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."
But Russia and Iran are not the only culprits. Bennis continues: "The U.S. must stop and must push Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan and others to stop arming and funding the opposition, including the extremist elements." How can we exert pressure on those regimes? "That won't be easy," says Bennis.
But we and the Russians do have leverage. For example, she says, Washington could tell the Saudis and Qataris that we will cancel all existing weapons contracts with them if they don't stop arming the opposition.
3. The U.N. Security Council should hold an international peace conference involving not only the Syrian government and opposition parties, but their backers from outside the country and those affected by the flow of refugees and arms.
Non-state actors with an influence on the conflict should also be included, says a statement by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker group. This should include Hezbollah, the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, they say.
Negotiators should aim for an immediate ceasefire, for the access needed to get humanitarian aid where it's needed, and for an end to the conflict. This is a tried-and-true solution that resolved the wars in Southeast Asia through the Paris Conference on Cambodia, and in the Balkans through the Dayton Peace Agreement.
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4. Offer aid and support to the nonviolent movements within Syria, or, at least, don't undermine them. A resurgence in Syria's broad-based nonviolent movement for change that started in March 2011 is still a source of hope, according to Stephen Zunes, chair of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.
The opposition's turn from nonviolence to armed struggle resulted in higher civilian casualties, reduced defections from the Assad's forces, and contributed to the rise of anti-democratic elements within the opposition, Zunes says.
He goes on to explain that nonviolent movements have a much better chance of building an inclusive democratic government.
"Military intervention would demoralize and disempower those remaining in the nonviolent resistance who are daily risking their lives for their freedom," Zunes says, "while encouraging armed elements who—with their vanguard mentality, martial values, and strict military hierarchy—are far less interested in freedom and justice."
5. Provide the humanitarian aid desperately needed by the millions of displaced people. Humanitarian organizations are currently able to provide services within Syria only with great difficulty; the United Nations Security Council should insist that Damascus allow them access.
And the international community, not just the countries housing the refugees, should cover the costs of caring for the displaced inside and outside the country. Yes, it's expensive. But a military strike would cost much more, as would the long-term costs society would incur from neglecting traumatized refugees.
6. Force the hand of Russia and China in the Security Council. Many people believe that Russia and China have vetoed efforts in the United Nations to condemn the Syrian regime or to impose sanctions on it. But all these governments have done, so far, is threaten to veto.
Jannuzi says that the other 11 members of the Security Council should take the issue to a vote and force Russia and China to actually exercise their veto power.
"That would at least give the rest of the international community the opportunity to say 'If that's your position, then what are you for?'" Jannuzi says. This would at least help to clarify the positions of these countries, an important step toward peace.
Why the rule of law?
By applying the rule of law through existing international institutions, we can work to isolate the wrongdoers on all sides of the conflict in Syria from their bases of support around the world. We can support those in Syria working for peaceful change and offer humanitarian assistance. And we will move beyond the limitations of responding to lawbreaking with violence.
There's another benefit, too, of relying on the rule of law. Doing so would strengthen the institutions, like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, designed to settle conflict without violence. That would mean we'd have more effective options available when future despots threaten to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity.
To follow this path with credibility, though, the United States must itself live within the rule of law. That means, at the very least, refraining from launching into a war that violates international law. Only when a country is attacked, or when it has the support of a Security Council resolution, is a military assault on another country permitted.
It might seem naïve to press for peace in a world where there is so much violence. But the belief that a few bombing missions and a quick exit could make a positive difference is in fact the naïve view. And Americans—traumatized, exhausted, and impoverished by war—have no stomach for the protracted military conflict with uncertain aims that is the more likely outcome.
International law—fairly applied, patiently negotiated, with tough sanctions, and help for refugees—is in fact the most practical way to peace and justice for the people of Syria and beyond.
Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practice actions.