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Options for Action in Syria: A Statement of Concern by Conflict Resolution Professionals

President Obama’s proposed course of limited military airstrikes is intended to “punish” Syrian President Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons. (The UN inspectors’ report verifying whether chemical weapons were used is not yet out.)  This is to send a signal that the United States will not tolerate a flagrant disregard of the ban on chemical weapons, from the Geneva Protocol of 1925 to the chemical weapons convention of 1993.

As American conflict resolution professionals working in countries around the world, we understand that the threat of force can be a powerful incentive to change behaviors.  However, we are concerned by the prevailing view that violence (and the use of chemical weapons) will decrease by applying greater force and destruction.

Discussions in Washington seem to center on airstrikes as a discrete act, but they are likely part of a longer process.  What is the administration’s strategy beyond the airstrikes?  Will the strikes create incentives to get negotiations back on track or will they fragment the opposition even further and entrench the regime?  Will they serve as a catalyst for regional talks or for increased regional conflict?  What is our plan if Assad, or the rebels, use chemical weapons again?

Research in our field suggests that interventions to support one side of a conflict prolong wars by 50%.[1]   With or without airstrikes, there are other tools that can be useful in “punishing” Assad and minimizing loss of life.

There will be no end to the conflict without a political settlement.  Diplomacy is the indispensable tool.  The U.S. needs to work with the UN and others in the international community to pursue talks with all stakeholders (including Russia and Iran) as soon as possible.  Creative diplomacy by the U.S. that involves the participation of Syrian civil society movements, including women’s groups that are currently active in promoting peace and tolerance among communities, is essential.

Second, Assad needs to be held accountable through the public act of shaming and through the international legal mechanism of the International Criminal Court (ICC).  We can increase the cost of doing business with Assad by making him an international pariah using these channels.  Over 50 countries have supported referring Syria to the ICC, including Security Council members Britain and France.  The U.S. should join them and engage the Security Council in intensive diplomatic efforts so that Russia and China will not wield their vetoes to defeat the referral.

Assad can also be held accountable through shaming, an important aspect of Middle Eastern culture.  An effective way to do this, for example, is by publicly showing evidence of chemical warfare on Syrian civilians.

Third, we can mitigate the damage to Syrians and to the U.S. by taking actions that help save lives and gain the trust and respect of Syrians and others in the region.  A UN resolution for a ceasefire that includes all armed actors would be a start.  Other actions include the following:

If Congress approves airstrikes, our military needs to ensure that its maps are accurate to avoid incidents such as the 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.  Our intelligence services need to ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of killing innocent civilians.  Assad has reportedly emptied the prisons and put prisoners in or near potential U.S. targets.

The U.S. should coordinate with UN agencies to assess the increased humanitarian demands in the case of airstrikes.  There are currently 6.8 million Syrians in need of aid in Syria and over 2 million refugees in neighboring countries.  The U.S. should make funds available to address existing needs and meet new ones resulting from the airstrikes.  The U.S. should help the UN keep these agencies open and secure during airstrikes.

Along with the destroyers now in the eastern Mediterranean, the U.S. should send hospital ships to the region to treat Syrians regardless of their political affiliation or of when or how they became ill or were injured.

We believe that the U.S. will be stronger and safer if we take actions such as the ones described above and we urge our elected leaders to provide the necessary resources and support for this intensive and multi-layered diplomatic effort in Syria.

Signed by:

(Organizational affiliations are provided for identification purposes only; they do not indicate organizational endorsements of this statement)

1)    Joyce Neu, Ph.D.
Founder and Senior Associate, Facilitating Peace
Redondo Beach, CA

2)    Dee Aker, Ph.D.
Interim Director, Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice
University of San Diego

3)    Sanam Naraghi Anderlini
Co-Founder, International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)
Senior Fellow, MIT Center for International Studies
Washington, DC

4)   Eileen F. Babbitt, Ph.D.
Professor of Practice, International Conflict Analysis and Resolution
The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
Tufts University
Medford, MA

5) Sandra I. Cheldelin, Ph.D.
Vernon M. and Minnie I. Lynch Professor, School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
Arlington, VA

6) Diana Chigas, J.D.
Co-Director, Reflecting on Peace Practice Program, CDA
Cambridge, MA

7) Cameron M. Chisholm
President, International Peace & Security Institute
Washington, DC

8) Tamra Pearson d’Estrée, Ph.D.
Luce Professor of Conflict Resolution, Josef Korbel School of International Studies
Co-Director, Conflict Resolution Institute
University of Denver

9) Paula Garb, Ph.D.
Co-Director, Center for Citizen Peacebuilding
University of California Irvine

10) Thomas R. Getman
CEO, the Getman Group
International/NGO/UN affairs
Washington, DC

11) Paula Green, Ph.D.
Founder, Karuna Center for Peacebuilding
Amherst, MA
And Professor of Conflict Transformation, School for International Training
Brattleboro, VT

12) Melanie Greenberg
President and CEO, Alliance for Peacebuilding
Washington, DC

13) Gal Kleinman
Former member of the Israeli Defense Forces, 1989-1992
Co-Director of the Global Peace Curriculum Project
Israel

14) Louis Kriesberg
Founding Director of the Program on the Analysis and Resolution of Conflicts
Maxwell School, Syracuse University

15) John Paul Lederach, Ph.D.
Professor of International Peacebuilding, Director of Peace Accords Matrix
Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies
University of Notre Dame

16) Milburn Line
Former Executive Director, Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice
University of San Diego
Beijing

17) Johanna Mendelson Forman
Scholar-in-Residence at American University
Washington, DC

18) Julie Mertus, J.D.
Professor, School of International Service
Co-Director, MA Program in Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs
American University

19) Christopher Mitchell, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Conflict Research
Fairfax, VA

20) Christopher W. Moore, Ph.D.
Partner, CDR Associates
Boulder, Colorado

21) Charles A Reilly, Ph.D.
Kroc School of Peace Studies
University of San Diego

22) Rob Ricigliano
Partnership for Sustainability and Peacebuilding
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

23) Lisa Schirch, Ph.D.
Director of Human Security, Alliance for Peacebuilding
Research Professor, Center for Justice & Peacebuilding
Eastern Mennonite University
Harrisonburg, VA

24) Ali Shakeri
Former U.S. – Iranian prisoner of conscience in Evin Prison, Tehran, 2007
Center for Citizen Peacebuilding Board Member
University of California Irvine

25) Hilary Stauffer, J.D.
Human Rights advocate
(Former) Diplomat, Aid worker, UN legal officer
London, United Kingdom

26) Pamela Steiner, Ed.D.
Intercommunal Trust Building Project
Fellow, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights
Harvard School of Public Health
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA

27) Andrea Strimling Yodsampa, Ph.D.
Senior Researcher / Program Manager
The Fletcher School, Tufts University
Medford, MA

28) Anthony Wanis-St. John, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Director, International Peace & Conflict Resolution, School of International Service
American University
Washington, DC

29) Peter Woodrow
Executive Director, CDA
Cambridge, MA

30) William Zartman, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of International Organization and Conflict Resolution
The Johns Hopkins University—SAIS
Washington, DC

[1] Patrick M. Regan, “Syrian Strike Would Put Peace Further Out of Reach,”  Special to CNN, September 5, 2013.