After the release of horrifying images of Syrian civilians killed by chemical attacks on Tuesday, there were predictable demands that the United States should “take action” against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Indeed, hawkish voices in both the Democratic and Republican parties have been calling for U.S. military engagement in Syria at least since March 2013, when more than two dozen people were killed in a sarin gas attack in the country’s north. In this context, Trump stands to benefit politically from Thursday’s missile strikes against a Syrian airfield.
In his address to the nation, Trump said the goal is “to end the slaughter and bloodshed.” But many Middle East experts say airstrikes won’t stop the violence. Assad’s regime and its allies have already weathered more than 100,000 casualties in a civil war that has killed or injured more than 11 percent of the country’s population. Assad immediately responded to Trump’s missiles with a promise that the attack “does not change the deep policies” of the Syrian government. As if on cue, the town that suffered the chemical weapons on Tuesday was bombed again on Friday and Saturday—presumably by the Syrian government.
The United States could go beyond limited airstrikes and ramp up military action. But the bloody outcomes of the war in Iraq suggest that this approach would only create more civilian bloodshed and suffering.
What could the United States do instead? Two longtime advocates for peace in the region had some ideas: Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco; and Ramah Kudaimi, a Syrian-American organizer who serves on the National Committee of the War Resisters League.
Zunes and Kudaimi both started by explaining why U.S. airstrikes won’t work.
“Assad is a brutal dictator and a war criminal and should no longer be in power,” said Zunes, “but it is not up to the United States—the world’s No. 1 backer of autocratic regimes and occupation armies—to do so. It is up to the Syrian people themselves, hopefully through reviving the impressive nonviolent pro-democracy … movement that first emerged in the spring of 2011.”
Kudaimi agrees that this is where the U.S. should throw its support.
These groups—especially the Local Coordinating Committees that in some cases have morphed into community journalism teams—support democracy and are an alternative to hardline, anti-government militias. Kudaimi requests that well-intentioned people in the United States educate others to dismantle “the false notion that the choice is between the regime and extremist groups.”
Supporters of that strategy would want to act soon because the Local Coordinating Committees have diminished under oppression. But they still exist, as author Joseph Daher told Antidote Zine, and even held a local election in January in Idlib Province—the location of the most recent chemical attack blamed on Assad.
In the short term, Kudaimi thinks the most helpful policy the U.S. could pursue is “drastically increasing the number of refugees it resettles” from Syria. (Of course, that would be a dramatic reversal for President Trump, who has promised to accept precisely zero Syrian refugees.) And continuing along those lines, Kudaimi wants to see the United States demand that European countries send more ships to rescue Syrian refugees who attempt to escape the country by boat.
When Zunes imagines a set of policies that could help end Assad’s violence, he sees the United States acting together with the international community: “dramatically increasing humanitarian assistance; working toward an arms moratorium on all sides; holding an international peace conference which includes both relevant state and non-state actors; accelerating diplomatic efforts to overcome Russian obstruction at the United Nations; and, pushing the International Criminal Court to indict Assad and others responsible for atrocities.”
Again, many of those positions would constitute a significant reversal for the United States government. For example, the United States has sought to weaken the International Criminal Court in an effort to ensure that U.S. government agents are never prosecuted there.
But for Kudaimi, even a strong shift on issues like the International Criminal Court won’t suffice unless the United States begins to change its alliances among the Syrian people.
“I want to stress [that] humanitarian actions without the political will to support the Syrian struggle for freedom is not going to bring an end to this humanitarian crisis,” she says. “As long as the Assad regime is allowed to act with impunity, it will continue to kill, torture, and displace as it pleases and the humanitarian disaster will continue.”