Alternatives to military intervention in Syria

In June the influential Center for New American Security (CNAS) issued a report that urges greater U.S. military involvement in Syria to defeat ISIS and bolster Syrian opposition groups. The report calls for more American bombing, the deployment of additional U.S. troops on the ground, the creation of so-called ‘no-bombing’ zones in rebel-held territory, and a range of other coercive military measures that would significantly increase the scale of U.S. involvement.

Also in June a group of more than 50 U.S. diplomats used the State Department’s ‘dissent channel’ to issue a public appeal for U.S. air strikes against the government of Syria, arguing that attacks against the Assad regime would help to achieve a diplomatic settlement.

Several of those advocating greater military involvement in Syria are senior advisers to Hilary Clinton, including former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, who chaired the CNAS task force. If Clinton wins the presidency she will face significant pressure to deepen American military intervention in Syria.

I agree that the United States should do more to try to end the war in Syria and reduce the threat from ISIS and violent extremist groups, but greater American military intervention is not the answer. The proposed plans for more bombing and troop deployments would create more war in the region not less. It would increase the risk of military confrontation with Russia, lead to more American casualties, and could escalate into another major U.S. land war in the Middle East.

Alternative approaches are available, and they need to be pursued vigorously to help resolve the crises in the region and isolate ISIS and violent extremist groups.

Rather than plunging more deeply into the war in Syria, the United States should:

  • place much greater emphasis on seeking diplomatic solutions, partnering with Russia and states in the region to revive and strengthen local ceasefires and create political solutions,
  • continue and intensify efforts to impose sanctions on ISIS and block the flow of foreign fighters into Syria,
  • support local groups in the region that are pursuing peacebuilding dialogue and nonviolent solutions,
  • increase humanitarian assistance and accept refugees fleeing the conflict.

Current diplomatic efforts under the auspices of the United Nations should be sustained and strengthened, despite the many setbacks to the process. The United States should partner directly with Russia, Iran, Turkey and other neighboring states to revive and strengthen local ceasefires and create a long-term plan for political transition and more inclusive governance in Syria. Iran should be invited to co-chair the diplomatic process and asked to use its extensive leverage with Syria and Iraq to facilitate diplomatic and political solutions.

UN Security Council Resolution 2253 adopted last December requires states to criminalize support for ISIS and take vigorous measures to prevent their nationals from traveling to fight with the terrorist group and its affiliates. Greater efforts are needed to implement these measures and stem the flow of foreign fighters into Syria.

Many local groups in Syria are utilizing nonviolent methods to oppose ISIS and pursue peacebuilding dialogues and reconciliation efforts. Maria Stephan of the U.S. Institute of Peace has proposed a range of options for using civil resistance to defeat ISIS. These efforts by Syrian women, youth and religious leaders need international support. They will become critically important when the fighting eventually diminishes and communities face the grueling challenge of rebuilding and learning to live together again.

The United States has been a leader in international humanitarian assistance for the migrants fleeing the fighting in Syria and Iraq. These efforts should be continued and expanded. Washington must also follow the lead of Germany in accepting a greater number of war refugees into the United States and providing assistance for local governments and religious and community groups that wish to house and support the refugees.

It is also necessary to support longer term efforts to resolve the underlying political grievances in Syria and Iraq that have driven so many people to pick up arms and resort to violent extremist methods. This will require more inclusive and accountable governance across the region and greater efforts to enhance economic and political opportunity for all.

If we want to prevent more war, we have to show that peace is the better way.

The folly of bombing

If bombing were an effective way of ending terrorism and violent extremism, Afghanistan and Iraq now would be oases of tranquility. Pakistan would be a peaceful paradise. Israel would be safe and free from the fear of terrorist attack.

Despite more than a decade of U.S. bombing and large scale military intervention, the Taliban controls large swaths of territory in Afghanistan, and ethnic militias and violent extremist groups dominate Iraq. Hundreds of U.S. drone strikes and bombardments by the Pakistani army have not pacified Waziristan. Thousands of Israeli strikes have not diminished Hamas’ grip on Gaza. Air strikes and military interventions in these cases have hardened local resistance and increased the flow of militant recruits.

