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Syrian refugee children play with swings at the Bab Al-Salam refugee camp in Azaz, near the Syrian-Turkish border. (Reuters/Giath Taha)
President Obama is working the phones, pushing Congress to support his plan for missile strikes on Syria. Secretary Kerry has warned of the risks of not bombing and characterized that option as “doing nothing.” Nicolas Kristof, in the New York Times, asks, “Are the risks greater if we launch missiles, or if we continue to sit on our hands?”
Not bombing is not the same as “doing nothing,” nor is it continuing to “sit on our hands” when a proactive peacemaking plan is in place and consistently followed.
President Obama, in several addresses including his Nobel Peace Prize speech and his May, 2013 address on drones at the National Defense University, has specifically named the practices of the proactive peacemaking strategy called Just Peace as essential to keeping the U.S. secure. As the president said in May of this year, “force alone cannot make us safe.”
There is a good case to be made, in regard to bombing Syria, in fact, that using force will make us far less safe. These missile strikes, if authorized and carried out, run the grave risk of setting off greater extremism both within Syria, and among the major players in the Middle East such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. While the world is focusing on Syria, Iraq is increasingly violent. Using military force in this volatile and complex region could very likely trigger a global conflict.
Instead, here are 10 things we can do right now about Syria besides bombing.
1. Pray and do faith actions for peace:
own denomination, the United Church of Christ, has explicitly called for prayer and peace advocacy regarding Syria. “As people of faith we call on our leaders to avoid any military intervention now. We call on them to use all diplomatic and humanitarian means at our disposal for a resolution to this crisis.”
Pope Francis has called for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, in the entire Mideast region, and throughout the whole world on Saturday, September 7th, 2013.
There are many such calls by people of faith today.
Prayer by diverse people of faith around the world is a powerful action being taken to strengthen the global will among citizens for peace. It is they who will finally push their governments to drastically increase their efforts toward a political solution.
2. President Obama should immediately withdraw his request that Congress support military action, and 3. Instead call on that body to support a ceasefire resolution regarding Syria.
This kind of surprising, unilateral and “pre-emptive” peacemaking is one of the most creative of Just Peace practices. It is called “Take Independent Initiatives to Reduce Threat.”
By engaging in this independent initiative, President Obama could literally startle the Congress, the American people, and the world into peacemaking.
In the Just Peacemaking books we write about how effective this work of independent initiatives has been in the world history of successful peacemaking. Social psychologist Charles Osgood first introduced the concept of independent initiatives as a strategy on the level of international relations in 1962.
In situations of conflict and distrust between nations and international actors, this practice seeks to decrease the threat perception of one’s adversary and lower the level of distrust in the relationship. One side takes initiatives that are independent of the slow process of negotiations (although they are designed to elicit comparable initiatives in response from the other side). Independent initiatives need to be publicly announced and verified to show that they are not a ploy but genuine efforts to work toward a peaceful settlement.
If the U.S. suddenly and unexpectedly called for a ceasefire in Syria instead of for military action, it would change the world dynamic on addressing this conflict. It would also set up other actions we could then take.
4. Bring the U.S. Ceasefire Resolution to the G20.
Following the lead of Congress in calling for an immediate ceasefire, the President should follow that with a request to the G20 to support an immediate cease-fire on all sides in the Syrian conflict. This would completely reverse the dynamic at that summit, where currently world leaders are pressuring President Obama to decide against launching military strikes in Syria.
5. Work with the United Nations Secretary General in moving a ceasefire resolution through that body.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for a solution to the Syrian problem via political means: “Only political settlement, not armed conflict will return peace to the country and to save human lives.” Throwing U.S. support behind the U.N. Secretary General would again create a dramatic reversal and halt the drive to war.
6. Push for the scheduling of the “Geneva 2 summit on Syria.
Nations that do not support military action in Syria should push hard for the follow up meeting to the first discussion on “political transition” for Syria
that began in 2012.
The “Geneva 2” meeting would bring together key constituents, including the rebels and the regime. While this process, held under the auspices of the U.N., will surely be far from perfect, it offers the best chance towards a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
7. Provide more help for refugees in camps.
In her article on “Three big ways the U.S. could help Syrians without using the military,”Lydia DePillis calls for more aid for those in these camps, especially mental health care. There are Syrians right now who can be helped right now in this humanitarian crisis without using bombs.
8. Accept Syrian refugees as immigrants.
This week, Sweden became the first European Union country to grant asylum to all Syrian Refugees who apply.
“All Syrian asylum seekers who apply for asylum in Sweden will get it,” said Annie Hoernblad, the spokesperson for Sweden’s migration agency. “The agency made this decision now because it believes the violence in Syria will not end in the near future.” The decision, which will give refugees permanent resident status, is valid until further notice it was announced.
If many other countries, including the U.S., followed suit, no one country would be over-burdened with a large number of immigrants who clearly will need lots of help to recover from the violence in their country.
9. Hold Bashar al-Assad personally accountable for his alleged war crimes.
Especially if there is a distinct lack of cooperation from Bashar al-Assad in regard to cooperating with a ceasefire and agreeing to the Geneva meeting, he should be indicted in the International Criminal Court (ICC). This would require support from the U.N. Security Council, but that move could be part of the overall ‘carrot and stick’ approach to finding practical alternatives to military action that particularly Russia has so far opposed.
10. Make a Just Peace plan and stick to it.
Peacemaking takes years. There is a marked inconsistency in American foreign policy in regard to the Middle East in general; in a democracy, over several presidencies, some of this is inevitable. But it is also the case that many have observed how reactive our policies have become during and after the Arab Spring.
Bombing looks like “doing something,” but as the war in Afghanistan is now America’s second longest war, after the Vietnam war, we might learn something from the fact that military action is not at all quick and effective.
Military action is most often deadly, lengthy, expensive, and creates the resentments that simply set up the conditions that lead to the next war.
Pray for peace and act wisely to bring it about.
Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is one of the architects of the Just Peace paradigm, and the author and editor of Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War.