WASHINGTON — The horrifying images of Syrian children struggling to take their last breaths as they were overcome with gas shocked the world earlier this month and quickly prompted condemnation of a suspected chemical-weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his own people.
Pope Francis quickly denounced the alleged chemical attack by the Syrian military that resulted in the deaths of 88 civilians in Idlib province, following their exposure to sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent, on April 4.
In an April 5 statement, the Holy Father appealed to “the consciences of those who hold political power, both at the local and international levels, so that these tragedies end.”
The following day, President Donald Trump adopted a very different response to the Syrian regime’s reported use of chemical weapons. On April 6, Trump approved multiple cruise-missile strikes launched from the destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross on a Syrian air base.
“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,” said Trump.
“It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” said Trump in a statement that defended his decision to approve the missile strikes on the Syrian air base.
Surprised by the Strike
Neither Congress nor the U.N. Security Council approved the missile attacks on the Syrian air base, and thus some analysts have challenged the legality of the president’s decision. Church leaders, for their part, have urged the White House to re-focus on a political solution to the Syrian crisis that will include protections for religious minorities.
At the same time, Catholic scholars question whether the missile strikes can be justified within the framework of traditional just-war doctrine, which provides ethical guidelines for when and how military action should be taken. However, their nuanced evaluation of the missile strikes also reflects the lessons learned from the Obama administration’s failed attempt to remove Syria’s chemical weapons through a high-stakes diplomatic effort.
“The use of internationally banned indiscriminate weapons is morally reprehensible,” read a statement issued by the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the wake of the news that Trump had punished the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons.
“At the same time, our conference affirmed the call of Pope Francis to attain peace in Syria ‘through dialogue and reconciliation.’”
U.S. Bishops’ Position
The statement was signed by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the USCCB president, and Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico, the bishops’ point man on international justice and peace issues, and affirmed the conference's long-standing support for a “political solution” to a six-year civil war that has resulted in the deaths of an estimated 600,000 people and forced 4 million Syrians to flee their homeland. And Bishop Cantú, in an interview with the Register, emphasized that Church leaders speak with one voice: “We will never contradict what the Church leaders in Syria are asking for — and they are not asking for a retaliatory attack. They have denounced it.”
Indeed, Church leaders in Syria adopted much sharper language in their strong opposition to the strikes. They said that Trump should have awaited the completion of a full investigation before tying Assad to the chemical attack, and they argued that the new administration would do better to press for a political solution to the protracted civil war.
The clear preference for a strategy of dialogue and multilateral negotiation over military action by a single world power is consistent with the Church’s past efforts to resolve violent conflicts or confront systemic injustice.
“There is generally a presumption against the use of force from both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops,” agreed Bradley Lewis, a political philosopher at The Catholic University of America.
“This is understandable, since military force always carries the potential both for injury to innocent noncombatants and for escalation.”
The Church’s stance is informed by Catholic just-war doctrine, as developed by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.
To fulfill all the moral criteria for a “just war,” the proposed military intervention must be initiated by a legitimate authority only after nonviolent solutions, such as diplomacy and economic sanctions, have been exhausted.
The cause must be just, and the outcome must have a likelihood of success. The use of force must be limited to achieving victory, rather than obliteration of the enemy, and noncombatants must be protected.
“Most just-war theorists reject purely punitive attacks or war understood simply as punitive,” said Lewis, as they raise concerns “about legitimate authority, a criteria of just war. We usually associate the right to punish with a superior authority, a sovereign authority, and who could claim such authority internationally?”
But Lewis also noted that some experts have attempted to frame the U.S. missile strikes as a lawful attempt to deter future chemical attacks by Syria, “and therefore supportive of a … very minimal kind of humanitarian intervention.”
Trump’s response can be justified “under traditional just-war principles that call ... for the protection and preservation of innocent life,” argued Joseph Wood, a Catholic and a professor at the Institute for World Politics, a Washington-based graduate program for security issues.
The apparent failure of the Obama administration’s previous high-profile campaign to remove Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons without military intervention underscores the limits of international diplomacy. That painful reality could explain the relatively muted response to the U.S. missile strikes from some Church leaders and specialists who have been frustrated with the international community’s failure to stop Assad’s reported use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
Back in September 2013, after U.N. chemical-weapons inspectors confirmed that sarin had been deployed in an August 2013 attack, President Obama was pressed to fulfill his vow to punish Assad for his violation of international norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. As the president pondered his options, Pope Francis led a vigil for peace in Syria.
