I thought we should hit Assad hard, but Pope Francis has changed my mind

Francis made a powerful appeal for peace last Sunday (AP)

After watching the annihilation of ordinary people in Ghouta by poison gas, I was firmly in favour of military intervention in Syria. It has passed the point of no return, I thought. We have twiddled our thumbs for two years while Assad has continued to slay his citizens.

The civil war has caused the deaths of some 100,000 people. Of the millions of Syrian refugees, at least a million are children – and how many of them are orphans? Anything other than armed intervention struck me as passive support for Assad’s despotic rule.

But my thoughts on “the necessary military response” were interrupted by the Pope’s own intervention. Instead of calling for missiles to bring Assad to account, the Pope called on Mary, Queen of Peace, and asked for a day of prayer and fasting this coming Saturday, September 7. Instead of calling for arms to be sent to the rebels, the Pope has decried the pain caused by “the use of arms”. His most impassioned directive to international leaders was for, “encounter, dialogue and negotiation”.

At first, I was exasperated by the Pope’s words. Peace? It seemed so idealistic. The Pope’s claim that “war begets war” did not convince me. In the absence of aggressive military tactics, how would Assad be halted? I decided to learn more, with the aim of proving the Pope wrong. But in actual fact, I was the one proved wrong.

I discovered that some doubt remains as to whether it was definitely pro-Assad forces that employed chemical weapons as means of exterminating civilians on August 21. It is official US policy that Assad must be removed. But in the rush for a pretext to oust Assad, could they have misallocated blame for the massacre in Ghouta?

And even if it were undeniable that Assad was behind the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, it’s doubtful that missile strikes would dissuade him from further butchery. Assad has shown himself impervious to his people’s plight. Missile attacks might also give him a pretext to unite those who are sympathetic to him and who share his anti-western sentiment, increasing his standing.

Intrinsic to the decision of whether to strike is the question of whether to persevere in getting a UN resolution on Syria. Russia, Assad’s heavyweight pal, has blocked one. Blundering into Syria without a UN resolution could win us new adversaries and a backlash of incalculable destruction. It would make it ever more difficult to stop attacks from countries that are not always chummy with the West: if we don’t heed the UN, why should they?

With all this in mind, it’s very easy to despair and give up on any prospect of peace, military intervention or not. But in the midst of the shouts for war, the Pope’s voice rings out clear as a bell.

The Pope’s appeal for peace is not a fluffy platitude, but a plan of action where he is playing a part. His Holiness has taken the bull by the horns, and kick-started the right kind of negotiations by his letter to President Putin where he decries the uselessness of military action. Who could have predicted that our Pope had the guts and the astuteness to underscore to Putin that it is “one-sided interests” that tear the Middle East apart?

During these heady days, it will increasingly be the case that political leaders who itch for military intervention will be pitted against Pope Francis. Pope Francis’s letter to Putin called his attention to the devastation that military action has on the economic health of a country.

In response to Pope Francis’s sharp analysis of why war is wrong, political leaders will need proper answers ready for why they are not willing to give peace a better chance. Any waffle that the leaders try, will look foolish next to our Pope’s forthright and concise solutions.

Francis’s day of prayer and fasting on Saturday will become a globally recognised event that could rival the day that he became Pope. There will be an open event in St Peter’s Square from 7pm until midnight. These five hours will focus the world on strategies for a ceasefire, which may be achieved if our governments bring all warring parties to the table for talks – including Iran.

The Pope is enjoying a media celebration of his papacy. It may not last, as we know, but because it is happening now means his popularity will carry his call for peace to the ears of those who may not always be ready to listen. As a result of which, Pope Francis’s heroic call for peace may cause our political leaders to try many more strategies for peace, for which the world may be forever grateful.