Reflections on the Crisis in Syria

Adria Scharf, Director, Richmond Peace Education Center 

A few short weeks ago, air strikes on Syria seemed imminent. News headlines on the last Tuesday in August warned, “Military strikes on Syria as early as Thursday.” According to official sources, the U.S. was prepar-ing a three day long missile bombardment.  As we approached the twelfth anniversary of 9/11 in early September, we seemed poised on the precipice of another war. It’s been remarkable to watch the situation transform.
On the evening of September 10, President Obama made a public ad-dress in which, after he defended his right to pursue force, he said that he would change course and ask the leaders of Congress to postpone their vote to authorize the use of force in order to allow time to pursue a diplo-matic plan to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. Secretary of State John Kerry went to Geneva to meet with his Russian counterpart and a plan to secure and destroy chemical weapons in Syria has resulted. Next week, international chemical weapons inspectors will begin inspecting Syria’s stockpile of weapons under the terms of the deal struck in September.
There is a long and uncertain diplomatic road ahead and U.S. military strikes remain very much on the table. But we have for the moment left the path leading directly to military engagement in favor of the path of international diplomacy. That is something to celebrate.


The Public Speaks
Public pressure was key to this remarkable foreign policy turnaround. The U.S. voting public overwhelmingly opposed military strikes, and elected leaders from both parties agreed. It was the threat of a congressional vote against military authorization that encouraged the administration to take seriously the “Putin plan” on chemical weapons, and abandon strikes. It didn’t hurt, too, that much of the international community, from the Pope (who called for a global day of prayer and fasting for peace) to the British Parliament (which voted against British involvement in strikes), to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (who urged a diplomatic solution) opposed U.S. strikes, leaving the Obama administration wholly isolated internationally in its calls for military intervention.
All in all, this change in course suggests that we have in fact learned something from the last 12 years of foreign policy fiascos. It also suggests that the American public and its representatives in Congress may have entered a new phase of U.S. thoughtfulness and skepticism about wars of choice.
The fact remains that a terrible Syrian civil war continues. The Syrian government has committed crimes described by Human Rights Watch as “egregious,” including “deliberate and indiscriminate killings of tens of thousands of civilians, executions, torture, enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests.” The rebel forces have also committed horrific massacres and indiscriminate killings. Millions of Syrians have been displaced and more than one hundred thousand have been killed.


Paradoxically, while they’re engaging in diplomacy over chemical weapons, the United States and Russia are both actively fueling the bloody Syrian civil war. The CIA is providing lethal aid to the opposition while Russia is providing a variety of forms of support to the Assad government.
Many around the world see our humanitarian concern about chemical weapons in Syria itself as a paradox. Many have difficulty taking seriously U.S. concerns, remembering how we supported Iraq in the 1980s when it used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers, and given that U.S. ally Israel used white phosphorus in densely populated areas of Gaza during the Gaza war. Our own covert activities and our own uneven record on standing up to chemical weapons weaken our credibility at times like this.
Pathways and Pitfalls
Still, in my view, this new diplomatic effort in Syria, with all of its paradoxes, does at least potentially represent a different way, and present some possible pathways to peace.
Both sides of the Syrian civil war are so dependent on outside sources of funds and arms, that hypothetically, and with continued public pressure, U.S.-Russian collaboration on addressing Syrian chemical weapons could lead to an arms embargo and ceasefire…or at minimum to a “lowering of the temperature” of the conflict. More ambitiously, with some creative leadership, it could lead to a Peace Conference including both sides of the Syrian conflict and other stakeholders, a solution that has been urged by United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. “There is no military solution to this conflict,” says Brahimi. This conflict will require a political solution involving all parties.
The path ahead remains full of pitfalls. Here and abroad, there are many forces still pressing for a war on Syria, and the possibility of strikes re-mains. For these reasons, it is important for voters to stay engaged.
We encourage RPEC members to contact your Senators and Representatives. Tell your representatives that, while you want Syria, and all countries, to abolish weapons of mass destruction, you definitely do not want war. Tell them that you support a ceasefire, an end to lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, and a peace conference involving all stakeholders. Longer term, we also need to strengthen international institutions like the Hague Criminal Court and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons ( With stronger non-military enforcement options in place, we might stop turning to war as the only and best solution to global challenges.