The crisis was averted when Obama accepted Russia’s help to broker an agreement that required Syria to facilitate the removal and destruction of its chemical weapons cache by the global watchdog Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Weapons Declared Destroyed in ’14
By late 2014, Syria’s chemical weapons were declared destroyed, along with most of their known facilities that produced chemical weapons. But within a year, OPCW inspectors revised that assessment in 2015 and 2016 reports that found traces of sarin and VX nerve agent at Syrian facilities. And before Obama left office, Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the shortcomings of the administration’s Syria policy.
“Removing these weapons from Syria ensured that they could not be used — by the Assad regime or by terrorist groups like ISIL — but, unfortunately, other undeclared chemical weapons continue to be used ruthlessly on the Syrian people,” wrote Kerry in a memorandum to the president.
Months later, Trump took direct action against the Assad regime’s alleged chemical attack. And while Pope Francis has spoken out in the past against unilateral military action, in the week following the U.S. cruise missile strikes, he remained silent.
Asked to comment on Francis’ decision to delay or avoid comment altogether on the U.S. missile strikes, Robert Royal, the author of A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the 20th Century (Ignatius Press), said he wasn’t surprised by the Pope’s silence.
“Persuasion is useless, as are agreements or treaties with malefactors,” said Royal in a blunt assessment of Obama’s campaign to end the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.
“We can’t allow WMDs to be used without the international situation going from bad to worse. Perhaps Francis has some intuition of that.”
Royal also noted an additional layer of complexity in the Church’s response to the U.S. missile strikes: the growing vulnerability of Syria’s Christian minority.
“The Syrian churches have been saying for a long time that where the Syrian government is in control, the churches are generally safe,” said Royal in a reference to the relatively secure status of Christians in government-controlled areas, as opposed to regions patrolled by Islamic militants, including members of the Islamic State.
Church leaders may be hesitant to blame Assad for the alleged chemical attacks without a formal investigation, but Royal insisted that strong evidence confirmed “the sarin attacks couldn’t have come from anyone other than Assad.” Thus, he contended that a posture of “defending Assad or staying silent would both be moral failures.”
However, Syria and Russia have asserted that Assad did not approve a chemical attack. And skeptics who challenge the U.S. account have also pointed to Washington’s now-discredited claim that Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s former leader, controlled a stockpile of WMDs that posed a threat to the U.S. and its allies. Based on faulty intelligence, that claim was used to justify the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The unpredictable, long-term consequences of the U.S. missile strikes have heightened anxiety about the fate of Christians in a post-Assad Syria, and this issue will shape the U.S. bishops’ ongoing response to Trump’s policy.
“Local bishops see the Islamic State as the only real political alternative to Assad, and they tend to prefer him since his secular regime is less of a threat to Christians,” said CUA’s Lewis.
He noted that other Islamist rebel groups are not part of the Islamic State, but Christians may still question their willingness to uphold the rights of religious minorities.
Similar concerns have complicated Washington’s past efforts to intervene in the civil war, as the U.S. does not want to bolster the standing of the Syrian strongman or the Islamic State. Likewise, the involvment of Russia and Iran in the conflict poses additional challenges.
Primary and Secondary Goals
At present, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the defeat of the Islamic State remains Washington’s most urgent mission, while the stabilization of Syria is a secondary goal. But Trump has yet to offer a coherent plan for Syria, and his administration has struggled to define its foreign policy after campaigning on an “America First” platform.
Given the lack of clarity and mixed signals, Catholic leaders are even less likely to endorse a policy of limited punitive strikes against Assad that might escalate into a more robust U.S. military presence.
At best, “a military solution can only be part, and just a very small part, of a larger effort based on the difficult work of negotiation and diplomacy,” said Bishop Cantú.
Royal said it was time for the Trump administration to clarify its mission in Syria, within a larger Middle East strategy.
“There needs to be a coordinated, consistent policy — and follow through — in the Middle East,” he said.
“Whether this administration is capable of that will soon be clear.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.