Posted by Joshua on Thursday, September 5th, 2013
US President Barak Obama will ask Congress to support a military response to the horrific killing of civilians in Syria last week, an apparent chemical weapons attack that most likely originated with the Assad regime in Damascus. Obama drew a red line months ago, warning Bashar al-Assad that any use of weapons of mass destruction would evoke an American response.
Having recently spent more than five months in the country talking with Sunnis, Alawites, and Christians who were part of an opposition to their autocratic regime, as well as with human rights proponents with creative ideas for changing the face of their government and society, I want to suggest that there are other, more effective, solutions than the military option that Obama proposes. Obama’s red lines will do nothing to resolve the unspeakable suffering of millions of Syrians, more than a hundred thousand of whom have died over the course of this bloody conflict. The map of Syria is already strewn with red lines that threaten to destroy the state and have already shattered the lives of most of the people within it.
It is not at all clear yet who set off the chemical attack outside Damascus last week, but it is well known that all parties to this conflict have engaged in the indiscriminate killing of combatants and non-combatants alike. These are the war crimes that matter, all of them outlawed at the close of World War II when it became clear that civilians had suffered unspeakable crimes. Obama’s proposed intervention would do nothing to end these crimes; rather it would encourage further warfare, further rivers of blood. The US President has acknowledged that the blood to be spilled has no further goal: he does not aspire to change the balance in this ongoing warfare, intends no resolution of the bloodshed, and expects no larger resolution from the projected strike. An American strike will only escalate an already horrific conflict, not only creating more hardship, death and destruction, but moving all the countries of the Middle East closer to widespread regional conflagration.
This imminent flood of new red lines reflects the false dichotomies intrinsic to US foreign policy in the Middle East. The US toolbox has been so limited that it has suggested only three alternatives since the CIA involvement in Iran exactly sixty years ago: regime change by internal subversion, military engagement, or complete inaction. For more than half a century, US interventions have fanned the flames of civil conflict (from Iran in 1953 to Iraq 2003), shored up unpopular regimes (from 1958 Lebanon to Mubarak’s Egypt to 2013 Bahrain), and destroyed civilian lives through death or displacement (Iraq and Afghanistan). The false dichotomies produced by our existing tool box to date have resulted in nothing but tragedy, exacerbating tensions and making resolutions infinitely more difficult.
There are more than two options in Syria today. Inactivity has been unsuccessful in staunching the flow of blood; airstrikes will only increase it. Instead of the false choice we have been offered between doing nothing and engaging in deadly force, the United States could take the lead in beginning to restore Syria to Syrian control, engaging in the kind of negotiations that could lead back to what former president Woodrow Wilson insisted on: the consent of the governed.
Instead of creating more rivers of blood, the Obama administration has a remarkable opportunity right now, at a pivotal moment. In the face of a horrific ongoing war in one of the most important countries of the Middle East, they could choose to imagine a long-term resolution. All, including President Obama, have recognized that the only solution to the situation will be a political settlement. The Nobel Peace Prize-winner could begin negotiations toward actually making peace.
Negotiations could begin this week, with an effort to bring to the negotiating table Syrians of all faiths and classes. Today’s “sides” have become entrenched in large part with the assistance of foreign fighters and foreign military aid, whose interests are in no way identical to the goals of the Syrian population. Military “solutions” would only reinforce the participation of these regional players whose participation does not aid Syrians in any way. Local groups are far too under-resourced to be able to compete in an increasingly militarized conflict. More militarization can only further undermine their voices. By demanding an international conference that would include ONLY Syrian participants, and include representatives of ALL Syrian interest groups, the US could begin the demilitarization and embark on the creation of a new consensus among diverse Syrians ready for an end to their overwhelming suffering. Needless to say, the current regime, despite its humanitarian abuses, must be included in those negotiations.
At the same time, this project would have to be accompanied by talks with neighboring countries who have cynically tied their interests to the blood of Syrians. There might be no better time for the Obama administration to begin talks with the new Iranian government, which has made quite clear its desire to engage in diplomacy from its first days. While pundits have disagreed on the response of the new Iranian regime to an American military strike, it is clear that the situation in Syria offers the US an opportunity to find a way to work with an important regional power whose interests seem increasingly compatible with our own. Iran and its allies (including Hizbullah) could be induced to end weapons deliveries to the Syrian regime, while the US must rein in our “allies” in the region (especially the Saudis) to end its export of foreign fighters and cease its deliveries of arms to the “rebels.”
A military solution cannot enhance American credibility. Our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did nothing to create “credibility,” while our drone strikes have further eroded any respect in the region. Cruise missiles will get Syrians no closer to the peace they so desperately need. At the same time, US military strikes put the US in a state of war that will compromise American interests abroad and render all of our installations legitimate targets for the Syrian regime. Most importantly for Syria’s children, military escalation serves to marginalize the groups within Syria who have long been working for peaceful change. It works to the advantage only of armed fighters, whose goal is a victory for their own side at whatever cost.
If President Obama wants to develop credibility in the region, he must act like the statesman he purports to be. He has said that he does not intend for this intervention to shift the balance of power or change the outcome of the conflict. But the outcome must be changed. Right now, the outcome has been rampant death, destruction and displacement, and the promise of more of the same indefinitely. History shows in tragic clarity that US military strikes have never resolved Middle East conflicts. The “credibility” of the United States in the region–and the survival of Syria’s children– lies in altering this trajectory, a solution that can be achieved only through political and diplomatic means.
* Sarah Shields is Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor in the History Department at the University of North Carolina. Her new book, Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve of World War II (Oxford University Press, 2011) is a social and diplomatic history of the contest between France and Turkey over the Sanjak of Alexandretta (1936–1940). She is currently researching the long-term impact of the League of Nations on the Middle East.