Crisis Deepens in Syria

As the Obama administration contemplates methods of arming the Free Syrian Army that will seek to prevent a trickle-down delivery of American weapons to Islamists extremists fighting alongside the opposition, two American bishops have called for the United States to abandon the military option and redouble efforts toward a negotiated ceasefire in Syria's civil war. Citing Pope Francis' Easter plea for peace in Syria, Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace, and Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services, said the suffering of civilians would be best addressed if fighting ended.

"Instead of arming both sides, the international community should be emphasizing the need for a negotiated solution to the conflict," the bishops wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. "The introduction of more arms simply increases the lethality of the violence and contributes to the suffering of the Syrian people."


The bishops also referred Kerry to the pope's letter to the leaders of the Group of Eight nations, which concluded a two-day meeting in Northern Ireland on June 18. In his letter, Pope Francis urged the G-8 leaders to seek a ceasefire and to bring all parties to the negotiating table. The summit ended without agreement on a course of action other than to support plans for a Syria peace conference in Geneva to begin "as soon as possible."

Bishops Pates and Kicanas expressed support for such a conference and offered the help of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops if needed. "The Syrian people urgently need a political solution that ends the fighting and creates a future for all Syrians, one that respects human rights and religious freedom," the bishops said. "We ask the United States to work with other governments to obtain a cease-fire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial and neutral humanitarian assistance and encourage building an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christian and other minorities."

But in an interview with America, George Lopez of the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies said that the Obama administration may be forced by rapidly changing conditions on the ground in Syria to make a difficult choice among the least noxious options. With refugees fleeing into and destabilizing Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and with the sudden reversal in momentum in the field following the entrance of Hezbollah forces into the conflict and the collapse of rebel fighters at the strategically important border town of Al Qusayr, the Obama administration may have little choice but to contribute to the arming of opposition forces. Russia has already committed to maintaining an arms supply to the Assad regime.

Lopez said that with a political solution still the primary goal, the administration may hope to convince Russia and its client Assad regime in Damascus that a continuing, if bloody stalemate remains the only possible outcome by directly supplying opposition forces. “I think that what the administration has decided is that if we’re going to continue in the search for a political solution to this there may need to be some creative military escalation that shows all sides that only a stalemate is ever going to exist, as a way for getting to the table,” said Lopez. Lopez allowed that the administration’s strategy could backfire as actors on all sides, now flush with new weapons, may still hope for a complete victory, leading to an escalation of the brutality of the conflict. The administration has been prompted to supply the rebels, long considered a last measure because of the large and active presence of Sunni extremists among the oppositions forces on the frontlines against the Assad regime, because of the sudden strategic fragility of the Free Syrian Army and because the administration has confirmed that the Assad regime crossed a “red line” by using Sarin gas munitions against rebels, resulting in casualties among noncombatants.

According to Lopez, Secretary of State Kerry may have concluded that “in order to really get the Russians to the table to be serious about negotiations on Syria they need to know that we are going to be more serious.” He said, “[The Obama administration] may match quid pro quo their moves with our moves, so that if [the Russians] are going to continue to supply the Syrian regime with advanced weaponry, we are going to open up the prospect—as are some European nations—of arming the Syrian rebels.”

Calling the Syrian conflict "a great tribulation," Pope Francis said on June 20 that tensions throughout the Middle East must give way to dialogue and reconciliation. "Once again, from the depths of my heart, I appeal to leaders of nations and international organizations, to believers of every religion and to all men and women of good will to put an end to the suffering, all the violence and every form of religious, cultural and social discrimination," the pope said. "Conflict that sows death must give way to encounter and reconciliation, which bring life," the pope said during a meeting with two dozen Catholic charitable and funding agencies that assist the Eastern Catholic churches and Catholics throughout the Middle East.

The groups, which include the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in the United States and Canada, the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and Aid to the Church in Need, meet twice a year under the auspices of the Congregation for Eastern Churches. The June 18-20 meeting focused on Egypt, Iraq, Syria and the Holy Land.

Pope Francis asked the funding agencies to "do everything possible to alleviate the serious needs of the stricken populations, particularly the Syrians -- the people of beloved Syria -- as well as the increasing number of displaced and refugees."

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