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Papal challenge rocks US's Syria plans

2013-09-10Asia Times

Through his impassioned appeal to avert Western military intervention in Syria's conflict, Pope Francis has challenged the global American political centrality. This is toll bell ringing for Washington, but also for a Chinese leadership that is often forgetful of the weight of the Holy See.

The message is that the world does not end in the Pacific or purely rest on the dialogue of superpowers and their weapons, and it is a view shared by the millions in the world who will meet his call to pray and fast for peace in the Middle East.

US President Barack Obama drew a line in the sand with Syria: if you, Bashar Al-Assad, use chemical weapons, I will come after you. Now that Assad has allegedly used those weapons, Obama feels he has to do something.

Obama has to move against the despicable Assad regime, which is teetering on the brink of the abyss, and in favor of his not-much-less despicable enemies - Sunni rebels who have been infiltrated by al-Qaeda.

Obama says he will bomb Assad but stop there, promising the US will not get sucked in it did in Afghanistan or Iraq. However, skeptics think deeper American involvement in Syria will be hard to avoid after the bombing because of the general law of politics and human relations: once you get involved it is tougher to pull back from the next "necessary" steps.

If Obama sticks to his word and stays aloof in Syria after lobbing a few rockets at Assad, things in the region could be worse off than if he simply had done nothing. An American bombing will not resolve the situation unless there is some kind of a political remedy. This could take the shape of an agreement with Iran, an agreement with Turkey to extend its power to Sunni Syria or a partition of Syria into Sunni and Alawite/Christian/Shi'ite parts.

All these solutions are extremely difficult because of the complicated regional politics between four major powers.

Firstly, Saudi Arabia's leaders - under siege from the Shi'ite minority, facing consequences for past oppression of immigrants and anticipating a succession crisis - are afraid of Iran and a possible improvement in ties between Tehran and Washington.

Meanwhile, Iran's fragile regime is trying to survive and extend its influence in the Mediterranean region via the Shi'ites in Syria and Lebanon. Tehran too is under siege internally from a growing anti-Islamist young population, seething minority clashes, and painful international sanctions.

Turkey - led by the domestically controversial Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - is undermined by failing economic policies and an increasingly restive society. Ankara would like to extend its influence to the former Turkish imperial territories in Syria and Iraq, partly to guarantee the loyalty of its uneasy Kurdish minority in the east, who have brethren in Syria and Iraq.

Last but far from least comes Israel, which appears puzzled by the growing chaos around its territory. This commotion is dwarfing what for a decade seemed its largest existential problem: the terrorist threat of the Palestinians living in Gaza and Hebron.

The three other regional powers above claim with their words to hate Israel, but in fact they first hate each other. Some even in theory abet a few suicide bombers but, in fact, despite their immense demographic superiority, for decades they have been unable to field sufficient troops to beat the tiny Israeli army. That balance of power worked for years, but now that everything in the region is up in the air, nobody is clear about how things will work after the dust has settled.

Amid this mess, the old and new US enemies and competitors, Russia and China, are opposed to an American intervention, but both with ambivalence. Russia feels it is going to lose its military base in Tartus, Syria, its only outpost in the Mediterranean, and thus backs Assad. At the same time, it benefits from the political turmoil in the region, which pushes oil prices up and thus makes its own oil (which is expensive to drill) competitive.

China, a net oil importer, feels that the chaos in the region will push the cost of its imports up, but it could welcome an American involvement in the Middle East if it distracts Washington from its new policy of a "Pivot to Asia'', just like war in Iraq and Afghanistan focused US attention away from China a decade ago.

In this greatly confused situation, newly elected Pope Francis called for a day of prayer and fasting, urging the Group of 20 world leaders to abandon the "futile pursuit" of a military solution in Syria. The Vatican laid out its case for a negotiated settlement that guarantees rights for all Syrians, including the Christian minority.

