The crisis in Syria and other parts of the Middle East raise troubling questions, such as what can we do to respond to the brutal violence spreading throughout this region? Are there ever times when peace-loving people can support violence in order to prevent genocide or other bloodshed? This was the theme of an ICUJP Justice Luncheon that took place on October 13. My fellow panelists included HUSSAM AYLOUSH, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Southern California, and RABBI DR. ARYEH COHEN, Professor of Rabbinic Literature, American Jewish University. For more info, see ICUJP Justice Luncheon.
It is an honor to be here with such distinguished panelists. I am grateful to have the opportunity to present a Quaker perspective and to share what I have learned from being part of ICUJP. Each Friday morning leading peace activists come and speak to us, and it’s like being in an intensive course on peace studies. Come and join us if you want to learn how to be peace activist!
We’re here today, I think, because all of us are deeply concerned about how to bring peace to the Middle East and other parts of the world. The situation in the Middle East, and especially in Syria, is tragic, and worsening every day. We see ample evidence that violence is not working: hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees fleeing their homeland and risking their lives to escape, testify to what Pope Francis calls “the madness of war.” In the face of such suffering, even peace-loving people are tempted to ask: could the use of force be justified if it could bring about an end to the violence in Syria or in other areas of the Middle East? Could peace-loving people ever justify the use of force for humanitarian purposes, to bring about a speedier end to a conflict and to insure a just outcome.
This is a complex question, to say the least, and many books have been written on this topic. With regards to Syria, ICUJP took the following position two years ago:
Any military attack without the prior consent of Congress would violate our own Constitution, as well as international law. Committing a crime as a reaction to a crime brings us and the Syrians no closer to peace or justice. A military strike by the U.S. would not make any Syrians safer. It would not bring the civil war closer to an end. Such a strike, without Security Council approval, would be completely illegal, regardless of any “coalition” Washington may cobble together. We must demand diplomacy and new talks to end the war, not more military attacks. There is no military solution to the crisis in Syria, and more arms to any side would mean more civilians would be killed.
Any U.S. military intervention holds the threat of unplanned escalation, and ultimately a quagmire. It is much easier to send planes, bombs and missiles in than it is to get out – especially if a plane is shot down or a pilot captured. There is no exit strategy for Syria, and even a “no-fly zone” could easily become a costly quagmire.
The situation in Syria today is full-scale civil war, which denies the people of Syria their right to choose their own government and leaders. Other governments arming and financing the two sides will not restore that right; it will only makes things worse.
Most Americans agreed with ICUJP at this time. The American public made it very clear to their elected officials that they didn’t want to become involved in another war in the Middle East. But with the rise of ISIS, accompanied with beheadings and other atrocities, public opinion shifted; and the US and its Arab allies began bombing Syria in September, 2014, ostensibly to oppose Islamic extremists. The US has been dropping bombs and sending military supplies to Syrian rebels over a year, with no positive results. In fact, US bombing is probably what led Russia to begin bombing Syria, for which the US of course condemns the Russians. As we all know, American bombs are peaceful and well-intentioned, while Russian bombs are devious and self-serving. The goal of US bombing is to destroy ISIS and bring about the fall of Assad. The goal of Russian bombing is to destroy the rebels who oppose Assad. Assad has also done his share of bombing, killing civilians and causing millions to flee Syria. Rebels have also bombed and killed innocent people. Such is the nature of modern warfare. The only ones who benefit from war are the arms manufacturers and undertakers.
ICUJP called for a different approach, negotiations that would bring all the parties together for a political solution. Before dismissing this approach as naïve or unrealistic, let’s look at what military experts and peace experts say about foreign intervention in civil wars. Then let’s look at the alternatives.
Are no fly zones effective? With increasing pressure on President Obama to impose a no fly zone in Syria, the question arises: would such an action save lives in Syria? Would it help bring about a speedier end to this bloody conflict? A 2004 Stanford University paper published in Journal of Strategic Studies, "Lessons from Iraq and Bosnia on the Theory and Practice of No-fly Zones," reviewed the effectiveness of the air-based campaign in achieving military objectives. The paper's findings were:
1) A clear, unified command structure is essential.
2) To avoid a "perpetual patrol problem," states must know in advance their policy objectives and the exit strategy for no-fly zones;
3) The effectiveness of no-fly zones is highly dependent on regional support.
The situation in Syria doesn’t meet the criteria of this study for a successful military operation.
1) First, there is no possibility of “unified command structure” or an internationally sanctioned authority, such as the UN, to enforce a no fly zone. A no fly zone in Syria would be essentially a US action, with support from its Gulf state allies. But this support is not unified: although our Gulf allies officially oppose ISIS, Kuwait and private sources from Saudi Arabia contribute financially to ISIS and Sunni extremists in Syria. All sides in this conflict are using US arms to fight.
2) The US has no clear policy objective or exit strategy for Syria. Is the goal of the no fly zone to bring about regime change? If so, it would put the US in direct opposition to Russia. Is it to crush ISIS? If Assad is deposed, ISIS and other extremist groups would have a golden opportunity to take over Syria.
3) Would the no fly zone have regional support? Iran and Russia strongly oppose a no fly zone imposed by the US. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states would support it. The whole region is deeply divided and oversupplied with lethal weaponry.
As ICUJP’s statement made clear two years ago, attempting to enforce no fly zone in Syria would probably draw the US into a quagmire, possibly even into a war with Russia. This could lead to a world war, possibly even a nuclear war, given the increasing tensions between the US and Russia.
What about US support for “moderate” forces? So far, the track record for US support of moderates has been a disaster. In fact, no one can clearly define what “moderate” means in this context. Factions are fighting each other, and Assad, opportunistically. Assad and his opponents seem to want the same thing: power.
