Seeking Nonviolent Solutions in Syria

PRESSURE IS BUILDING for the United States to become militarily involved in the Syrian civil war. The result would be further bloodshed and destruction for the people of Syria, the worsening of an already grave regional security crisis, and U.S. involvement in another Middle East war.

The Obama administration has apparently decided to provide arms to the rebels. Sen. John McCain and others in Congress are calling for a no-fly zone and air strikes against Syrian government targets. The increased hard line comes in response to allegations that Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons, crossing the “red line” President Obama warned against—although reports have surfaced that rebel forces also may have used chemical weapons.

Concerns about the use of chemical weapons are serious, but they are not a justification for military action that could drag U.S. forces into the deadly civil conflict. Bombing strikes would not be sufficient to neutralize Syria’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons, and they could cause chemical explosions that would release the deadly toxins we seek to contain.

For a military operation to achieve results, it would have to be a large-scale undertaking. Creating a humanitarian safe zone or attempting to impose a no-fly zone would require a major commitment of allied forces and would lead to serious military confrontation with hostile Syrian forces.

Arming the Syrian rebels would not address the problem of chemical weapons and would increase the intensity of an already savage war that has killed more than 70,000 people and driven millions from their homes. Providing weapons to the rebels means giving military support to insurgent forces that include substantial al Qaeda-related factions. The administration claims that arms aid would only go to so-called moderate elements, but controlling how weapons are actually used is impossible in the midst of large-scale war. If the jihadist groups in Syria are the toughest fighters, as many reports suggest, they are likely to gain control of any weapons the U.S. sends. The U.S. could end up arming al Qaeda.

Instead of sending arms and considering greater military involvement, the administration should launch a major diplomatic initiative through the U.N. to address the claims of possible chemical weapons use and to seek a negotiated end to the war. If evidence of Syrian government use of chemical weapons is confirmed, the administration should work with key allies and members of the Security Council to apply pressure on the regime, perhaps leading to the adoption of targeted sanctions directed at those responsible for the command and control of these weapons. If Russia and China can be persuaded to support such measures, this would be a major diplomatic setback for Syria and would significantly isolate and weaken the Assad regime.

The administration should also work with Russia, Iran, and other states to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Moscow and Tehran have supported the Assad regime, which makes their support crucial to the chances for reaching a diplomatic agreement. Russia has called for direct talks between the rebels and the Syrian regime, which the rebels have rejected. The United States should use its leverage to pressure the opposition to participate in talks that can lead to a compromise solution and hopefully the creation of a new, more inclusive Syrian government.

After more than two years of war, the rebels have not been able to defeat Syrian government forces. In recent weeks they have lost ground militarily. Victory for the rebels seems highly unlikely, even if they receive additional military aid. Instead of adding to the carnage, the United States should use its leverage to try to bring an end to the slaughter.

David Cortright, a Sojourners contributing writer, is director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Image: Syria flag palm print, prapass /

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