As the war engulfing Syria worsens, the Obama Administration must prioritize the needs of civilians and resist the growing pressure for military intervention. Diplomacy and increased humanitarian aid are what’s needed now to alleviate suffering and build peace.
Syrians are facing one of the most severe humanitarian crises in the world as President Bashar al-Assad clings to power amidst an escalating civil war. More than one in three Syrians needs urgent assistance, according to the United Nations, and more than 1.4 million refugees have flooded into neighboring countries, a number that grows by the day. Women and girls have been targeted with sexual violence deliberately used to terrorize, a threat many cited as their primary reason for fleeing the country.
We are all witness to this suffering and the urge for action to alleviate it is a compassionate impulse that must guide US policy. But today’s growing call for military intervention is a false solution that would only intensify the conflict.
A rising chorus of US politicians, led by Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, are calling for the creation of a “no-fly zone” to disable the Syrian government’s air force. Yet the US bombing required to create and enforce a “no-fly zone” would almost certainly kill and injure more people.
Moreover, roughly 10% of casualties in Syria have been caused by Assad’s Air Force. The vast majority have been brutalized by ground forces, rendering a “no fly zone” a very weak form of protection. The real aim of the policy is to demonstrate US military force in the region, in the hopes of securing US credibility in the eyes of leaders in places like Iran and North Korea.
The Administration is also facing increased pressure from politicians like Senator Robert Menendez to arm the Syrian opposition. However, there is no singular opposition. The rebels are a conglomeration, including foreign fighters sent by Saudi Arabia and other countries hostile to Iran, and reactionary Islamist forces, including some allied with Al-Qaeda. The secular, democratic voices that were at the forefront of the uprising two years ago have been sidelined.
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Syria is already awash in weapons that will be circulating in the area for years to come. Funneling more arms to the opposition would fuel their brutal battle tactics, intensify the war, and further diminish chances of a democratic outcome for Syria.
Many of the politicians now calling on President Obama to “step up” and help topple Syria's Assad are those who invariably champion the use of force to project US power abroad. Among them are the architects of the Iraq War and the cheerleaders for a US/Israeli attack on Iran.
Instead of policies that fuel the violence, we need increased diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria and increased humanitarian aid. Today, US Secretary of State John Kerry will announce $100 million in aid to civilians, following an earlier announcement of plans for an international conference to negotiate an end to the conflict. These humanitarian and diplomatic efforts are a step in the right direction, but they are insufficient. The UN estimated last December that $1.5 billion would be required to meet the basic needs of Syrian refugees for just the first six months of this year.
The majority of these refugees are Syrian women and their children. Women are struggling bravely to provide for traumatized and increasingly destitute displaced families and their leadership in distributing aid and caring for those made most vulnerable by the war should be supported.
Moreover, women and girls are facing serious threats of sexual violence, child marriage and forced prostitution in the context of the war and as refugees. To address these pressing issues, women’s voices must be included in the design and implementation of aid programs and in eventual negotiations.