The civil war in Syria grinds on, and conditions for Syrian civilians—those inside its borders as well as the millions forced to flee to neighboring countries—continue to deteriorate. As global and regional powers not only fail to help end the war but actively engage in arming and funding all sides in the fighting, we in civil society must sharpen our demands for a different position from that of our governments.
The crisis began with a popular call for an end to repression and a nonviolent movement demanding accountability from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the release of political prisoners and detainees. Economic and environmental traumas, including a crippling drought and the slashing of key government subsidies, underpinned the crisis. The government responded with a promise of reform—which went unfulfilled—accompanied by terrible violence. Many Syrian activists and defecting soldiers took up weapons in response, and as the fighting spread, Islamists—many of them non-Syrian extremists—joined the anti-government battle. Three years on, the civil war has broadened into several overlapping but distinct wars, national, regional, sectarian and international.
We must stand with those struggling for equality, dignity and human rights for all Syrians, and on the principle that there is no military solution to the conflict. Further military action will increase the violence and instability, not only inside Syria but within the region and even globally—and will not improve the lives of Syria’s beleaguered civilians.
Below are recommendations for what needs to be done, as soon as possible.
1.The United States should, first, do no harm. The Obama administration should support United Nations decision-making, international law and diplomacy instead of military force, and make good on its frequent acknowledgment that “there is no military solution in Syria.” That means no US military strikes or threats of strikes, and an end to all other military involvement, including arms shipments. This is a point of principle, not timing—because even if efforts for a cease-fire, arms embargo and diplomacy do not succeed immediately, we know that US military involvement will only make things worse.
2.Stopping US military involvement is only step one; we must demand a policy that helps bring an end to the horrific civil war. Washington should call for, and support, an immediate cease-fire by all sides and a comprehensive international arms embargo. It should announce immediate plans to stop sending or enabling the provision of arms to rebel forces and to prevent US allies from doing so, while simultaneously renewing pressure on Russia and Iran to stop sending arms to the Syrian government. Such a call on Russia and Iran would carry far more credibility if it was linked to a public US commitment to end its own arms provision. Washington should be prepared to strengthen and enforce end-use agreements on arms exports to exert pressure on its regional allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Jordan and Israel. Washington should make clear to these arms recipients that continued provision of arms to any side in the conflict will result in the cancellation of all US weapons contracts with them. Washington should be prepared to support a UN Security Council resolution imposing a complete and enforceable arms embargo on all sides of the conflict and should also support efforts to create local cease-fires and truces inside Syria.
3.Despite the resignation of special UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, the Obama administration should engage with Russia to urge the UN to take the lead in restarting international negotiations for a political solution. All sides must be involved, including nonviolent Syrian activists, women and other civil society activists, as well as representatives of Syrian, Palestinian and other refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) forced from their homes in Syria. All outside parties to the conflict—Syria’s regional neighbors and other international actors, including Iran—must be included. Building on the success of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, the administration should broaden its engagement with Iran with the goal of helping to bring the Syrian war to an end. Washington must insist that any agreement provide protection for all communities in Syria and guarantee the right to safe return for all refugees and IDPs. The settlement must not deny rights to whole categories of people, including those who have served in the government, the army or opposition militias. Once the cease-fire takes hold, the United States should also support efforts to hold accountable all individuals on all sides responsible for war crimes.
4.The Syrian war has created an enormous refugee and humanitarian crisis, which is spreading across the entire region. That disaster is erupting in the context of Washington’s post-9/11 Middle East wars, which have not resolved regional crises but have instead made them demonstrably worse. More than 40 percent of Syria’s people have been displaced. There are now more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, endangering the already fragile social stability of the 4.5 million or so Lebanese. The huge, city-sized Syrian refugee camp of Zaatari, in Jordan, is putting an enormous strain on water and other scarce resources in that desert country.
This humanitarian crisis is particularly complicated, because those fleeing Syria as well as the internally displaced and impoverished people still inside the country include significant numbers of refugees from other unresolved regional conflicts. Some Palestinians and Iraqis in particular have been made refugees three, four or even five times. The United States has pledged one of the largest grants of humanitarian aid, but it is still too small, and much of it has not been paid out. With the announcement of an immediate arms embargo, Washington should simultaneously announce a major increase in refugee and humanitarian assistance, to be made immediately available to UN agencies, and call on other countries to increase their aid and to coordinate through the UN.
5.The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons continues to oversee the transfer of Syrian chemical weapons to international control so they may be safely removed or destroyed. Washington should support this and further disarmament efforts by endorsing calls for the creation of a weapons of mass destruction–free zone throughout the Middle East, with no exceptions.
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