concluded it had “sufficient evidence” that the Assad regime targeted civilians with chlorine gas, a chemical weapon that was not specifically required for destruction by the previous agreement but which is nevertheless banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention. The OPCW and U.N. panel also concluded that the Islamic State had used a “sulfur-mustard” chemical weapon in Syria in 2014 and 2015.
Archbishop Jeanbart expressed his wish that the U.S. had investigated first to ensure who were the perpetrators of Tuesday’s deaths by gas before taking military action.
“Of course, if the government in Syria has used the gas and chemical weapons, we agree that he shouldn’t do [this], and he must be punished,” he told CNA. “But I am afraid they didn’t have time to check and to make sure that he [Assad] did it himself.”
“What is making us unhappy and sad is that this strike has come too quickly,” he added. “They would have been able to do it any time later. They would have been able, in this situation, to ask Russia to make pressure on the government to withdraw, and perhaps it could have been a reason to impose and oblige Bashar Assad to step out.”
“But I do not understand what happened, and it has been more destruction and more sadness and more terror coming to our people.”
By citing the responsibility borne by those in positions of political authority, Pope Francis “expects some kind of political response,” Joseph Capizzi, a professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America, explained to CNA of Pope Francis’ appeal to the consciences of political leaders responsible for Tuesday’s atrocities.
Pope Francis was probably looking for the international community to “exert some pressure” on the perpetrators, he added, and this could include the proportional use of force.
Thursday night’s missile strike showed a “judicious use of force,” he said. Action was needed “to enforce international law and international treaties” on the use of chemical weapons.
While “one would prefer” that there be “international concerted action,” instead of one world power — in this case, the U.S. — taking action, some variables could have prompted a unilateral action here, he explained.
First, the response to the use of chemical weapons — an attack on an airbase used to launch bombings in the region — needed to be swift and a surprise, in order to be successful, he said, and an international action would have taken time to form, if it formed at all.
Also, he noted, the world was watching, in particular, North Korea and China. Amid North Korea’s ballistic missile test launch this past week, the Trump administration showed that it may act “in a more decisive manner” when international interests are at stake, Capizzi said.
With Chinese President Xi Jingping’s visit, Thursday’s attack could function as a message to China to hold North Korea in check.
However, there must be measures taken to prevent Thursday’s attack from morphing into a greater military struggle in the region, Capizzi acknowledged, especially as the situation in Syria has grown more complex in recent years with the involvement of Russia.
As history has shown, “small, limited uses of force on the international level can expand.”