30 December 2013, The Tablet

Tony Blair to address Vatican summit pushing for Syria ceasefire

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair will address a Vatican conference aimed at promoting a ceasefire in Syria, the protection of the nation’s imperilled Christians and a transitional and unified Government.

The 13 January conference organised by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is entitled "Syria: With a death toll of 126,000 and 300,000 orphans in 36 months of war, can we remain indifferent?"

Speakers include Tony Blair, founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and official envoy of the EU, UN, US, and Russia on the Middle East; former Egyptian Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei; US economist and adviser Jeffrey Sachs; and experts in interfaith dialogue, the Middle East, and Russian diplomacy.

A booklet issued by the pontifical academy about the conference charged that US calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign "put the US in effective opposition” to attempts by the UN in early 2012 to broker talks between the regime and the rebels.

"Russia argued that America's insistence on Assad's immediate departure was an impediment to peace. In this, perhaps Russia was right," it said.

The booklet also credited Russian President Vladimir Putin with convincing US President Barack Obama to not carry out planned military strikes on Syria in September in response to chemical weapons attacks against civilians thought to have been carried out by forces loyal to Assad, the US-based agency CNS reported.

However the booklet noted that while Russia backed UN peace initiatives, it along with Iran, also, “supplied more and more sophisticated weapons to the regime" while the US and other nations financed the rebels.

The Vatican’s conference will come ahead of peace talks at the UN in Geneva set for 22 January between the Syrian government and opposition forces.

This weekend a delegation from Damascus delivered a private message to Pope Francis from President al-Assad.

A delegation of Syrian ministers travelled to Rome and met the Vatican Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States.

According to a statement from the Vatican spokesman, the message … explained the position of the Syrian Government”.

The Vatican declined to reveal the contents of the President’s letter. But according to Sana, Syria's state-run news agency, the message set out the Assad regime's position ahead of the Geneva talks. Sana reported that Assad’s Government was willing to take part in the talks but that countries supporting rebel groups would have to stop.

Saudi Arabia supports rebel groups and has insisted that President Assad must be removed.

"The message also highlighted that stopping terrorism requires having the countries which are involved in supporting the armed terrorist groups stop providing any sort of military, logistic or training support, noting that this support was provided by some of Syria's neighbours and other known countries in the Middle East and abroad," Sana reported.

According to the Sana report, Assad’s message stressed that a solution to the Syrian conflict would only be achieved "without foreign intervention".

This version of the message could not be independently confirmed, The Guardian reported.

The Pope has repeatedly called for peace in Syria, most notably in September as US politicians prepared to vote on military intervention to topple Assad, a proposal British MPs had already rejected.

Pope Francis called all Catholics, “fellow Christians, followers of other religions and all men of good will” to pray and fast for peace on 7 September. He also sent Vladimir Putin, as the host leader of the G20 summit in St Petersburg, a letter implicitly expressing his opposition to military intervention, which was then being considered by the Obama administration but was abandoned soon after.

The Syrian delegation consisted of Joseph Sweid, Minister of State, and Hussam Eddin Aala, who is both Syria’s ambassador to the Holy See and the Assistant Minister and Director for Europe of Syria’s foreign ministry.

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