In his September 10 address, President Obama compared his new policy of military involvement in Iraq and Syria to ongoing U.S. efforts in Yemen and Somalia. The President said that U.S. air strikes and the arming of local allies in these countries have been “successfully pursued.” But Somalia remains unstable and violent and without a central government. Yemen is torn by multiple insurgencies and in recent days has been experiencing armed rebellion in the capital. If this is success, why bother?

Einstein once said that insanity is the act of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Diplomacy Not More Arms Needed in Iraq and Syria

The capture of Mosul by militant Sunni extremist groups is a body blow to the Shia-dominated government of Iraq and marks a significant escalation of the sectarian war that is tearing apart the region. The Iraqi Army, which the United States created as an intended bulwark of security, has crumbled in the face of attacks by the increasingly powerful forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with U.S. weapons and equipment sent to bolster the Iraqi Army now falling into extremist hands.

In the United States, some on the right have used the occasion to criticize the Obama administration for not doing enough to bolster the Baghdad government and for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 (overlooking the fact that the President was elected on a pledge to do precisely that). On the left, critics blame the Bush administration’s 2003 U.S. invasion and emphasize its unintended consequences.

Debates about the past are important but do not address the problem of what can be done now to stem the spread of violence and instability. The United States and other external actors have very few options. Here are some considerations to keep in mind as the debate unfolds.

  • This is a large-scale regional war pitting Sunni and Shia political forces. It is centered in Syria and Iraq but also involves Lebanon and is supported by competing Saudi and Iranian interests. Any lasting solution has to be regional in nature and must address the political interests of all the major factions in an equitable and inclusive manner.
  • Some in Washington have reacted to the crisis by calling on President Obama to send even more arms and military equipment to Iraq, but Baghdad’s sectarian Shia-dominated forces are part of the problem not the solution. Pouring arms into the spreading cauldron of war risks exacerbating the crisis in Iraq.
  • Attempts by the U.S. or other major powers to intervene unilaterally or to impose external military solutions will likely backfire and inflame militant extremism. Security solutions will need to be multilateral in the context of negotiated political settlements.
  • This crisis increasingly poses threats to global security and requires a multilateral diplomatic response. The United States should work through the United Nations (and the Arab League if possible) to propose and support a major global diplomatic initiative. This will require returning to the Geneva process of attempting to find a political solution in Syria, but this time with Iran directly involved and the agenda broadened to include political alternatives in Iraq.

The chances of achieving diplomatic success are slim, but doing nothing is not a realistic option. A fully inclusive international diplomatic process should be attempted and is urgently needed now, before the fires of war and militancy spread further in the region.

Iran should be at the table

As I wrote the other day for the Christian Science Monitor, the decision to exclude Iran from the Montreux talks is a huge diplomatic mistake.

Tehran’s help could be crucial in forging a coordinated diplomatic strategy for resolving the crisis in Syria and enhancing regional security. As a major backer of the current regime, Iran has enormous potential leverage in Damascus.

Iran’s goal in neighboring Syria is to have a regime that is friendly to its interests and that protects the Alewite community. But this does not mean Iranian officials are wedded to the discredited Assad regime. They might be willing to consider an alternative arrangement if it addresses their needs.

It was unwise for the U.S. to insist that Iran publicly commit to replacing Assad before the talks begin. Insisting on preconditions for negotiations is not the way to successful diplomacy.

Tehran shares Washington’s goal of ending a war that is causing widespread instability and violence in the region. Iran also shares the goal of ending the growing threat of Al Qaida-based militancy in Syria.

By inviting Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia to the negotiations but excluding Shia-majority Iran the United States is taking sides in a regional ethnic power struggle. This could exacerbate the deepening Sunni-Shia divide and further undermine security in the region.

Washington would do better to adopt a more even-handed strategy that seeks to balance differing interests and works toward more inclusive power sharing in Syria and across the region.

Are military threats necessary for diplomacy?

Leaders in Washington claim that the threat of military force was necessary to achieve the agreement with Russia on securing and dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons. If the lesson drawn from this is that military threats work, the obvious conclusion is to use more of the same—which is why some in Washington are calling for a Security Council resolution that includes a threat to use force.

There is no doubt that Obama’s threat to bomb Syria gave urgency to the pursuit of a diplomatic solution, but this does not mean that military threats were necessary in this case or are the best way to reach diplomatic agreement or achieve disarmament. Discussions with Russia on a joint plan to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons began more than a year ago. A deal could have been reached months earlier if interest in a negotiated solution had been greater.

