Saturday, September 7, 2013

Start negotiations on Syria

The civil war in Syria has already led to the deaths of more than 100,000 Syrians, and more than two million have fled the country. How long will it take and how many will have to die yet before this tragedy comes to an end? And what should the outside world do as the tragedy continues to unfold?

As I am writing this, the US Congress has not yet approved President Obama's request for a limited military strike in Syria. Increasingly, there are doubts that he will get the necessary support. I hope and pray he does not. Then the world has a chance to rethink the situation there and start negotiations with both Iran and Syria.

First, and perhaps the most important objection to military action is that it is wrong. Let me explain that I am opposed to war. As regular readers of this blog know already, I am an advocate of active non-violence. That may sound naive to many people, but it is based on a studied rejection of the just war theory that most Christians have endorsed for centuries, at least since Augustine.

I have to admit that immediately after the August 21 massacre of 1,400 or so people, many of them children, I too was so outraged that I felt that the Assad regime, which has been blamed for these deaths, allegedly by the use of sarin gas, should be punished in some way. This was a lapse on my part.

On further reflection, I realize that that is not the best or the most appropriate response. Like much of the world, I was enraged by the photos of dead children, but once again I have reverted to my anti-war stance. Something needs to be done, but a military strike is not the answer.

Second, the situation in Syria has become stalemated not only militarily but also politically and economically. The government there still functions and enjoys widespread support, while the opposition is fractured and has no central leadership. In addition, the country has been so devastated that the rebels have very little to return to and thus very little to lose by continuing the civil war.

Who should the world support in this situation? Some nations, like Russia and Iran continue to support the Assad regime, while most nations have sided with the opposition, although many do so with reservations. Saudi Arabia provides military aid, and the US now wants to punish the Syrian government with a missile strike. Yet only a few nations are willing to support military action by the US.

Third, the case against the Syrian government has not yet been proven. One the one hand, as some people argue, why would the Assad regime use such a weapon against its own people? The opposition, on the other hand, is so divided that one of these groups may have used it to alienate the Syrian government even further in the eyes of world opinion and thus topple the government, something they have been unable to do so far through the use of force.

As was the case in Iraq, the world is dubious about the US claims of mass destruction in Syria. The Russian government is demanding proof before it will approve military action by the US at the United Nations. The British parliament has already voted down such approval because the evidence is not there, at least not yet. Canada does approve, but will not provide any support other than moral.

World opinion increasingly is turning against any missile action. Much of the world no longer trusts Obama. Not only has he reneged on many of his promises but he is also responsible for raising the use of drones to a new level. Also the treatment of Bradly Manning and the hunt for Edward Snowden by the US are totally unacceptable to much of the world. At the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, this change in attitude to Obama was very evident. Much of the world is unwilling to endorse military action in Syria.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

Even Christian church leaders have weighed in. The former and the current Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the nominal head of the world-wide Anglican communion, have both warned about the consequences of a military strike, even a limited one.

Fourth, the missile attack will prove difficult to limit, and eventually the Americans will probably have "boots on the ground," which is how many Americans define war. That, of course, would lead to the bloody and costly war that the US desperately wants to avoid, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan. American public opinion is so dead set against any further US further military involvement overseas that Congress will likely not approve Obama's request. I hope and pray that is the case.

If Assad would resign after such an attack, which is not likely, Syria would probably disintegrate into large chunks along ethnic and sectarian lines. Then retaliation would be the order of the day. Thousands of men, women, and children would be killed, and millions more would be driven from their homes.

This human disaster would be almost unimaginable in scope. It may eventually cost trillions to put the country back together again, money that could be better spent avoiding this disaster and providing much needed aid to those who are already suffering. The tragedy that is Syria today is great enough without compounding it.

What can be done, even at this late moment? Diplomacy is the answer. Specifically, the US must approach Iran and enlist Iranian support for negotiations to end the civil war in Syria.  The time is ripe for seeking Iran's help in ending the violence in Syria.

 President Hassan Rowhani of Iran

Iran’s new President Hassan Rowhani has just won a landslide majority after he campaigned on engagement with the West, and defeated the isolationist conservatives. After the attack in Syria he condemned the use of chemical weapons. Of all the election candidates, he is certainly the most open to overtures from the US. Even though the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, is the one who ultimately makes the decision on matters of war and peace, the president has input and thus should be approached. The Iranian leadership is divided on how to deal with the US.

Iran has been the most stalwart ally of Syria for decades already. Even after the attack, Rowhani pledged that Iran would work with Russia to stop any military intervention and criticized the push for a strike on Syria as a political maneuver. But Iran is currently on a charm offensive in order its image world-wide. Thus now is the opportune moment for the US to send overtures to initiate discussions about everything, including Syria.

Syria needs Iran. Iran is the only country that is able to sway the Syrian government. Iran provides large credit-export loans and training to the embattled Assad regime and thus has huge leverage over Syria.
The US similarly has major leverage on Iran. Its sanctions have cut its oil exports in half and new sanctions that were recently declared commit it to cutting the other half. Rowhani has ambitious plans for the economy that are effectively on ice until these sanctions are removed.

The US should solicit Iran to help in pressuring the Assad regime to enforce a temporary cease-fire and come to the table. In the meantime, the US and its Gulf allies, should apply pressure on the rebels to do the same. The cease-fire may be precarious, but it is better than the current bloodshed.

The US has already reversed its position in trying to block Iran from participating in the Geneva II talks on Syria. Late last year, Iran drew up a six-point peace plan that called for an immediate cease-fire between the rebels and the government. 

I any discussions with Iran, everything should be on the table, including Iran's nuclear program. Ways must be found to address Iran's concerns without threatening the entire Middle East. 

By foolishly drawing a "red line" Obama has worked both himself and the US into a corner from which it is difficult to withdraw. Obama has already said that the infamous red line is the world's doing, but few people believe him. Congress should provide Obama with an exit by rejecting his request for military action. If that happens much of the world will give a huge sigh of relief; then the negotiations with Iran can begin in earnest. 

I am praying for such a resolution to the current crisis. I became of age during the 60's at the height of the Vietnam War when the anti-war slogan "Make Love, not War" was popular. Maybe it is time to resurrect that slogan and make it a reality today, especially in the Middle East.

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