U.S. and Russian negotiators hammered out a deal on the cataloging, securing and disposal of Syria’s 1,000 tons of chemical weapons on Sept. 14, side-stepping a confrontation with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad that could have ended with a U.S. missile strike. The question now is whether or not the impromptu breakthrough over chemical weapons can lead to more meaningful discussion toward a resolution of a two-year-old conflict, which has claimed more than 110,000 lives.
At a press conference on Sept. 19, Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, expressed hope that a proposal by Russian leaders to place Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles under international control could be used as “leverage” to negotiations to end the civil war.
“It is critical that recent international proposals to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons get serious attention, evaluation and encouragement,” he said. “As Pope Francis has said repeatedly, dialogue and negotiation are the paths to peace, not military attacks and arms shipments,” Bishop Pates said.
He noted that the Assad regime is one of the remaining few that maintain chemical weapons munitions. Removing them, Bishop Pates added, is “not just President Obama’s problem, not just an American problem,” but “a Russian problem, a Chinese problem, a French problem, an English problem. All of us acting together sends a much clearer message to the world than just our acting alone.”
Continuing a peace offensive initiated by Pope Francis with his call for a worldwide day of fasting and prayer for Syria, U.S. Catholic bishops had released a statement urging the Obama administration to abandon plans for a punitive missile strike against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in mid-September. The president had been seeking congressional authorization for a limited strike aimed at “degrading” Assad’s forces after the regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21.
That chemical assault on the rebel-held outskirts of Damascus claimed as many as 1,400 lives, according to the administration, including more than 420 children. The New York-based Human Rights Watch charged on Sept. 10 that available evidence “strongly suggests” that Syrian government forces were responsible for a sarin attack.
Meeting in Washington on Sept. 10, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ administrative committee had issued a statement arguing that a political solution, rather than a military response, was needed to resolve Syria’s 30-month civil war. More than two million Syrians are refugees; another 4.25 million are internally displaced, and many remained trapped in the line of fire between combating forces.
“We have heard the urgent calls of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and our suffering brother bishops of the venerable ancient Christian churches of the Middle East,” the statement said. “As one, they beg the international community not to resort to military intervention in Syria. They have made it clear that a military attack will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation and will have unintended negative consequences.” Committee members also decried the use of chemical weapons in the conflict and said that the use of such weapons in Syria “was a heinous crime against humanity.”
The next day, during a news conference, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, U.S.C.C.B. president, pressed the case for peace. A Syrian intervention, said Cardinal Dolan, is “not going to be good for us as Americans” and “certainly not going to be good for us as people who believe in a God of peace.” American Catholics, “extraordinarily united with their pastor, Pope Francis,” he said, have told the president and Congress, “we accomplish a lot more with hands folded in prayer than in a hand clenched in a fist, with hands outreaching to people to try to help them.”
Acknowledging that church leaders are often perceived as “pie in the sky” or naïve in matters related to war and peace and that “earthly leaders are usually thought of as kind of the practical, realistic people,” Cardinal Dolan said, in the Syrian crisis, the “tables are turned.” The cardinal noted that Pope John Paul II’s repeated but ignored warnings to U.S. leaders before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 must now be acknowledged to have been painfully prescient.