According to a report in USA Today, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin first discussed the idea of a diplomatic plan to secure Syria’s chemical weapons in June 2012 while attending the economic summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov followed up on the idea during meetings in Moscow this spring and again in Washington in early August. Diplomacy might have worked without the threat of force if Washington had taken advantage of the opportunity to work with Moscow.

Many U.S. officials believe that military threats are necessary generally for the success of diplomacy, but the evidence suggests otherwise. As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, two major studies on the subject show that threat-based diplomacy works only about 30 per cent of the time.

The United Nations has an impressive record of achieving diplomatic agreement in many cases over the decades without threatening the use of force. Most examples of successful disarmament have occurred without military threats.

Russia’s proposal for Syria: A win-win solution?

If implemented the Russian proposal for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to international monitors for destruction offers the possibility a win-win solution. Syria is pressured into giving up its chemical weapons, and the international norm against the use of these weapons is strengthened. The Obama administration avoids the prospects of political defeat at home and the risks of renewed military intervention in the Middle East.

France is introducing a resolution at the UN Security Council to implement the Russian proposal and mobilize international action against the chemical attacks. The French resolution demands that Syria disclose its chemical stockpiles and place them under international control. It also condemns the August 21 massacre and calls for International Criminal Court action against those responsible.

The implications of the latest developments are many:

  • Threat-based diplomacy can be effective. There is no doubt that Obama’s threat of military attack, and the worldwide effort to prevent that action, played a key role in catalyzing Russia’s involvement and pressuring Syria to consider the deal.
  • U.S. domestic political opposition to military strikes limited the administration’s options, forced a time-consuming debate that allowed time for diplomatic maneuvering, and increased the President’s receptivity to non-military solutions.
  • The United States can benefit from working with Russia in seeking diplomatic solutions to difficult international security challenges.
  • If the Syrian chemical weapons plan is implemented it could open the door for diplomacy to end the war, with the U.S. and Russia renewing their cooperation in pushing for a ceasefire and a negotiated solution.
  • The Syria deal could provide an opening for diplomatic cooperation with Iran. Tehran has announced its support for the Russian proposal and could be asked to participate in assuring its implementation. This could pave the way for negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

Strikes on Syria: Turning Criminals into Victims?

Among the many negative consequences of the proposed American military intervention in Syria is the diversion of attention away from the crimes committed by Syrian military forces toward the actions being planned by the United States. The world’s television screens are filled with images of the debate about an American strike, not the consequences of the chemical massacre committed by the Syrian army. The main story line is the military action planned by Obama – not the crimes committed by Assad.

The bombing of Syria risks turning Assad and his supporters into victims rather than perpetrators. As the missiles strike, media images will show civilians killed by American weapons rather than those who died in the chemical attacks. The focus will be on U.S. policy rather than the continuing crimes of the Assad regime.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Obama and his advisers still have time to turn away from their ill-advised military plan toward a more effective multilateral strategy that would have broad international support. The alternative approach I have proposed would apply pressure against those responsible for the chemical attacks while intensifying diplomatic efforts to end the war. It would focus attention where it belongs, on prohibiting chemical weapons and ending the war, rather than on American military intervention.

There Are Alternatives

Yes, there must be consequences for those who ordered the chemical weapons massacre in Syria, but this is not an argument for military strikes. Robust options are available for mobilizing international pressure against the Assad regime and seeking an end to the killing. The United States should:

Provide the evidence

  • Give a detailed report to the UN Security Council and the world media of the evidence it claims to possess identifying the Syrian political and military leaders responsible for the chemical attacks; clarify the inconsistencies in the information that has been presented to date,
  • Support continued and more thorough investigation by UN inspectors to develop further evidence of precisely what happened and who was responsible for the massacre.

Apply international pressure

  • Seek approval of resolutions at the UN Security Council, the Arab League and other international bodies condemning the chemical massacre as a war crime and a crime against humanity,
  • Urge the UN Security Council to impose targeted sanctions against those who are found to be responsible for the massacre,
  • Urge the Security Council to refer the Syrian chemical attacks to the International Criminal Court with an expedited mandate for gaining further criminal evidence and issuing indictments against those responsible,
  • Apply additional U.S. sanctions against the Assad regime, cancelling all business dealings and barring from U.S. markets any governments or firms that enable or finance Syrian government atrocities,
  • Work with European governments and other countries to urge the imposition of similar sanctions.

