An Intervention of Hope for Syria

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“Tears still flow in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other areas of the Holy Land. The Bishop of Rome will not rest while there are still men and women of any religion, whose dignity is wounded and who are deprived of their basic needs for survival, robbed of their future, or forced to live as fugitives and refugees… Let us continue to keep watch, like the watchman in the Bible, certain that the Lord will not withhold his help from us. I turn therefore to the entire Church to exhort her to pray, that she may obtain reconciliation and peace from the merciful heart of God.”

~Pope Francis, Address to participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches (21 November 2013)

This week marks another in the still stagnating peace talks concerning the conflict in Syria. With both government and opposition parties at loggerheads, little progress is being made, though generous frustration is being generated. This is the start of the second installment of peace talks in Geneva which began last month. Though still little is being accomplished, many are still suffering the perils of the violence and terrorism plaguing Syria.

Since the US has a strong stake in the conflict and its resolution, the future of the Syrian state has been much talked about on and off Capitol Hill and at the White House. President Obama has recently voiced that while the US does not foresee a military response to Syria per se, it will explore every possible avenue to solve the problem.

Whatever avenue the US pursues, it remains clear that one thing is certain: foreign military intervention in Syria is not the answer.

Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, the Vatican’s envoy to the United Nations, spoke before a congressional committee on Tuesday February 11 and admonished against military intervention, saying rather bluntly, “We know what happens when you [use force] without a clear exit strategy,” reported a Boston Globe article.

The Archbishop brings to the table his experiences witnessing the invasion of Iraq unfold in the early 2000’s and believes that the best possible solution is to avoid military intervention and instead propose a “negotiated settlement” involving the many sectors and levels of society. While this may seem a difficult task, it safeguards the interests of those most vulnerable. The Archbishop certainly has the Christian interests in mind. He reminded the congress that while Saddam Hussein oppressively imposed his law, a certain level of security was guaranteed to the Christian minority. Not advancing any direct support of either Hussein or Al-Assad’s regime, the Archbishop’s point does make sense. Since the outburst of political insecurity in the region, along with continued terroristic violence, the Christian population has been “decimated.”

Weighing in against those determined to see a positive outcome from the frozen Geneva peace talks are critics who have cited the pitfalls of non-intervention. Robert Christian, the editor at the blog Millennial, sums up a large part of the problem quite succinctly in an article from December: “…few admit that they were dangerously naïve [in their hopes for negotiated settlement] or that conditions have deteriorated badly. Actually, few seem to be aware that Syria still exists, now that the possibility of American intervention appears very unlikely.” Moreover, he shares descriptions of the miserable and offensive conditions that refugees suffer, especially now as the winter season comes.

But does this seriously warrant a full scale military invasion by joint US and Western forces? Has the US gone so far into the post-post-modern age that conflict is more easily (or, as some would argue, more effectively) solved through military reaction? Should we grant that is the case, it still stands to reason that any amount of military intervention would not only amount to millions of dollars of what could be humanitarian aid, it would lead to countless casualties, many of whom—it can be said with great certainty—will be unintended targets or innocent civilian persons.

What to do then?

Let me first take things in a different direction. We have already witnessed Pope Francis’ reaction to the situation in Syria and its environs. He called for a day of fast and prayer for Syria back in September, and even held a peace conference ahead of the Geneva peace talks at the Vatican in mid-January. His message has been a constant one of hope, much like the whole of his papacy to date. This witness to hope is a beacon of light to which all leaders engaged in this conflict should look. He has spoken boldly, calling for “a renewed political will to end the conflict.” At the same time, he has warned that “full respect for humanitarian law remains essential. It is unacceptable that unarmed civilians, especially children, become targets.” In a response to Francis, President Al-Assad of Syria has voiced his readiness to participate in peace talks. Allowing this, however, has remained a point of contention for President Obama and the US administration, which has made it difficult to see the transparency of discourse that should be taking place at all levels of the conflict resolution.

With many disappointed—and rightly so—in the peace talks to date, it might be wise for the political leaders, diplomats, and envoys to look to Francis and his model hope as this next round of Geneva talks open up. The hope for resolution seems to be quickly fading—President Obama has cited his “enormous frustration” with the conflict—and so it would be a blessing for all if a resurgence of hope could fill the air.

The practical application, then?

It seems that it is both obvious and an understatement to repeat that foreign military intervention is ill-advised. Regardless of the cost of non-intervention, a military insurgence of Western forces in the Middle East will bring the cost of innocent lives and has the potential to spark serious backlash from a number of local powers. It is just the same, both obvious and an understatement, to stress the need to protect the safety and rights of civilians and the need to deliver humanitarian aid.

Political strategizing aside, the resolution process needs hope. Pope Francis’s has been a strong witness to hope for peace and resurrection. Perhaps that is part of his job description, but I would be willing to say it is his genuine belief that a real resurrection of peace can and will spring forth from this sad and unnecessary conflict in Syria. And I think we can learn from him.

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