The Vatican’s failure to speak with moral and intellectual clarity on the conflict in Syria has largely flown under the radar this year. Despite the use of chemical weapons, barrel bombs targeting civilian populations, the use of starvation as a weapon of war, mass execution of prisoners, and countless other crimes against humanity since he began this civil war by murdering peaceful protesters in order to retain his authoritarian control, Bashar al-Assad has not been unequivocally denounced by the Vatican. There has been no clear statement that this mass murderer must go, that he must not be permitted to retain control through the brutal use of force.
Instead, there have been signs that some in the Vatican prefer his continued rule. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences released a deeply flawed primer on the conflict in Syria that does not reflect the known facts, includes false equivalencies, makes unsubstantiated claims, and has embarrassing omissions. It refuses to even admit that the Syrian government definitively used chemical weapons, clearly reflecting the influence of some “new truthers.” It is a fundamentally unserious statement on a conflict that has killed over 140,000 people and displaced over 9 million people. The workshop’s final statement admits that “new political forms in Syria are needed,” but offers a completely unrealistic plan for achieving this change (either naively or cynically).
Vatican expert John Allen has said the Vatican is clearly more leery about the prospects of regime change than the Western democracies. He notes, “Many analysts suggested the pope’s position on Syria was actually closer to Russia and China than to the Western powers.” Why does the Vatican seem closer to Russia, which is allied with Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah (and has provided crucial arms for Assad’s continued crimes against humanity)?
Part of the motivation is clearly that some in the Vatican are motivated by a sectarian preference for securing the lives and well-being of Christians over saving the lives of Sunni Muslims, who are Assad’s primary victims. They have abandoned Catholic universalism for a Christianist agenda. Allen notes that the Vatican’s viewpoint is shaped by the views of the local Christian community in Syria, “which tends to see Assad as the lesser of two evils vis-à-vis rising Islamic fundamentalism.” One can understand terrified Syrian Christians clinging to Assad out of fear that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the only other alternative. But can’t we expect the Vatican to focus on the rights of all rather than to fall prey to sectarianism?
Now with Jeffrey Sachs, a participant in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ workshop on Syria, coming out in support of Assad retaining power, it is quite clear that suspicions surrounding pro-Assad elements in the Vatican were justified. How do those who understand the conflict in Syria describe Sachs’ plan? Emile Hokayem, the Senior Fellow for Regional Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, called it “ridiculous.” David Kenner, the Middle East Editor of Foreign Policy magazine, called it “naïve and embarrassing.” Iain Levine, program director at Human Rights Watch, said Sachs was “stunningly ill-informed.” Michael Doran, a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said his argument was “facile and ill-informed, to say nothing of morally repugnant.”
I asked Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations, why Sachs’ plan was not the best way forward. She replied:
Assad has gassed his own people, and fired SCUDS and barrel bombs on populated areas. For as long as he retains power — and puts his own love of power above the welfare of his people — the war will continue, along with all the horrific costs associated with it — more than 130,000 people killed (including some 10,000 children); 250,000 trapped and being starved in besieged areas; and 9.3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. The Geneva Communique is the basis on which this war needs to end, and a Transitional Governing Body by mutual consent needs to be created urgently. The vast majority of Syria’s people have rejected Assad, and made clear there is no place for him in a future Syrian government.
Samantha Power understands the nature of the conflict. And she understands the moral issues that are involved.
To allow or support Assad’s continued rule after committing so many crimes against humanity would send a clear message to every dictator on the planet: when faced with popular protests, kill as many people as possible with maximum brutality, so that your continued rule will be accepted in exchange for a cessation of the conflict. It is a revolting precedent to consider.
The Responsibility to Protect is designed to send the opposite message. It is a shame that Pope Francis and the Vatican have not called on the international community to protect the Syrian people from Assad’s atrocities, while seeking a solution to the conflict that will establish a legitimate government, promote reconciliation, and protect the human rights of all.
In a 2008 speech at the United Nations, Pope Benedict said, “Recognition of the unity of the human family, and attention to the innate dignity of every man and woman, today find renewed emphasis in the principle of the responsibility to protect.” He warned, ““It is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage.”
Instead of listening to people like Jeffrey Sachs, the Vatican would be wise to embrace the moral clarity that Pope Benedict expressed in that speech. There is no peace without justice. There will be no peace in Syria with the Butcher Assad in power.