Pursue diplomatic options

  • Engage with Russia and Iran to seek their support in a coordinated strategy to take international legal action against those responsible for the chemical massacre and to encourage a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war,
  • Renew and intensify pressure on the Syrian government and rebel forces to participate in the proposed Geneva II peace negotiations, toward the goal of reaching a ceasefire and agreement for dividing power in Syria,
  • Increase humanitarian aid to provide support for the growing number of refugees from Syria.

The Closing Window of Opportunity in Egypt

The Egyptian revolution is being crushed and I grieve for what is being lost. That glorious unarmed uprising that so inspired the world is now being gunned down by the armed forces. I grieve especially for the people of Egypt and the dangers that lie ahead unless something is to done to save the day.

The army’s massacre of dozens of people on July 28 was an unspeakable crime, equivalent to the horrors of the Mubarak era. It will go down in Egypt’s history as a day of infamy. I fear it could be one of those cruel turning points in history, when a gathering tide of lawlessness and instability burst into violence. The sense of foreboding is palpable.

The military’s brutality and lies are a grave menace to Egypt’s future. They make the incompetence and authoritarianism of the Morsi government seem mild by comparison. The Muslim Brothers are the main target of attack now, but all of free Egypt is in jeopardy.

Mohammed El Baradei and other liberals have finally criticized the military, but they must go further. I can imagine what Gandhi would say to them. Resign your posts. No one should continue to serve the military regime or follow any of their directives. Mass civil disobedience is the only solution in this emergency, not only in the streets but in pervasive refusal to accept military authority.

The military has gone beyond acceptable moral and legal bounds and must be forced to yield power. The Obama administration should work with the Arab League through the United Nations to support the creation of a broadly representative independent civilian authority in Egypt that guarantees the participation of all social forces, including the Brotherhood. Secular and liberal forces must work with the Brothers and the Salafists to establish an interim government and decide a road map to the future.

The international community should provide help to get such a political process started and must insist that the military turn over authority as soon as it is established. If the army refuses to yield power all U.S. and international assistance for the generals should cease.

Those who say the Muslim Brothers are not prepared or inclined for war do not understand the rage boiling over from the army’s repression. The deadly descending spiral of violence-begetting-violence is beginning, and may soon get out of hand as it did in Syria. Until now the Brothers have been very reluctant to use force, but there is likely a limit to their endurance, as for all people. Arms and materials for making bombs are readily available in the region.

The time to act is now, before it is too late.

On the Precipice in Syria?

Syria has crossed Obama’s ‘red line’ in using chemical weapons, and the U.S. government is headed across the Rubicon of deeper military involvement.

There seems little doubt from the accumulating evidence, collected primarily by French and British investigators, that some chemical weapons have been used in Syria’s increasingly savage civil war. Syrian government forces control these weapons and are probably responsible for using them, but hard evidence is still lacking. A background analysis in Monday’s New York Times examines the continuing cloud of uncertainty about who used these weapons.

Thursday’s White House statement bases its conclusions primarily on “reporting.” It states that only “small-scale” use has occurred and acknowledges the absence of forensic evidence. Especially significant is this statement: the evidence “does not tell us how or where individuals were exposed or who was responsible for the dissemination.” That’s an extraordinary admission of the lack of firm evidence. Hardly the basis for becoming militarily involved.

The White House statement says that the U.S. will expand assistance to the Supreme Military Council, but it does not mention sending weapons. Administration spokespersons have said the administration will begin supplying small arms and ammunition, but no timetable has been given. The delivery of heavier weapons would require the presence of U.S. military personnel and contractors, which the White House remains reluctant to consider.

The White House says it will present its evidence to the international community. That’s the right step to take. The administration should bring whatever evidence it has to the Security Council and gain international support for taking appropriate action against those responsible.

The arguments against arming the rebels remain strong, as I write in my recent op ed in the Christian Science Monitor. Sending more weapons will intensify the war and increase the risk of the U.S. being dragged into another Middle East war. The administration should focus on pursuing a ceasefire and negotiated peace settlement. Rather than delivering weapons the United States should send more urgently needed humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people.