What alternatives exist to U.S. war in Syria?

A protest against U.S. military intervention in Syria in New York City on September 10. (Flickr/Kenny Vena)

A protest against U.S. military intervention in Syria in New York City on September 10. (Flickr/Kenny Vena)

With the Obama administration forcefully making its case for the necessity of military intervention in Syria in recent weeks, the United States has found itself once again on the brink of yet another war in a predominantly Muslim country.

The administration’s plans for war have been repeatedly stalled, first by the British parliament, then by the U.S. Congress’ assertion that it vote on the matter, and finally by Assad agreeing to turn over his chemical weapons. In large part, public opinion and protests around the world drove these non-military developments. But, with the Obama administration clear that strikes are still on the table, many are still wondering what more can be done to bring the bloody conflict in Syria, which had taken more than 100,000 lives before the use of chemical weapons in August, to a speedy end.

To respond to the clear need for nonviolent options, Waging Nonviolence asked a wide range of eminent activists and thinkers: What non-military actions could help resolve the conflict in Syria, either from the perspective of the United States or the Syrian people?

Here are more than a half-dozen proposals for how diplomacy, organizing and nonviolent alternatives could be used to facilitate an end to the crisis.

“The choice is not war or nothing — we have other options:

  • We can call for a second UN weapons inspection team, to determine who was responsible for the chemical weapons attack.
  • We can recommend that whoever is found responsible be brought to justice at the International Criminal Court, understanding that timing of such indictments might require adjustment to take into account ceasefire negotiations in Syria.
  • The United States (maybe with Russia) can call for a meeting of the signers of the Convention Against Chemical Weapons to decide collectively how to respond.
  • Most important, we must urgently help end the war in Syria, starting with a ceasefire and arms embargo on all sides. Russia, Iran, and others must stop arming and funding the Syrian regime. Washington, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies must stop arming and funding the armed Syrian opposition. Washington may have to threaten the Saudis and Qataris that if they don’t stop, we will cancel all existing weapons contracts with them.”— Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

“Syrian civil society must decide Syria’s future. Unarmed, well-prepared peacekeepers volunteering under the aegis of groups like the Nonviolent Peace Force could help provide security for Syrian civil society groups as they work toward an end to the fighting and begin the process of rebuilding.

Every country that has been involved in sending weapons and fighters into Syria, including Iran, Russia and the United States, should be urged to join a conference to end the flow of weapons and ammunition into Syria and to stop nations from fighting proxy wars in Syria. Whatever sum of money the United States would have been prepared to spend on acts of war against Syria should immediately be directed to assisting Syrian people displaced by the war, both internally and externally. Guidance in distributing such funds should be sought from the UNHCR and NGOs such as the International Commission of the Red Cross.” — Kathy Kelly, Co-coordinator, Voices for Creative Nonviolence

“1) One important means of weakening the Syrian regime — at least to the point where they would be willing to engage in serious negotiations — is to encourage divisions within the ruling elite of Baath Party officials and military leaders. While bombing would just get them to close ranks, support for renewed nonviolent resistance would result in the same kinds of divisions that were beginning to appear during the nonviolent phase of the struggle in 2011.  Similarly, while bombing tends to result in a rally-around-the-flag effect — particularly given the effectiveness with which the Assad regime has manipulated nationalist sentiments — nonviolent resistance in the face of repression results in far greater support for the opposition.

2) Given that a key variable in the success in popular uprisings is the degree of popular participation, support for a renewed nonviolent resistance movement would enable far greater participation from the oppressed population.

3) The Russian assistance in the possible deal over Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is indicative that Moscow might be willing to play a more active mediating role. While unilateral military action would discourage such cooperation and harden attitudes, inclusion of the regime’s allies, like Russia and even Iran, in talks aiming to coax a negotiated settlement would be far more effective. The first priority would be an arms moratorium towards all sides in the conflict and efforts to achieve at least a provisional ceasefire.” — Stephen Zunes, professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco and chairs the academic advisory council of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict

“After leading a peace delegation into Syria in May 2013 we can say that the people do not want outside intervention and have asked that they be allowed to solve their conflict through peace and reconciliation. There should be no military strike by the United States and the conference in Geneva should be convened with Assad, his government and all parties to conflict. The United States should talk to Iran and force Israel to enter seriously and with goodwill into talks with Palestine, without which there can be no real peace in the Middle East.” — Mairead Maguire, co-founder of Peace People, was awarded the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her actions to end conflict in her native Northern Ireland

“Nonviolent alternatives to a military strike on Syria include working in the international fora with the backers of each side of the civil war toward establishing a ceasefire, stopping international funding and supply of weapons, maintaining reasonable relations with all the members of the United Nations, particularly those in the Security Council, and not demonizing or calling them rogue states for what they do, which in many times is a reflection of what the United States is doing.” — Ann Wright, a 29-year veteran of the U.S. Army and Army Reserves, who retired as a colonel, and a former U.S. diplomat who resigned in March 2003 in opposition to the war on Iraq

“The illegal threat of the use of force by the U.S. government is being depicted as ‘diplomacy’ — but it’s not, unless one views diplomacy as war by other means. As anyone who has been robbed or raped at gunpoint understands, the threat of use of force is not nonviolent. That’s why it violates the UN Charter. Actual diplomacy would mean getting everyone to get rid of all weapons of mass destruction in the region (as UNSC resolutions have already called for), but the United States doesn’t even allow that discussion because since the Nixon administration, the U.S. government won’t even acknowledge Israel’s nukes. Another simple step toward peace would be for the U.S. government, media and even the peace movement, such as it is, to stop ignoring the nonviolent, independent Syrian opposition. As is so often the case, movements can become much stronger if they make the global connections. Ideally, there could be a sustained global peace movement, building on the global protests on February 15, 2003, against the Iraq war and the Occupy movement in a sustained manner.” — Sam Husseini, communications director for the Institute for Public Accuracy

“The United States should ramp up humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, which currently number more than 2 million. There is much we could do to improve their daily lives without the risk that our actions could worsen the situation on the ground within Syria itself. Delivering an aid package of, say, $500 million would go much further to help people that spending billions of dollars engaging in a military conflict that has considerable risks with few (if any) guaranteed benefits.” — Erica Chenoweth, associate professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, associate senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO), and co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works

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