Now that the president has received support for proposed military strikes in Syria from key Congressional leaders, the likelihood of an attack seems more likely. Yet rather than deterring behavior or bringing an end to the violence that has already cost more than 100,000 lives, U.S. military strikes threaten to widen the vicious civil war in Syria. An attack would undermine prospects for a just negotiated settlement and damage efforts to ensure authentic accountability.
There are other ways the United States can intervene to interrupt the hostilities. Accountability is primarily about increasing understanding and addressing resulting harms to relationships, encouraging empathy for those who suffered and responsibility, and ensuring restitution. This is not a choice between military action and “doing nothing,” a framework that again is being used to legitimate violence.
Congress and the president should consider the following options:
1) Diplomatic Focus: Now more than ever is it time to re-invigorate plans for a peace conference. Because previous “red-lines” have been crossed, we must signal to the world our willingness to lead the effort for a peace conference toward both ending the violence and creating effective accountability. Both Russia and Iran have condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria; there is an opportunity to work closely with these governments, as well as the UN. This is what human dignity and the true “responsibilities of nations” looks like.
I particularly encourage negotiations with Assad without setting preconditions, such as political prisoner releases or Assad agreeing to step down ahead of time. These objectives can still occur, but there is too much death and suffering from over 2 million refugees, mostly women and children, to continue the status quo of violent retaliation and to stall on negotiations. Key civil society nonviolent actors in Syria and religious communities should be included in the negotiations. Determining broader accountability mechanisms for all violence and war crimes should be included as part of this process.
2) Resist the temptation of fueling the fire with more violence: In the spirit of Martin Luther King on this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and after the model of Antoinette Tuff, we must seek to interrupt hostility. I share the president's desire to prevent future use of chemical weapons by whoever used them. Yet the notion that a military strike as a form of punishment will “deter behavior” much less help the current crisis is shortsighted at best, but more likely gravely mistaken and extremely dangerous. It will only increase the hostility, the anger, the death and the violence. Assad will not “learn” a lesson this way. He will only harden and increase hostilities. The armed resistance to Assad will also take any military strike by the United States as a sign to increase hostilities. Further, Iran, Israel and even Russia would likely increase their participation in the hostilities. Research shows that foreign military interventions for rebel groups often lead to about a 40% increase by the government in civilian deaths.
3) Explore Restorative Justice Responses: The president said the following in his recent MLK Dedication speech:
But he (MLK) also understood that to bring about true and lasting change, there must be the possibility of reconciliation; that any social movement has to channel this tension through the spirit of love and mutuality…He would call on us to assume the best in each other rather than the worst, and challenge one another in ways that ultimately heal rather than wound.
In accord with this wisdom, I suggest that the way to actually “send a message” about chemical weapons and violence is to set up processes of accountability characterized by mutual understanding and empathy for those who suffered, and to develop plans for restitution, protection and healing. Regarding the most recent atrocity and UN investigation, what if we set up initial dialogue or restorative circles with trained facilitators? Participants could include family members of those killed, members of the Assad government, of the armed resistance and of local community organizers. Out of such circles plans for healing and broader accountability might be developed. These might take place outside of Syria if need be, but could gradually expand to include more and more stakeholders. The impact on the social conditions would make ceasefire and negotiations more likely and more just. These small-scale but focused efforts today would provide the groundwork for larger-scale efforts after the violence subsides. Groups such as Catholic Relief Services and Cure Violence are already engaged in similar initiatives with Syrians. The International Criminal Court may also be a useful resource, when enhanced by restorative justice measures.
4) Disrupt the Supply of Arms: Press Saudi, Qatar and Turkey to participate in drawing down their supply of weapons to the armed resistance. This will help collaboration with Russia and Iran to simultaneously draw down arms provisions to Assad. If Russia does not cooperate, it may be time to withdraw some economic cooperation. Empirical research is clear that violent revolution not only cultivates other habits of violence and is less effective in achieving short-term political goals, but also very rarely leads to a durable democracy. At this stage in the conflict, it is a false premise to think that by increasing such violence to “punish,” “send a message” or even to gain military equity or advantage, that negotiations will likely lead to a “government that respects the dignity of its people” or a durable democracy, much less a just peace.
5) Utilize Peace Forces: Support deploying unarmed civilian peacekeeping forces to areas with significant number of Syrians committed to peace. These peace forces might be the UN, NGO’s, such as the Nonviolent Peaceforce, or regional actors. These will help shift the dynamic in a concrete way on the ground. A unique form of power could be unleashed if a group of prominent religious leaders across key traditions went to Syria as a peace force to engage the armed actors and defuse the hostilities. Prof. Tobias Winright gives the example of Mother Teresa's entry into Lebanon in 1982 during hostilities to rescue disabled Muslim children to illustrate an example of such power. Pope Francis' clear resistance to violence and call for a day of prayer and fasting for Syria on September 7th may be stimulating such power as well.
Tragedy presents us with another opportunity to become people who transform conflict with courage and love. Let's engage the adventure and become such people.
Eli S. McCarthy is a professor at Georgetown University and director of Justice and Peace for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.