A major victory for the hawks in the post-Vietnam era was to define “intervention” as military action and its opposite as inaction.
Thus, in the recurrent debate over what to do about the civil war in Syria, the options are reduced to some sort of US strike, on the one hand, and nothing, on the other. Or so the media presents the matter. When reports surfaced in August of a chemical attack on civilians in the Damascene hinterland of Ghouta, most outlets took President Barack Obama at his word that he had to enforce his “red line” by cruise missile or abandon the Syrian people to the regime’s bloody whim.
We reject the terms of this false choice. It is ridiculous to pose the question this way when foreign meddling has already taken such a heavy toll on Syrians and when neither the White House nor any party to the Syrian conflict has seriously explored the many avenues that might lead to peace.
There are such avenues, as Secretary of State John Kerry proved, however unwittingly, when he offhandedly mentioned the possibility of the Syrian regime surrendering its chemical arsenal — and both the regime and Russia agreed. It may be snide to note that the best US diplomacy was a slip of the tongue, and the motives of Moscow and Damascus may be impure, but the episode does show that opportunities for a political solution exist. It even seems to have thawed US relations with Iran.
A political solution — by definition — is the only path out of nasty geopolitical brinksmanship and toward an end to the terrible suffering of Syrian civilians. Neither the regime nor any of the shifting rebel coalitions has the wherewithal to defeat its foe or unify the Syrian people behind its rule. Should one side or another gain a military advantage, it will remain unable to bridge the deep sectarian rifts gouged by atrocities of various provenance. Only a political agreement can bandage these wounds and give time a chance to heal them.
What else can one conclude from the carnage in Iraq? There, the United States supplied a strongman with sufficient means of coercion that he decided not to bother seeking the consent of his political opponents and their constituents. More than 5,000 Iraqis have died in civil strife in 2013, the most since 2008.
Not unlike many Iraqis in 2003, many Syrians, inside the country and refugees outside, wish for a US strike despite their distrust of US prerogatives and pessimism about the outcome. This attitude is completely understandable, given how desperate Syrians are for respite, just as it was totally rational for Iraqis to feel that nothing could be worse than Saddam Hussein.
These sentiments ought not to shake the conviction, as with Iraq in 2003, that more external military intervention in Syria would indeed make the lives of Syrians worse, in many ways, in the short run and the long. Instead, the Syrians’ plight ought to galvanize the push for a political settlement and a carefully planned transition that safeguards the rights to bread, freedom and social justice. And it ought to shame world capitals into feeding, clothing and schooling the millions of displaced Syrians in the meantime.
If the US and other governments care about Syrians, as they claim, then their policies must not hold Syrians’ wellbeing hostage to extraneous concerns like who’s up and who’s down in Tehran. The states must seize the day for diplomacy, using the breathing room to seek peace, not just confiscate some of the machinery of war. And they must stop confronting Syrian citizens and their own with a choice that is no choice at all.