ROME – In all likelihood, the fact that today marks the end of a decade may not mean a great deal to Pope Francis. After all, it’s not the one-decade mark of his papacy, which won’t fall until 2023, and anyway, the Vatican is accustomed to thinking in centuries, not mere ten-year blinks of an eye.
Next year, however, will bring an end-of-a-decade milestone that certainly will be on the pope’s radar screen, because March 2021 will mark the ten-year anniversary of the uprising that became known as the Syrian Civil War.
Francis’s pontificate was born amid concern for the escalating conflict in Syria, and his first major foreign policy accomplishment was helping to prevent a major Western military intervention in September 2013, just five months after his election, aimed at removing Bashar al-Assad from power after reports of chemical attacks against his own people. Among other things, the new pontiff held a five-hour public penitential liturgy in St. Peter’s Square as a prayer for peace in Syria.
In 2014, Australia’s Foreign Minister at the time, Bob Carr, published a set of memoirs in which he described a G20 meeting in St. Petersburg in September 2013 in which Syria was the main topic. Francis had written to Russian leader Vladimir Putin as the summit’s host beforehand, urging member nations “to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution.”
Carr recounted Putin’s remarks to the other heads of state. As he tells it, Putin ended his argument against a Western intervention by saying, “We might listen to the pope,” and then quoted from Francis’s letter.
“Bang!” Carr wrote. “Top that!” His point was that by being able to cite Francis, Putin for all intents and purposes closed the argument.
Since that time, Francis has missed no opportunity to express concern for the violence in Syria and the refugee crisis it’s generated, among other things bringing a group of 12 Syrian refugees back to Rome aboard the papal plane after a 2016 day trip to the Greek island of Lesbos.
I haven’t actually done a key word search, but I’m willing to bet good money that Francis hasn’t mentioned any single country in the world in his public rhetoric over the past six years more than Syria, including in his most recent Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi address, when he prayed for “comfort to the beloved Syrian people who still see no end to the hostilities that have rent their country over the last decade.”
By the time next year’s anniversary rolls around, however, the pope’s Christmas rhetoric may seem antiquated, since we may all be referring to the war in the past tense.
Backed by Russian air power and logistical support, forces loyal to Assad have largely retaken the country with the exception of the northwestern province of Idlib, and government forces are presently pounding the area ferociously. According to the UN, more than 235,000 people have fled Idlib as both aerial campaigns and ground offensives intensified in late December.
By March 2021, it’s entirely possible Assad will have succeeded, more or less, in pacifying the country and reestablishing his regime’s effective control within Syria’s borders. Today, beyond Russian backing, Assad also enjoys support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as well as foreign Shiite militias cleansing what’s left of the local opposition on the ground.
If Assad is back in full control a year from now, number one on his thank-you list obviously will be Russia, and one imagines that Putin won’t be bashful about finding ways to cash in on the debt. In a solid second place, however, might well be Francis and the Christian leadership of Syria.
The pope helped persuade the West to stand down at the moment when it seemed most inclined to take Assad out, and the country’s bishops have given Assad important cover and moral legitimacy at times when it seemed most in short supply.
Here was Jean-Clément Jeanbart, the Greek Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, in 2016, when the war was at its peak and Assad’s fate seemed in the balance.
“Personally, I would say that Bashar al-Assad is a good man,” Jeanbart said.
“If we have to choose between ISIS and Assad, we choose Assad,” the Melkite prelate said. “It seems sometimes that all the countries of the world are against Assad, but we feel we don’t have any other alternative. I think [Assad] wants to reform. Let him prove his good intentions, and let’s give him the chance to see what he will do.”
For sure, the pope and the Church have greater leverage with Assad than the United States, which, at the moment, is reducing its military footprint in the country and contemplating imposing even further sanctions under the newly adopted “Caesar Act.”
Thus if Francis wants to get a jump on a new decade’s resolution vis-à-vis the Syrian war, perhaps it could be this: To spend the next half-decade spending some of the political capital he’s amassed over the last one.
To begin with, he might either travel to Syria, or invite Assad to Rome, and use the occasion to press him on several key reforms: Freeing political prisoners, ending torture, coning clean about the extent of his chemical weapon stockpiles, and beginning the slow process of moving towards true democratic elections.
The pope can’t threaten military action or economic sanctions if Assad demurs, but he could withdraw something almost as important to the regime: Whatever shreds of legitimacy it may have left in Western public opinion and across the Christian world.
Of course, one can debate whether the Church’s line on Syria to date has been the correct one – whether Francis should have been more critical, whether the local bishops should have kept more distance from Assad, etc. In terms of realpolitik, however, none of that really matters, because we are where we are.
For better or worse, Francis right now may be the lone major Western leader who actually has the ear of the figure seemingly poised to win the Syrian war. The only thing that matters, therefore, is what he does with it.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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