The Pope is out for "his people'', the Syrian Christians, who are the legacy of the earliest church and root of its origins but who are also at risk of being wiped out, like the Christians in Iraq. Yes, the Pope is working his old agenda of prayer and peace, the bread and butter of the Catholic Church that was forgotten for some years in favor of moral and theological issues - which proved to be both controversial and hard to understand for the Catholic masses and laymen around the world.

To work for a negotiated settlement can seem an empty message in the extreme turmoil in the region, but perhaps there is much more substance than meets the eye, as it is supported by the recent appointment of Pietro Parolin as the Vatican's secretary of state.

Parolin, combining priestly piety and realistic diplomatic wisdom, in the past brokered a series of unprecedented agreements with Mexico, Israel, and Vietnam, and he made huge progress in talks with China.

America, which writes on its dollars the sign and tool of its power, "In God We Trust'', should know that sometimes prayers and fasting count more than rockets. In fact, if after Obama lobs his missiles the situation in Syria grows worse and the friction between regional and greater powers becomes more acute, the papal exhortation to prayer and negotiation could well sound more reasonable and realistic.

This could dent the current ability of the US president to be the arbiter of right and wrong in global politics, and it would give the stage to the pope to become a greater center of gravity in international politics, not just in religion. It would be in America's interest to not put in jeopardy its political centrality, since that forms the core of its soft power, on which its dollar and military also depend.

Yet it seems that the president has been taken hostage by the daily bombardment of newspaper headlines asking him to do something, anything, about Syria. The US government should have the courage to say that not all can be solved with a strike - some situations require patience, negotiation, and perhaps even prayer.

With hindsight, the solution that George H W Bush, the father, found 20 years ago in Iraq looks the wisest: an unstable equilibrium that held back for over a decade all the destructive forces in the Middle East. In fact, the threat to the West, al-Qaeda, did not come from the region - not maimed and coy Iraq - but from the no-man's land of Afghanistan.

From the outside, the difficulty American politicians have in leading newspapers' reports rather than succumbing to the pressure of their chronicles indicates a larger difficulty in having a clear vision for the world. This Syrian trouble then points to two outcomes that may have huge consequences in the short and long term. On the one hand, the fact that US claims to have pivoted to Asia, but its acts in the Middle East dent American credibility in Asia - and with China in particular.

America seems unable to carry out long-term policies and commitments or to impose broad political plans in a region. Then, for countries like those in Asia, which appreciated and developed because of long-term programs, this means that the US commitment can be largely discounted, and they have to count on themselves for solutions to many local problems.

Moreover, this can mean a rise in the global political influence of the Holy See, based not on the militant mission of spreading Catholicism but on a subtler and more realistic idea. In many cases, political conflicts spilling into war are a lose-lose proposition, and against this backdrop, patience and wisdom could lead to something less disagreeable to all parties.

Realists may object that this approach can't work if not backed by weapons, but the excessive use of weapons and revolutions over the past decade - and their massive failures - may now lead people to believe that prayers (or more practical reasonable and well-thought diplomatic solutions) rather than weapons could be a solution.

This, again, could be a historic opportunity for the Holy See, which may gain a global political role akin to its mandate of past decades, maybe centuries, of being linked to various power and serving various interests not purely dominated by its religious mission.

This is not because people have just become better and with a good heart, but simply because the situation has changed. In this case, the Holy See can count on the support of many European countries whose populations, despite the official position of their government, are skeptical about the benefits of a military intervention in Syria after seeing the collapse of US-backed Jasmine revolutions in Egypt or Libya.

Moreover, the European leader, Germany, doesn't want a Syrian initiative that risks its delicate ties with Russia. Then, if after praying and fasting, the Holy See were to spearhead a political mediation in Syria, this might receive an open or tacit backing in many European countries, which, unlike America, are very close to the Syrian turmoil.

Only the possibility of a similar initiative could change many elements of the future in international politics. (2013-09-10 Asia Times)


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