As international efforts to forge a diplomatic solution to the humanitarian crisis in Syria continue, worry among foreign policy experts is intensifying as a troubling (and bipartisan) call for U.S. military action grows.
Following the collapse of a U.S.-Russia ceasefire agreement in late September, Monday’s vice-presidential debate saw both Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence calling for the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria (and in Pence's case, urging direct military confrontation with Syria). On Thursday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof exemplified the interventionist trend by proposing the U.S. begin "cratering Syrian military runways with missiles fired from Turkey" as a way to alleviate the suffering of civilians currently dying in eastern Aleppo.
"Just because the situation is getting worse doesn't make military solutions any more likely to work, any more likely to actually save lives, or any more likely to be legal."
—Phyllis Bennis, IPSBut Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, said Kristof and others calling for a military solution to the horrific situation in Syria have it exactly backwards.
Kristof's concern for Syrian civilians is reasonable, Bennis told Common Dreams, "because the situation is horrific and getting worse," but the problem with his position, she continued, "is that just because the situation is getting worse doesn't make military solutions any more likely to work, any more likely to actually save lives, or any more likely to be legal."
It's good, Bennis said, that people want to do something—"that just shows they're human," she said—but the concern is that people saying "do something" are increasingly saying "doing something militarily." If the history since 2001 has taught us anything, she argued, it's that military action is not a foreign policy tool with a successful record. "The U.S. has been using 'war against terrorism' for fifteen years now—and terrorism is doing just fine."
And among her other critiques of those calling on the Obama administration to "just do something" is the false construction which denies the significant role the U.S. has played inside Syria throughout the war.
"I don't agree with Kristof on the assertion that the U.S. is 'doing nothing,'" said Bennis. "The U.S. is massively arming and training various parts of the Syrian resistance—some directly and many more through providing weapons to U.S. allies from Saudi Arabia to Turkey to Jordan to the UAE to Qatar to everybody and their brother, who in turn are arming everybody and their brother who says they're against Assad and/or against the Islamic State (or ISIS)."
In addition to flow of arms into Syria, she said, "Let's not forget the U.S. is bombing in Syria. It's not bombing Aleppo, of course, but it's bombing in the east. It's bombing what it says is ISIS, but what that means is that it's bombing cities or communities where ISIS has control. And that's important because there's this claim that the U.S. simply isn't doing anything, as opposed to the U.S. is doing the wrong things, which is what I happen to think."
And the call for a no-fly zone, an idea endorsed by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as well as Pence, is incredibly dangerous said Bennis, especially given the current level of election-year posturing.
A growing Washington "group think" behind such an idea, she said, is incredibly worrisome. "It's like they have all forgotten what [former Defense Secretary] Robert Gates said about Libya and what others have said about Syria, which is that a no-fly zone (NFZ) starts with going to war against Syria. And that's because the first thing you have to do is take out their anti-aircraft system. Now, Libya hardly had an anti-aircraft system, but Syria has a very sophisticated one which is Soviet-installed and Russian-maintained. So unless the U.S. is just prepared to put its pilots at risk of being shot down over Syria, it's impossible. And they're not going to do that in order to keep their own planes and pilots safe."
Pushing for a diplomatic solution to end the carnage, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura on Thursday announced his personal willingness to accompany fighters with Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nursa Front (which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) out of Aleppo if they would also allow civilians the freedom to evacuate the city and escape harm's way.
De Mistura—who said the entire city could be destroyed within two months if the fighting continue at its present rate—addressed Al Nusra fighters in eastern Aleppo publicly from Geneva (as they do not have official channels for communication) and urged them to reconsider their siege on the city's civilian population. "Can you please look at my eyes and those of the Aleppo people... and confidently tell those 275,000 people that you are going to stay there and keep [them] hostage amid a refusal to leave the city because 1,000 of you are deciding on the destiny of 275,000 civilians? I would like you to reply to this question, not to me, but to those 275,000 people. And if you did decide to leave, in dignity and with your weapons, to Idlib or anywhere you wanted to go, I personally am ready physically to accompany you."
Watch de Mistura's comments from Geneva:
At the same time, de Mistura also called on both the Russians and the Syrian government of President Bashar al Assad to halt the massive aerial pummeling of the city as he again cited the suffering of the 275,000 civilians trapped there. "Are you really ready to continue this level of fighting and de facto destroy the whole of the ancient city?" he asked.
Though the Syrian-Russian bombardments were reportedly eased in the last several days, and as Assad announced during an interview with Dutch TV2 Thursday that he would grant amnesty to rebel soldiers and their families willing to leave the city, fighting continued in sections of the city on Friday.
In response to de Mistura's proposal, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the call and said Friday he would press the Syrian government to let opposition fighters leave the city under the terms outlined.
"I heard his statement concerning only Nusra. For God's sake, if al-Nusra leaves with weapons toward Idlib, where its main forces are based, we are ready to support this approach for the sake of Aleppo and will be ready to urge the Syrian government to agree," Lavrov said in an interview with Russia's Channel One.
At the same time, however, Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that a resolution submitted by France ahead of a UN Security Council meeting set for Saturday was unlikely to be supported supported by Moscow. The French resolution calls for a halt to all air strikes and military flights over Aleppo and seeks to impose possible sanctions for those who would disregard the restrictions.
Churkin told reporters he objected to the deal and suggested its sole purpose was to make the Russia delegation look bad by presenting a proposal it could not possibly support. "I don’t see how we could possibly admit adoption of that resolution," he said.
Later on Friday, Russia presented its own resolution to the Security Council which, according to the New York Times, essentially calls for the re-implementation of the U.S.-Russia brokered agreement that collapsed last month. "The U.N. Security Council will therefore be voting Saturday afternoon first on the French draft and then on the Russia draft," the Times reports. "What is likely to happen is a Russian veto of the French draft and a veto of the Russian draft by France and its Western allies."
As few expressed optimism that any of these newly floated proposals would be enough to end the bloodshed or bring the war to a succinct end, Bennis told Common Dreams that diplomatic solutions must nonetheless be kept front and center.
"It does seem at the moment that the worse impact on civilians is the result of bombing by the Syrian government and the Russians," Bennis said. "But at an earlier point, the worst atrocities were being carried out by U.S. bombings. So this a cycle that goes on. But what we do know for certain is that this kind of military response simply doesn't work. And by keeping the focus solely on how terrible the situation is and why there's a desperate need for more military action is a recipe for failure. We have to figure out different responses that are not military, because the military is not working to save people's lives."
Watch the full 22-minute interview with Assad: