Archive | September, 2013

Chemical Weapons and Diplomacy

28 Sep

*This article originally appeared on the STAND blog and was co-authored with Sean Langberg.

On September 15th, John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed on a framework for the removal and decommission of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.  Fortunately, the deal prevented US airstrikes against Syria, which STAND advocated against based on their potential negative consequences for civilians.  While the deal offers some diplomatic progress, there are still many questions surrounding the actual effects of the deal on the course of the conflict.

The chemical weapons agreement, while representing a positive instance of multilateral cooperation, will do little to end the broader conflict.  It only focuses on chemical weapons, which have killed a small percentage of civilians.  Its implementation will happen over the course of a year and there is no guarantee that plan will be effective.  Assad may renege on the agreement or his government may be unable to release all the chemical weapons stockpiles to international monitors due to the intense nature of the conflict.  Finally, the chemical weapons deal could distract crucial diplomatic energy from a broader deal.  This deal is tenuous as is, and if Russia and the United States lose the desire to negotiate an end to the conflict, it may have few practical consequences for Syrian civilians.

While the deal could have negative consequences, there are also plenty of reasons to be hopeful.  First, the deal opens new diplomatic channels between Russia, the US, and Syria.  This warming of relations could potentially lead to a negotiated solution, the best possible endgame for Syrian civilians.  Second, days after the agreement, the Syrian deputy prime minister indicated that the regime would be open to a ceasefire, marking the first time the Assad government has openly signaled its willingness to pursue a negotiated solution.  Finally, in a speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama pledged an additional $339 million for humanitarian aid.  It will still not meet the total need of the enormous humanitarian crisis, but it is a big step forward.

There are still numerous challenges ahead for diplomatic progress in Syria.  Islamic extremists are unlikely to accept any deal, and their influence has grown with a recent merger of multiple groups.  Similarly, other opposition groups have made it clear that negotiations that involve Assad staying in power will not be feasible.  Despite the numerous barriers to an inclusive, diplomatic solution, STAND continues to support a negotiated solution, increased humanitarian aid, and a complete arms embargo.

“No War in Syria”: A Response to the Anti-War Left

17 Sep

Debate over intervention in Syria has raged across the blogosphere with particular intensity since President Obama’s announcement that he would seek congressional approval airstrikes on Syria’s military infrastructure.  Fortunately, that potential disaster was averted by the recent chemical weapons deal.  During this debate, one strong voice against intervention came from the anti-war far left.  Though I agreed that the administration’s plan was an atrocious idea, I was seriously disappointed by these arguments; they were generally sloppy, simplistic, and sometimes even downright racist.  However, I saw few mainstream commentators or even bloggers I read take on this issue.

The “No War on/in Syria” rallying cry really irked me.  There is already a war in Syria and on Syrian civilians, a war in which over 100,000 people have already died.  Arguing from the “No War on/in Syria” starting points espouses a US-centric point of view and general ignorance.  It’s also important to differentiate Obama’s proposed plan from how we conceive of ‘war’ generally.  The mandate and timeframe of the intervention were both explicitly limited, and there would have been no American troops on the ground.  Another problem with the left’s aversion to intervention was criticized well by Ari Kohen, “The idea that staying out of the Syrian conflict is so obviously good “for humanity” is just as monstrously foolish as the idea that shooting missiles at Syrian targets is so obviously right and good. But Madonna and so many thousands of others are absolutely certain that humanity is obviously best served by sitting idly by while so many people are killed.”  Many among the anti-war left would hold the respect for human life as one of their dearest values, but simply arguing against any type of intervention at-large without understanding the potential impacts is a direct contradiction of those values.

The knee-jerk reaction from the left against the Obama administration’s plan distorted and essentialized the Middle East.  The American interest in Syria was assumed to be somewhere between oil and imperialism, forcing Obama to state that Syria would not be ‘another Iraq or Afghanistan’.  This line of argument has become well-entrenched post-2001, but it couldn’t really be farther from the truth in Syria.  Yes, Obama’s decision to go to Congress for authorization was a political decision, but it was not an attempt to please the military-industrial complex, conquer foreign peoples, or any of the other false narratives anti-war groups propagated to score political points.  Another well-known trope hijacked by those opposed to intervention in Syria was the terrorist bogeyman (this is not to say that extremist groups do not play a major role in the Syrian opposition).  Ironically, the anti-war left had fought against dehumanization and Islamophobia since 9/11, but were more than happy to reproduce these racist stereotypes and partner with the far right or even Bashar al-Assad to improve its visibility on a hot-button issue.

None of this is to say that intervention in Syria was a good idea.  Intervention would likely increase civilian casualties, close off diplomatic avenues, and do little to change the facts on the ground.  In my opinion, those are the right arguments.  As I noted on facebook, there is nothing more frustrating than people that agree with you but delegitimize themselves by making poor arguments.  The anti-war left heroically and persistently fought against America’s follies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but have let themselves and their supporters down on Syria.

Syria Policy Statement

5 Sep

*This post originally appeared on the STAND blog.  It outlines STAND’s official policy on Syria.

STAND has kept a close watch on Syria from the first days of peaceful protests in 2011.  Since then, we have have been shocked and dismayed as cycles of violence have become further and further entrenched.  We have consistently urged the United States government, as well as other international actors, to create and implement strategies to mitigate violence against civilians.  However, we feel that the Obama administration’s proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Syria is not one such strategy.  Therefore, STAND strongly urges Congress to reject the current plan of action, and in turn urge the Obama administration to pursue alternative strategies aimed, first and foremost, at protecting the lives of all Syrian civilians.

There are multiple reasons STAND does not feel it can support strikes.  First, relevant academic studies suggest that this intervention will likely kill more civilians than it will save.  Second, the limited timeframe and mandate of the intervention will likely not change the fundamental dynamics of violence in Syria.  The Assad regime will come out only marginally weakened and more motivated to exact revenge on civilians.  Third, STAND believes that a negotiated solution to the conflict would provide the best situation for civilians even despite the current unlikelihood of that happening.  An airstrike campaign will only decrease the already slim chances of bringing the various players, both Syrian and international, to the negotiating table.  Furthermore, a military intervention will divert crucial resources from other more productive avenues.

Instead, there are three strategies that STAND urges the United States government to adopt to facilitate civilian protection.  First, we urge a total weapons embargo of Syria.  The United States is certainly not the only player supplying arms, so it should put diplomatic pressure on Russia, Iran, the gulf countries, the EU and all other international players to cease providing weapons to various groups in Syria.  We believe stopping the flow of arms to all sides to be justified in the interest of civilian protection.  Second, we urge the United States to lead the international community in raising the $3.5 billion the UN has requested in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and IDP’s.  This is one of the most concrete ways the international community can aid the millions of Syrians in need in the midst of a crisis that is quickly consuming the region.  The United States should also pledge to allow Syrian refugees to seek asylum in the US.  Lastly, we urge that the United States continue to work with international actors to find a negotiated political solution to the conflict in Syria.  In the interest of civilian protection, the United States should do its absolute best to end this conflict as soon as possible.  It is neither in the United States’ national interest nor in the interest of Syrian civilians to pursue policies that will exacerbate the conflict while simultaneously closing off avenues to end it.