US weighs military action in Syria as bishops call for dialogue

US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on Syria at the US Department of State in Washington DC on August 30 2013 State Department photo CNA 8 30 13 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on Syria at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on August 30, 2013 (State Department photo).

Top U.S. officials say they are still considering a "narrow" military response to the reported use of chemical weapons in Syria, as a representative of the U.S. bishops urges negotiations aimed at peace.

"We will continue talking to the Congress, talking to our allies and, most importantly, talking to the American people," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in an Aug. 30 address.

While the option of a "limited and tailored" military response is still on the table, Kerry said that the ultimate goal "is to have a diplomatic process that can resolve this through negotiation, because we know there is no ultimate military solution."

The need for negotiation was also highlighted by Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, who heads the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace.

In an Aug. 29 letter, he reinforced to Kerry that the U.S. bishops' conference has long held "that the Syrian people urgently need a political solution that ends the fighting and creates a future for all Syrians, one that respects human rights and religious freedom."

The country of Syria has been embattled in violent conflict since spring of 2011, when government forces were deployed to put down uprisings protesting against Syrian President Bashar Assad, launching a conflict that has escalated into a civil war.

The United Nations has estimated that more than 100,000 people have died in the conflict, with more than three million being displaced within the country or becoming refugees in nearby nations.

Last winter, several nations including the U.S. recognized a Syrian opposition coalition as the legitimate voice of the Syrian people. Other nations – notably Russia, China and Iran – have supported the Assad regime.

A U.N. report last year found that both sides in the conflict had committed war crimes, although the rebel forces – comprised of different groups with various religious and political ideologies – had done so on a smaller scale.

Last week, reports indicated that chemical weapons had been used in an attack outside Damascus. The Syrian government denied responsibility, attributing the attack to opposition forces.

However, Kerry said that the U.S. intelligence community "has high confidence" based on the evidence they have obtained that the attacks were carried out by the Assad regime on "his own people."

"The United States government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children," he said.

The Secretary of State emphasized that numerous other countries have condemned the chemical attacks. However, action by the United Nations Security Council is unlikely, as Russia has already blocked a resolution authorizing military force in Syria.

Meanwhile, an ongoing U.N. inspection has been mandated only to confirm the use of chemical weapons, not identify the responsible parties, he continued. Nonetheless, a lack of unified global action does not remove the "responsibility" of the United States to the international community and human rights.

Simply speaking out against the use of chemical weapons is not enough to dissuade other countries from similarly challenging these international norms, Kerry said, underscoring the need for the perpetrators to be held accountable. "It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens."
Later in the day, President Barack Obama said that a decision has not yet been made on what course of action the United States will take. He emphasized that he is considering a "limited, narrow" military response rather than an "open-ended commitment" or "boots-on-the-ground approach."

Numerous Church leaders – including local bishops, Vatican officials and Pope Francis – have called for dialogue rather than military action in Syria.
In his letter, Bishop Pates called on Kerry to be cautious in using military force in Syria. While acknowledging the chemical attack as abhorrent, he echoed Pope Francis' emphasis on dialogue and negotiation to bring peace.

The bishop encouraged the U.S. to "work with other governments to obtain a ceasefire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial and neutral humanitarian assistance, and encourage building an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities."

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