In late 2012 and throughout 2013, several reports came out of Syria alleging the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against the Syrian people. In September 2013, UN chemical weapons inspectors confirmed that sarin was used in one of the attacks taking place Aug. 21, 2013. Estimated death tolls from these attacks range from at least 300 to as many as 1,500 killed. Over 3,600 people were wounded in the attacks.
On September 7, 2013, Pope Francis held a vigil for peace in Syria and other conflicts around the world. "Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace," Pope Francis said of the vigil.
After criticism of the attacks from the United States and the international community, U.S. and Russian delegations helped to strike an agreement in September 2013 requiring Syria to disclose its chemical weapons and facilities to the global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The organization moved to shut down and dispose of the facilities and weapons, and by the end of 2014, Syria's chemical weapons were declared destroyed, along with 24 of the 27 chemical weapons production facilities.
However, U.S. intelligence reports indicated that Syria had not disclosed the entirety of its program to inspectors. Furthermore, reports kept surfacing of continued use of chemical agents in attacks against civilian targets in 2014, 2015, and 2016. In 2015 and 2016, the OPCW and UN partners conducted a fact-finding investigation into some of these attacks.
The group concluded it had "sufficient evidence" that the Assad regime targeted civilians with chlorine gas – a chemical weapon that was not specifically required for destruction by the previous agreement, but which is nevertheless banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention. The OPCW and UN panel also concluded that the Islamic State had used a "sulphur-mustard" chemical weapon in Syria in 2014 and 2015.
Archbishop Jeanbart expressed his wish that the U.S. had investigated first to ensure who were the perpetrators of Tuesday's deaths by gas before taking military action.
"Of course, if the government in Syria has used the gas and chemical weapons, we agree that he shouldn't do [this] and he must be punished," he told CNA. "But I am afraid they didn't have time to check and to make sure that he [Assad] did it himself."
"What is making us unhappy and sad is that this strike has come too quickly," he added. "They would have been able to do it any time later. They would have been able, in this situation, to ask Russia make pressure on the government to withdraw, and perhaps it could have been a reason to impose and oblige Bashar Assad to step out."
"But I do not understand what happened, and it has been more destruction and more sadness and more terror coming to our people."
By citing the responsibility borne by those in positions of political authority, Pope Francis "expects some kind of political response," Dr. Joseph Capizzi, a professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America, explained to CNA of Pope Francis's appeal to the conscience of political leaders responsible for Tuesday's atrocities.
Pope Francis was probably looking for the international community to "exert some pressure" on the perpetrators, he added, and this could include the proportional use of force.
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Thursday night's missile strike showed a "judicious use of force," he said. Action was needed "to enforce international law and international treaties" on the use of chemical weapons.
While "one would prefer" that there be "international concerted action" instead of one world power – in this case, the U.S. – taking action, some variables could have prompted a unilateral action here, he explained.
First, the response to the use of chemical weapons – an attack on an airbase used to launch bombings in the region – needed to be swift and a surprise in order to be successful, he said, and an international action would have taken time to form – if it formed at all.
Also, he noted, the world was watching – in particular, North Korea and China. Amid North Korea's ballistic missile test launch this past week, the Trump administration showed that it may act "in a more decisive manner" when international interests are at stake, Capizzi said.
With Chinese president Xi Jingping visiting the White House this week, Thursday's attack could function as a message to China to hold North Korea in check.
However, there must be measures taken to prevent Thursday's attack from morphing into a greater military struggle in the region, Capizzi acknowledged, especially as the situation in Syria has grown more complex in recent years with the involvement of Russia.