Syria Needs Real Help, Not American Bombs

There are ways for the U.S. to engage constructively in Syria; bombing isn't one of them.

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Syrian army soldiers are seen deployed in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus on Aug. 24, 2013.
Syrian army soldiers are seen deployed in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus on Aug. 24, 2013.

If the United States was genuinely interested in preventing an escalation of violent conflict in Syria, we would impatiently pursue all preventive mechanisms available to us – from international law to international diplomacy to international weapons inspection – before adding more violence (e.g. Tomahawk Missiles) to an already combustible situation. 

By all accounts this week, we're not interested in prevention because we're not pursuing it. Before we invade, as it sounds like the White House is itching to do by Thursday at the earliest, we must do due diligence in de-escalating, not escalating, violence in Syria. This is how to do it:

First, we should invite the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as well as stakeholders like Turkey, Iran and Hezbollah, for continued talks with Russia as part of the stalled Geneva II peace process. In recent months, we've primarily engaged Russia on the Geneva peace talks, a country that has some leverage over Syria, but an insufficient amount if we want to see Syrian President Bashar Assad act differently. That's not enough. We have other potential allies at the ready.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

This week, the Arab League called for U.N. action (not the U.S., mind you), so it's clearly invested in the outcome. Let's involve it further on preventive approaches, rather than cheaply courting the League for clearance for invasion (as we did with it on Libya). Even Israeli President Shimon Peres recommended that the Arab League assist in a transitional governance structure in Syria, one of the most helpful comments coming out of Israel in recent weeks. Peres noted that Western engagement was out of touch with realities on the ground, saying that "foreigners will not understand what is going on in Syria."  How true.

Second, if the diplomatic process doesn't work (remember we've never exhausted this route, with all stakeholders involved) and if Assad doesn't come to the table, we could involve the International Criminal Court and call for an indictment on war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

The U.N. Human Rights Council high commissioner has called for something similar in the past and we've got a legal precedent for similar ICC indictments in Sudan, with President Omar Bashir, and in Kenya, with President Uhuru Kenyatta, among others. This would help build consensus among the actual international community, not just France, the U.K. and the U.S. (a misnomer used on too many occasions). Syria is a signatory to the Treaty of Rome, which established the International Criminal Court, so it has some obligations here. We should exploit them.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Third, we should allow U.N. inspectors the space and time necessary to do their job, something we failed to do in Iraq and something we're failing to do in Syria. In fact, the U.S. was pressuring U.N. inspectors to abort their mission, which appeared to be a ploy to pave the way for early attacks (lest the U.S. inadvertently kill U.N. employees in the Damascus suburb). It's shocking that Secretary of State John Kerry can declare with utter certainty a scientific finding before the weapons experts actually survey the site. This is when we need more active involvement by the U.N., not less, to inspect everything from chemical weapons use to arms flows and arms trafficking, as the head of my organization, Diane Randall, mentioned in a letter to President Barack Obama on Friday.

Thankfully, there are still a few sane voices in Washington.  Whether it is Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, who said last week that military intervention was ill-advised, or Sens Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., who, this week, are cautioning military intervention without Congressional approval, or Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Texas, whose legislation would prohibit military aid to Syria. 

We've been here before, the haste that comes with invasion. The White House (of every political stripe) inevitably makes the intervention look essential and urgent. We saw this on Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and more. And yet, we're leaving these countries no better off. This liberation language isn't bearing fruit. Just observe the continued escalating violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the instability in Libya and Yemen, the insecurity in Somalia and Pakistan. Our approach is all wrong.  

[Weigh in: Should the United States Intervene in Syria?]

If we wanted to win over the hearts and minds of Syrians, we should've taken a starkly different tack, one that helps not hurts, builds not bombs, installs not incinerates. When I was in Syria, around the same time that U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey was recalled (a disappointing move of disengagement, although the ambassador wasn't actively involved in building better ties there anyway), that's what the Japanese were doing: helping the country with economic development. That's the tie that binds - not American bluster. 

Going forward, as my organization urged the Senate and the House, this week, to take action to reassert Congress's oversight role and appeal to cooler heads, lest the White House proceed apace with an invasion, we must push pause on our propensity to invade. We need the Hill to hear this call and act quickly, before Tomahawk missiles once again invade another Muslim country.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

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