Syria

Our message to Congress on Syria

We are on Capitol Hill this week urging members of Congress to vote against authorizing force in Syria. In our first day, we’ve already visited dozens of offices, and most people we talk to are undecided and still gathering information to inform their decisions.

Since a lot of people have asked me for resources and ideas on nonmilitary alternatives to the crisis, I wanted to share the talking points we are distributing to congressional offices outlining reasons to oppose a military strike and what nonmilitary alternatives could look like.

The Unintended Consequences of Military Force in Syria

&  Effective Non-Military Alternatives

Peace Action West urges a “no” vote on the Syria AUMF

 There is little evidence that strikes can “degrade and deter” Assad’s future use of chemical weapons. Strikes could instead lead to use of chemical weapons in reprisals.

Military planners say there is slim evidence that the current plan can accomplish its stated goals.[1] Strikes on chemical weapons stockpiles could kill civilians or disperse the weapons and therefore may have been ruled out. Attacks on command, control and delivery systems can’t stop Assad from fighting on. Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold said about Syria plans: “There’s a broad naïveté in the political class about America’s obligations in foreign policy issues, and scary simplicity about the effects that employing American military power can achieve.”[2]

Military strikes leading to chemical weapons reprisals by the Assad regime could kill thousands. As Marine Lt. Col. Gordon Miller, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, warned “If President Assad were to absorb the strikes and use chemical weapons again, this would be a significant blow to the United States’ credibility and it would be compelled to escalate the assault on Syria to achieve the original objectives.”[3]

A political solution in Syria is our ultimate goal. Military strikes make this harder.

President Obama has said that a political solution is the longer-term goal in Syria.[4] Strikes are likely to harden the positions of the Assad regime and other Syrian political factions, making negotiation much more difficult.[5] UN Chief Ban warns of “tragic consequences”: increasing sectarian violence and a worsening humanitarian crisis.[6] Unilateral war will sow division with critical players needed for a political solution (e.g. Russia, Iran, the Arab League, and the U.S.).

Unilateral military strikes that violate international law can’t “enforce norms on chemical weapons”.  A “do what I say not what I do” foreign policy harms US credibility.

The most fundamental international norm regarding political violence is the prohibition against the use of force by countries not acting in immediate self-defense or without UN approval.[7]  While some argue that there are times when the U.S. has to engage in wars that are “illegal but legitimate”[8], the idea of enforcing one norm through an illegal action that violates an even more fundamental norm borders on the absurd. President Obama and Secretary Kerry both ran for president trumpeting their opposition to the unilateral approach of the George W. Bush era. Unilateral action could now erode the international goodwill the U.S. has rebuilt. If the war goes badly, U.S. credibility could be damaged far more seriously than if we avoid military action.

The norm against chemical weapons use can be enforced through nonmilitary means.

Opposition to military strikes DOES NOT equal “doing nothing.” The Ghouta attacks – and the threat of war – have galvanized world attention. When the UN inspectors’ report comes back, pressure will build at the UN.[9] The Russian and Chinese veto is not simply an unalterable fact of nature which must be accepted,” said Mark Lynch in Foreign Policy earlier this year. China has reversed itself before with UN action on Sudan and Libya.[10] Former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft says Russia remains part of a solution.[11] If the Security Council fails to act, one can to go to the General Assembly under the UN’s Uniting for Peace rule.[12] The UN could demand that Syria join the Chemical Weapons Convention. The UN could enforce an arms embargo, call for a ceasefire, or use targeted economic sanctions.[13]

An international humanitarian offensive saves far more lives with far less risk.

While military attacks might accomplish little more than sending a cruise-missile-diplomacy message to Assad, many of the seven million refugees and displaced persons will suffer without food, clean water, and medical care. While the U.S. has contributed, only about 50% an earlier global goal for aid has been met.[14] As the crisis grows that original goal is nowhere near enough.

  • Current international plans for humanitarian response are underfunded and not getting the diplomatic focus they need. Plans for military action have distracted the international community from addressing the humanitarian crisis.
  • A massive increase in funding by the U.S., Europe, and other countries is needed. This should not be just pledges as it sometimes has been but cash that can be used. [15] While the U.S. budget is strained, if the U.S. is willing to spend money on a dubious military attack, it should be willing to spend on effective humanitarian aid.
  • International assistance is needed to rebuild basic services like schools, hospitals, water and sanitation services both in Syria and in neighboring areas.
  • Diplomacy is needed to ensure access to aid and medical care across borders and military lines. U.S. military strikes could disrupt humanitarian access.
  • Mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure humanitarian aid for civilians is distributed impartially to government controlled and rebel held areas.
  • Bureaucratic barriers to the delivery of aid such as customs rules should be removed.

Now is the time to leverage increased urgency to craft a Syrian political settlement.

Everyone agrees there will be no end to the civil war in Syria without a negotiated political solution. “Limited strikes” can’t help craft a political solution but do endanger hopes for a settlement. It’s surely an uphill battle, but the U.S. should use the urgency of the moment to focus on diplomacy.  The UN and the Arab League are intensifying efforts to bring parties to the Geneva II peace conference this fall.[16] There are promising signs. Iran has harshly condemned the use of chemical weapons[17] and shown a willingness to help craft a solution.[18] China has said that those responsible for the chemical attacks in Syria must be held accountable.[19] Despite its mixed signals, even Russia has made positive statements about international action.[20]

Robust application of international criminal law is part of the solution.

Both the Assad regime and some factions within the Syrian rebel forces have committed serious human rights violations. The International Criminal Court could investigate war crimes. Some analysts believe that the threat of referral to the ICC could create pressure at the bargaining table on both Assad and rebel forces. Some support a so–called contingent referral.  In other words, the ICC would investigate if a binding peace agreement between parties is not reached.[21]


[13] Economic sanctions should be extremely targeted not to harm the long-suffering civilian populations.

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1 reply »

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your key points and rationale. It’s welcome and much appreciated!

    As tomorrow unfolds, I guess it will be come more clear whether or not the “surrender arsenal” option is going to gain traction.

    A Wall Street Journal article on the option reveals some lawmaker mistrust that is a disappointment (to me). (“This may be nothing more than a delaying tactic” – paraphrase).

    Also a surprise to me that “Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, an opponent of military intervention, offered U.N. oversight of a weapons handover, to France and the U.K., whose leaders—supporters of a strike…” (Shouldn’t the ‘oversight’ group be several more, and shouldn’t it include at least two quite neutral parties?)

    WSJ: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324549004579065524049187550.html