by Victor Gaetan*
Good news has been rare for Syria since 2011.
Ravaged by over a decade of war, compounded by poverty and a pandemic, more persecution arrived on February 6 when earthquakes killed some 6,000 people living near the country’s northwest border with Turkey and displaced over 330,000
Aleppo, the region’s largest city, has long been a center of Christianity.
But sudden disaster made Syria the focal point of special concern especially from its neighbors—including Saudi Arabia, accused of helping foment insurgency against President Bashar al-Asaad by supplying Syrian rebels with arms.
As a direct result of the humanitarian crisis, the 22-nation Arab League ended Syria’s regional isolation: Asaad was personally welcomed at the League’s meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia last month, where he addressed the organization, which evicted him 12 years ago.
It’s a startling, positive development which can also be welcomed b the Holy See, even as the Holy See urges the West to step up and end sanctions crippling Syria’s economy.
Two back-to-back earthquakes inspired immediate response from Arab leaders: Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called Asaad the next day. A week later, Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, flew to Damascus—the first such direct diplomatic engagement since the 2011 Syrian conflict began.
Within weeks, a delegation of Arab parliamentarians, including Iraq’s parliament speaker, Muhammad al-Halbousi, president of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union, landed in Syria’s capital: "We cannot do without Syria and Syria cannot do without its Arab environment, which we hope it can return to," Halbousi told The Arab Weekly.
In late March, in Amman, Jordan, a wider range of stakeholders considered political options for Syria including representatives from the United Nations, European Union, Turkey, France, Germany, and even the United States. Arab League members insisted that decisions should be regional, though: “Arab nations must take the lead in initiating the discussions to resolve the Syrian crisis,” emphasized Safadi.
At the heart of the “Jordanian Initiative,” a plan to reincorporate Syria into regional political structures, is the principle of reciprocity. In exchange for normalcy and humanitarian aid, the Asaad government agrees to speed up the reintegration of refugees (over 663,000 Syrian refugees are in Jordan; 865,000 are in Lebanon; and an astonishing 3.6 million are in Turkey), control drug and weapons smuggling, and initiate security reform to disempower rogue militias.
Final negotiations were clearly underway when, on April 12, the Syrian foreign minister flew to Jeddah to meet Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, who returned the visit by traveling to Damascus on April 18. Again, these were the first in-country diplomatic sit-down discussions involving Syria since war broke out in 2011.
On May 7, an assembly of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo voted to formally invite the Asaad government to rejoin the regional forum, founded in 1945 by six countries including Syria.
Church Never Isolated Syria
The Church has been calling for an end to Syria’s isolation for years and acting toward that goal.
For example, Cardinal Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, described the conflict as the “most serious man-made humanitarian disaster since the end of the Second World War,” bemoaning the international community’s lack of focus on peace or economic reconstruction last year. His remarks came as part of a conference in Damascus bringing together Catholic aid organizations and local churches, Church, House of Charity: Synodality and Coordination organized by the Congregation for Eastern Churches.
At the conference’s conclusion, aid leaders met with President Asaad, who praised their work especially as it is offered to all Syrians, regardless of faith. The meeting typified the Holy See’s rule that dialogue is essential, everywhere and always.
In fact, a month before Francis’s pontificate began, in February 2013, Lebanon’s Cardinal Bechara Boutros Raï became the first Maronite patriarch in seventy years to travel to Damascus. He attended the enthronement of a new patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, John X, which turned into a demonstration of unity between Orthodox and Catholic leaders in the face of extremism engulfing the country.
Pope Francis met with all the patriarchs of the Eastern-rite churches eight months after his election and pledged to defend them. He also deferred to the reality they perceived in Syria, resisting Western attempts at regime change.
Diplomacy of Encounter in Middle East
The process followed by Arab League members in reintegrating Syria since the natural disaster exemplifies principles practiced
in Vatican diplomacy.
First, it proceeded through extensive personal consultation. For Francis, face-to-face encounter allows transformations of the heart and new sympathy for various points of view. Here’s what’s critical: the culture of encounter is meant to describe real encounters with real people. It’s a pro¬gram of action, not theory.
Second, the process built step by step. Countries collaborated to advance concrete achievements, which increases trust. One of the most important steps that made Arab League reconciliation with Syria possible was a March 10 diplomatic breakthrough: Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran announced that they would restore ties and revive a security agreement. The rivalry between the two powerful countries has contributed to regional conflict in Syria as well as in Lebanon and Yemen.
Third, normalization of Arab relations with Syria is an example of subsidiarity, the idea that political problems should be solved, when possible, locally and regionally—at the lowest level of relevant decision making, with participation from many stakeholders. "The principle of subsidiarity allows everyone to assume his or her own role in the healing and destiny of society," Pope Francis told a general audience.
Finally, the protagonists did not wait for approval from Western powers, who have, so far, opposed this embrace of Syria. Despite being an ally of the United States, Saudi Arabia, for example, bucked US preferences to lead recent Syrian normalization efforts. What echoes Vatican practice is the idea that countries should exert themselves for peace, without knowing the exact outcomes; what’s importance is starting a process toward better international relations.
The Arab League is mainly a loose-knit political alliance. It does not have extensive power to bring quick relief to Syria’s many challenges: a population experiencing massive food and health insecurity: an astonishing 90 percent of the people living in poverty.
According to many experts, Syria is condemned to near universal suffering as long as the West maintains sanctions against the country. Sanctions apply to economic reconstruction too.
Vatican officials, local Christian leaders (including Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Youssef I) and high-level UN representatives alike have condemned punitive sanctions against Syria because they punish impoverished people and complicate relief efforts.
The Middle East Council of Churches, which includes major Catholic communities, issued a dire warning: "We urge the immediate lifting of sanctions on Syria and allowing access to all materials, so sanctions may not turn into a crime against humanity".
*Victor Gaetan is a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Register, focusing on international issues. He also writes for Foreign Affairs magazine and contributed to Catholic News Service. The Catholic Press Association of North America has given his articles four first place awards, including Individual Excellence. Gaetan received a license (B.A.) in Ottoman and Byzantine Studies from Sorbonne University in Paris, an M.A. from the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy, and a Ph.D. in Ideology in Literature from Tufts University. His book God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) comes out in paperback in July. Visit his website at VictorGaetan.org.