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War Is Not the Only Option: 6 Alternatives to Military Strikes on Syria

Many of the legal and diplomatic processes that led to peace in other times of conflict haven't even been tried yet in Syria.
 
 
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The US Navy launches a Tomahawk cruise missile.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's approval of military force in Syria makes military strikes against that country more likely. But key questions remain unanswered. Will military strikes help ordinary Syrians or harm them? Will more violence deter the use of chemical weapons and other war crimes in Syria and elsewhere, or exacerbate the problem? Have all other possibilities been exhausted, or are there peaceful solutions that haven't been tried?

A quick review of the options suggests there are at least six strategies that could hold wrongdoers to account, deter war crimes of all sorts, and build peace.

These strategies are based on an idea little discussed but deeply practical for our war-weary country and world. Instead of launching an assault on Syria, the United States could lead a "coalition of the willing" in rebuilding the tattered foundation of international law. This would lay the groundwork for peace, not only in Syria, but in all the lawless regions of the world. And it could do so without adding to civilian casualties, further destabilizing the Middle East, breaking the budget of the United States, and requiring yet more sacrifices by those who serve in the armed forces.

For several reasons, this is the right time to turn to the rule of law. Why? First, this conflict does not lend itself to the cheap story used to whip up pro-war sentiment: the notion that military strikes will help the "good guys" in the opposition defeat the "bad guys" in the regime. The armed opposition in Syria includes many we don't want to support—especially those associated with Al Qaeda and other extremist groups. And the United States, too, has things to answer for—among other things its faulty claims about weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to war in Iraq, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and civilian casualties of U.S. drone attacks in countries including Pakistan and Yemen.

So building a case for war based on U.S. heroics in support of valiant upstarts against an evil despot just doesn't work. Our real choice is this: contribute to lawless violence or turn to the rule of law and civility.

What would we do if we were to choose peace and the rule of law? Here are six approaches that would help build justice and peace in Syria and elsewhere.

1. Bring those guilty of atrocities to justice. With the backing of the U.N. Security Council, those responsible for the chemical weapons attacks and other war crimes should be brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for justice, whether they are part of the Syrian regime or members of opposition forces. "The use of chemical weapons by anyone is a war crime, and international law requires international enforcement," policy analyst Phyllis Bennis wrote in an email. "No one country, not even the most powerful, has the right to act as unilateral cop."

The United States should strengthen the ability of the ICC to hold war criminals accountable by signing on and ratifying the statute that created the court in 1998.

Even before bringing Assad and his allies to the ICC, Frank Jannuzi of Amnesty International told YES!, it's possible to punish these individuals with travel restrictions and targeted economic sanctions.

2. Call for a United Nations embargo on arms, military supplies, and logistical support for both Damascus and opposition forces. Stopping the flow of weapons from around the world into Syria is another important step toward peace. But it will involve complex diplomacy that has not yet been attempted. As Bennis writes, "Russia must stop and must push Iran to stop arming and funding the Syrian regime."

 
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