Foreign intervention in civil wars seldom work, as numerous academic studies make clear. When President Obama felt pressured to bomb Syria in 2013, he commissioned the CIA to study the effectiveness of US intervention in civil wars. The CIA could cite only one example of “successful” US intervention: the arming of the muhaiyadeen against the Soviets. This intervention eventually led to the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaida.
Does bombing ever help? Western powers claim that NATO bombing of Kosovo in the 1990s saved lives and brought the war to a close. But Noam Chomsky shows that fallacy of this accepted wisdom. David Hartsough, a Quaker peace activist who spoke at ICUJP a couple of weeks ago, spent considerable time in Kosovo and points out that there was a nonviolent resistance movement there that was ignored by Clinton. If the US had supported this nonviolent movement, would bombing have been necessary?
One fact is certain: every US intervention in the Middle East since 9/11 has had disastrous consequences and destabilized the region, causing tragic suffering, loss of countless lives, and the worst refugee crisis since World War II. This is a major reason why the Russians support Assad: they fear what would happen if he were deposed and chaos ensued. Would Islamist extremists take over Syria? Look at the track record for violent intervention. Today Libya is a failed state, half of Afghanistan is controlled by the Taliban, and Iraq is unable to defend itself against ISIS.
If war is still not the answer, what might help bring some measure of stability and justice to this region?
I think the Nobel Prize Committee has given us an answer. They awarded this year’s prize to the so-called Tunisian Quartet. It sounds like a hip Classical music ensemble, but they are actually a coalition of human rights activists, lawyers, trade unionists and business people who helped bring harmony to their discordant country. In 2010 things were so bad in Tunisia that an unemployed street vendor immolated himself as a protest. This sparked an uprising in Tunisia that led to the rise of an extremist Islamist government. The country seemed poised for a civil war when groups of Tunisians called the Quartet began to organize themselves to promote democracy. This broad-based coalition was instrumental in achieving a peaceful transfer of power by advocating dialogue across the political spectrum. They helped to draw opposing parties together. Today Tunisia is only success democratic story in the Middle East.
This is not surprising to those who have studied nonviolence. Social scientists Erica Chenoweth has done a comprehensive study comparing over 200 violent and nonviolent resistance movements in the 20th century. She provides evidence showing that nonviolence succeeded twice as often as violence, and the outcomes were usually better. Violent opposition to oppressive regimes often produced another repressive regime, while nonviolent opposition usually produced a democratic outcome.
These results prove what our faith traditions teach: the way of love is more efficacious than the way of violence and hate. I am a pacifist because I believe that war is not only evil, it destroys those who resort to it. Jesus said: “Those that live by the sword perish by the sword.” We have abundant evidence to show that Jesus was right. Militarism ultimately destroys societies that are addicted to war. Empires inevitably fall.
Hassan Hatthout, a Muslim leader I deeply respect, called for the abolition of war, based on his astute reading of the Quran as well as his understanding of modern warfare. After pointing out how strict the rules of war were for Muslims, he concludes, “Since modern warfare is so devastating, war itself should cease to be an option in conflict resolution. War should be obsolete just like slavery” (p. 102).
Nadim Nassar, a Syrian priest who spoke at an ICUJP luncheon last year, made it clear that the only way to end the violence in the Middle East is to end the arms trade and funding of belligerent parties, and to focus on negotiation: “Violence breeds only violence and revenge. At the moment, both sides are determined to destroy the other; inevitably this will lead to the destruction of the entire country, as we have seen elsewhere. I believe more than ever that the only way to resolve this conflict is for Syrians to meet at the table of dialogue and negotiation, and for regional and international powers to facilitate and encourage this dialogue without actually taking part.”
I’d like to end with my favorite example of how nonviolence and prayer can bring about regime change far more effectively than bombing.
If you have any lingering doubts about the power of nonviolence, or of women, I urge you to watch the documentary called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” It’s about the nonviolent campaign in Liberia that earned two Liberian women a Nobel Peace Prize. Fifteen years ago Liberia was dominated by a dictator named Charles Taylor who was every bit as vicious as Assad. He went to church and professed to be a Christian. He was opposed by war lords who professed to be Muslim, but violated every tenet of Islam in their way of life. Taylor and the war lords recruited child soldiers, gave them drugs and told them to go out and rape and pillage the country. The people of Liberia lived in terror of their own children. Finally, the Christian women of Liberia had enough and decided to launch a nonviolent campaign for peace. They prayed, wore white clothing and demonstrated in public places chanting a simple chant: “We want peace, not war.” The Christian women were joined by Muslim women and this created a broad base of support. These women of faith were amazingly courageous and creative in practicing nonviolent techniques. They even took a page from the Greek playwright’s playbook “Lysistrata” and withheld sex from their husbands unless their husbands opposed war. In the end, the Liberian women prevailed and drove out Charles Taylor and the male war lords. They elected a women president, a United Methodist educated at Harvard. This is the only woman elected democratically in Africa, and she is still in office. This is a huge success story. The women of Liberia deserved a Nobel Prize.
I believe that the women of Liberia and the Tunisian Quartet have demonstrated that nonviolence is the answer, not war. We need to study nonviolence, apply proven techniques, and not forget what our faith traditions teach us. The best way to overcome injustice is through nonviolence and treating others as we would wish to be treated. As the Holy Quran says in Surah 41 (34), “Repel evil with something that is better—and lo! the person you regarded as your enemy will become a true friend.” Turning an enemy into a friend is the goal, and the highest teaching, of all our faiths. It is hard to do, but not impossible. And it is definitely worth trying!