The Common Good

How We Halted Military Strikes in Syria — For the Moment

Two weeks ago, it seemed that any minute the United States would begin bombing Syria. On Aug. 27, NBC’s top headline ran: “Military Strikes on Syria ‘as Early as Thursday,’ U.S. officials say.”

U.S. and Syrian flags, PromesaArtStudio / Shutterstock.com
U.S. and Syrian flags, PromesaArtStudio / Shutterstock.com

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So our Quaker lobby did what all of us peace and security groups do when our country’s decision makers decide to bomb another country and we have long odds and little hope of success from stopping them: we flooded our network — including many of the inboxes of readers of this blog — with pleas to join us in writing, calling, and lobbying members of Congress and the Obama administration to stop this new war. 

The pressure worked to postpone U.S. war plans. The groundswell of grassroots opposition to this war persuaded President Obama to go to Congress before launching Tomahawk cruise missiles into Damascus. A vote was expected in days, and then it was delayed, as an unprecedented outpouring of public opposition from Americans of every political stripe pushed Congress to pursue alternatives to military force.  

Diplomacy Door Opens

The ‘bomb Syria now’ plans crashed and burned when the Russians proposed pressing on the Syrian government to secure its chemical weapons under international control for eventual destruction. The Syrians quickly agreed and sent in a request to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the use of chemical weapons and requiring their destruction in a certain amount of time.  

The U.S. and Russia have discussed these proposals before, but leaders on both sides have lacked the political will to push a deal through. This time, international opposition to a new war created the necessary political space to make diplomacy work. On the part of the United States, the Obama administration knew that they didn’t have the votes in Congress to authorize a new war or the public support to do so. 

The Door for Diplomacy Could Still Slam Shut

The threat of U.S. military intervention is far from over. Should the particular diplomatic option on the table not work out, the Obama administration and Congress could still push for a military attack. A bipartisan ‘gang of eight’ senators, including John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and other leading advocates of military intervention in Syria, are already working on a dangerous new proposal that would create a new 'red line' for Syria and automatically authorize military force if that 'red line' is crossed.

This ‘pre-authorization for war’ could sabotage a deal to secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile even before it begins. Increasing threats from Congress or the Obama administration could well undermine those among the political forces in Russia and the Assad regime that have shown some willingness in the last several days to move forward with this proposal. 

But even if this proposal is successful in disarming Syria’s chemical arms, a far more robust and comprehensive diplomatic effort must be pursued to help end Syria’s civil war. Every nation that has influence in Syria, even traditional enemies of the U.S., should be engaged to help de-escalate the violence, and come to the table for a crisis-ending political settlement.

What the U.S. Can Do to Help Save Lives in Syria

As Sojourners President Jim Wallis pointed out, “political solutions are required — beginning with ceasefires and careful diplomatic negotiations, which many, including Pope Francis, are now calling for.”    Indeed, from voices in the Pentagon to the Pope, the case has been made that only a political settlement can stop the violence in Syria. 

For more specific details on how to press for a negotiated political solution with all relevant stakeholders to the crisis — including Russia and Iran — see FCNL’s memo to Congress and factsheet on why U.S. military strikes would be so disastrous.

While a U.S. war against Syria appears to be off the table for the coming days and possibly weeks, it is crucial that your members of Congress keep hearing from you. Check out what stance your member of Congress took on Syria — if any — and call, email, or write a letter to the editor thanking Congress for not authorizing the use of military force against Syria, and urge them to publicly speak out against any effort to set redlines for diplomacy. They need to hear from you that diplomacy requires time, space, creativity, and it will take a sustained, comprehensive diplomatic effort, which includes Iran and all of the primary political stakeholders of Syria’s civil war in order to end the bloodshed. 

Below are just a few reasons to oppose authorization for military force in Syria.

1. More Dead Syrians, More Refugees: Civilians are almost certain to be injured or killed by missile strikes. Syria is one of the most densely populated countries in the Middle East — much more so than Libya, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Reports out of Syria indicate Assad’s military is being moved into some of the most densely populated areas within Syria. U.S. cruise missile strikes would not protect Syrian civilians — they would put Syrian civilian in even greater danger.     

2. More Obstacles for a Political Settlement: As the Obama administration has acknowledged, there is no military solution to the crisis in Syria — only a political one. General Martin Dempsey explained in his letter to Rep. Eliot Engel (D- N.Y.) that U.S. military force cannot resolve the underlying issues that are fueling this conflict. A successful negotiated settlement must involve all internal parties to the conflict, as well as the external backers that have helped fuel this conflict. 

3. More Support for Assad and Al Qaeda: U.S. intervention would play into the hands of the Syrian regime, triggering an outpouring of nationalist support for Assad among many Syrians who perceive the regime as their only protection from foreign military intervention. The same thing happened in 1983-84 following U.S. Navy air attacks on Syrian positions in Lebanon, and in 2008 after U.S. army commando raids in eastern Syria. Strikes could also strengthen al Qaeda’s presence in the region, by emboldening opposition groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which have avowed affiliations with al Qaeda.

4. More Chemical Weapons Risks:  Media reports indicate that the regime has been relocating its chemical weapons, increasing the risk that they would fall into the hands of extremist groups. It also increases the risk that U.S. missiles could inadvertently bomb chemical weapons stockpiles, threatening large numbers of civilians if these poisonous chemicals are released into the air. 

5. One More Costly, Disastrous War for the U.S. to Wage: This is yet another costly war with no exit strategy. For the U.S. to target Syria's chemical weapons alone, General Dempsey wrote, "would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers." The price tag could "average well over one billion dollars a month" — a staggering cost when compared with the fact that the U.S. has spent just over a billion dollars on humanitarian aid for the Syrian crisis in more than two years. If the Syrian regime retaliates by launching more attacks on Israel, Lebanon or other parts of the Middle East the U.S. would likely escalate in response, and commit itself to waging an open-ended, multi-billion war.

Kate Gould is Legislative Associate for Middle East Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Image: U.S. and Syrian flags, PromesaArtStudio / Shutterstock.com

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