One year after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s April 2011 crack down on civilian protests against his regime’s torture of students who had put up anti-government graffiti, the U.S. and the world are still figuring out what to do about it.
On March 21 the United Nations Security Council announced that it backed a six-point peace plan put forward by former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan. By March 27, Annan reported that al-Assad had accepted the cease-fire plan that will take effect April 10. But even as al-Assad met with Annan, reports of escalated crackdowns surfaced. Then on April 3 reports of military escalation in four major urban centers dashed hopes that al-Assad’s April 10 military withdrawal will actually take place.
And so the world waits for Tuesday. Then we will know what legitimate courses of action may come next. If al-Assad abides by the peace plan, then the world can exhale and allow peace to have its process. If not, then multiple questions step to the fore: Will NATO intervene with military force or will the multilateral organization simply continue to supply the opposition forces with military supplies? Will the UN Security Council be able to overcome Russia and China’s entrenched economic ties to and military support of Syria? Will the U.S. engage in unilateral military intervention as Sen. John McCain pressed for in his March 5 senate speech?
These are questions of international law and diplomacy, but they are fundamentally moral and spiritual questions as well.
As I consider the options I am haunted by two separate conflicts: America’s choices for engagement and the tolls those decisions took on millions of human lives.
We sat around a simple table, in a simple room, in a small Croatian town none of us had ever heard of i the summer of 2004.
On that day, in the first week of a month-long pilgrimage through Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, our evangelical delegation was hosted by the town council of Tenja (pronounced “Ten-ya”). A small agrarian town, Tenja is situated about 20 miles west of the Croatian/Serbian border. Shortly after Croatia declared its independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1990 Tenja was among the first Croatian towns to experience the wrath of former Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. This border town, which had previously enjoyed peaceful relations between Croats and Serbs quickly divided down ethnic lines. Croats fought for independence, while their Serb neighbors joined Milosevic’s army. What ensued was one year of brutal, unbridled ethnic conflict that targeted soldiers and civilians alike, engaged a program of systematic mass rape and destruction, and left in its wake landmines planted throughout Tenja’s farm fields to this day.
The town mayor and council members explained to our delegation how each was personally affected by the conflict that claimed more than 12,000 dead and missing Croatians in one year. They explained how they waited for someone—anyone—on the international stage to intervene and save them from a conflict we now know was the beginning of what would become the most deadly conflict in Europe since World War II. No one intervened—not NATO, not the UN Security Council—no one. The mayor of Tenja explained how he had hoped the United States would intervene, but we did not. And so, by January 1992 most of the residents of Tenja had lost fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, and neighbors.
The conflict ended when the international community finally did intervene in January 1992. After 15 attempts in six months, a UN sponsored cease-fire agreement finally worked. The European community finally recognized Croatia as a legitimate nation-state. And the UN Security Council finally adopted Resolution 743, which established the United Nations Protections Force (UNPROFOR) in the region to lay the groundwork for a peaceful political settlement between Croatia and Serbia.
I am haunted by Tenja.
I am also haunted by the memory of a more recent American intervention.
At 10:15 p.m. on March 20, 2003, President George W. Bush addressed the nation to announce that 45 minutes before, he had ordered the beginning of air strikes within Iraq’s borders and the beginning of the second Iraq war, a conflict our military dubbed “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
International legal scholars have argued for and against the legality and legitimacy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq—most notably, the July 2003 exchange between John Yoo, who argued in favor of the war, and Thomas M. Franck, who argued against the war, in the American Journal of International Law, Volume 97, Agora: Future Implication of the Iraq Conflict.
Yoo argued that the war was legal because it was waged within the same legal framework that covered the U.S. during the first Iraq War, customary law justified intervention without UN approval, and U.S. belief that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) justified pre-emptive action.
Franck argued that UN Charter article 2(4) prohibits any state from taking first strike against another state without the express consent of the UN Security Council, except in cases where there is a direct, imminent threat against the state. The UN Security Council did not consent to America’s invasion of Iraq and WMDs were never found. Diplomatic means were not exhausted before the declaration of war. There was no direct threat to the U.S. or our interests in Iraq, thus our nine-year Iraq War was in violation of international law
I agree with Franck. The war in Iraq was illegal, but this is not what haunts me most.
What haunts me most are the numbers mounted by this illegal war and the faces and lives they represent:
- 4,486 American soldiers lives lost
- 4,804 total Coalition military lives lost
- 16,623 Iraqi military and police lives lost
- 110,600 Iraqi civilian lives lost as a direct result of the war (through April 2009, Associated Press).
- Combined cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has now reached $800 billion
In America, it is a solemn event when even one soldier comes home in a body bag. Imagine the weight of grief and the enormous sense of loss the Iraqis must feel—110,600 civilian souls snuffed.
Now imagine how we could have used that $800 billion.
Perhaps we could have used it to build more or better schools. Perhaps we could have used it to improve America’s health care system. Perhaps we could have used it to invest in job development and education that helps America’s poor rise into the working class. Perhaps … if only …
Perhaps the most regrettable thought is that in the name of “freedom” our illegal war served to constrict, destroy, and eliminate hundreds of thousands images of God on earth.
The lessons I take from both Croatia and Iraq are these:
- Any action the U.S. takes to intervene in conflict waged within another nation-state’s borders must be with the express consent of the U.N. Security Council.
- Any action the U.S. takes to intervene in conflict waged within another nation-state’s borders must NOT be made with unilateral action. Multilateral action that utilizes the strength of institutions such as NATO, the Arab League, and the UN Security Council, must be full partners.Military action is always a last resort. Every possible means of diplomatic action must be taken before the threat of war is uttered.
War is not a slogan or a talking point. It is a mechanism of last resort within an international legal system that the United States helped to create. War always kills. It always destroys. It always diminishes capacity. It cannot build it. Ultimately, war threatens the image of God on earth. Thus talk of military intervention in Syria’s conflict must come only after all three conditions mentioned above are met. Then, perhaps it would be worth the cost.
Lisa Sharon Harper is the director of mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.
(Soilder's face, Aaron Amat/Shutterstock.com)