Pope Francis' continual focus on the Syrian civil war will contribute to the Holy See playing a key role at the "Geneva II" international peace conference, due to start tomorrow, Jan. 22.

The Geneva II meeting aims at a political settlement to the Syrian conflict, providing for a transitional government in the country which has been mired in conflict since March, 2011. The conference will include representatives of both the Bashar al-Assad government and opposition groups, as well as foreign diplomats.

The Holy See's role in the Syrian peace process was acknowledged in the decision of Assad to send a high-level delegation to the Vatican Dec. 28 to deliver a personal message to Pope Francis. The delegation was composed of Joseph Sweid, minister of state, and Hussam Eddin Aala, ambassador to the Holy See.

The two met with Archbishop Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States.

According to Sana, the news agency of the Assad regime, the president appreciates Pope Francis' efforts for peace, and reiterated that the crisis can be solved through a dialogue among Syrians, without external intervention.

Geneva II will gather representatives of the Assad regime; leaders of the Syrian National Coalition, an exiled opposition group; and foreign diplomatic leaders from the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

Iran, a close ally of the Assad regime, had been invited to participate. However, that invitation was rescinded after strong protests from the U.S. and the Syrian National Coalition following Iran's rejection of the call for a transitional government.

The Syrian National Coalition and the Assad regime seem to be at an impasse over Assad's role in any possible transitional government. A third of the coalition boycotted a vote last week over its involvement in the Geneva talks, and several other opposition groups have refused to participate.

At Geneva II, the Holy See will maintain its position, seeking dialogue and reconciliation among conflicting parties; preservation of the integrity and unity of Syria; and respect for minorities in the region.

The Holy See will also urge the world leaders to stop the flow of arms into Syria, and press for an immediate and complete cease-fire without political pre-conditions.

In the run-up to Geneva II, the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences held a closed-door workshop on Syria Jan. 13.

The event was led by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a skilled diplomat, having served as Vatican Secretary for Relations with States from 1990 until 2003.

The workshop's participants delivered a written statement underscoring that "political transformation is needed" but "it is not a precondition for ending violence; rather it will accompany the cessation of violence and the rebuilding of trust."

It was then stated that "once greater trust and cooperation are built … new political forms in Syria are needed to ensure representation, participation, reform, and the voice and security of all social groups."

The workshop followed a series of diplomatic initiatives of the Holy See. Archbishop Mamberti met with the ambassadors to the Holy See Sept. 5 to express the Vatican's concerns regarding Syria, underscoring that it has "always been sensitive to the help request coming from the Syrian population", and reminding them of Benedict XVI's heartfelt appeals to them and in his Urbi et Orbi addresses.

Benedict XVI had also wished to send a delegation to Syria during the most recent bishops' synod, but was prevented by the violence, though Cardinal Robert Sarah, president of the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum", was able to visit the war-torn nation.

Pope Francis has followed Benedict XVI's path, mentioning the Syrian civil war in his Easter Urbi et Orbi message, and at several occasions following.

He called for a day of fasting and prayer on Sept. 5, leading a prayer vigil at St. Peter's Square, and wrote to the G20 nations, reminding them they "cannot remain indifferent to the dramatic situation of the beloved Syrian people which has lasted far too long."

And in his Jan. 13 message to the ambassadors to the Holy See, Pope Francis focused on fraternity as the foundation and path to peace, saying that "what is presently needed is a renewed political will to end the conflict."

"I also encourage all parties to promote and ensure in every way possible the provision of urgently-needed aid to much of the population, without overlooking the praiseworthy effort of those countries – especially Lebanon and Jordan – which have generously welcomed to their territory numerous refugees from Syria."

Syria has also been among the priorities of Archbishop Parolin: he has already prepared a dossier on the situation, and it was "first of all" among the topics he discussed with his American counterpart, John Kerry, at their Jan. 14 meeting.

The Syrian conflict has now dragged on for 32 months, since demonstrations sprang up nationwide on March 15, 2011 protesting the rule of President Assad. In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters.

Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war which has claimed the lives of at least 100,000 persons, and as many as 130,000. The war is being fought among the Assad regime and numerous rebel groups, including moderates, Islamists, and Kurds.

Some 40 percent of Syria's population have fled their homes because of the civil war. There are 2.3 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, and an additional 6.5 million Syrians are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.