Cruise Missiles or Conference Tables for Syria?

Of all the evidence and broad assertions offered in US Secretary of State John Kerry’s public briefing on chemical weapons use in Syria,[i] none is more reliable than his admission that “there is no ultimate military solution.”

In fact, that is the clear verdict of recent history. Over the past 25 years, fewer than 15 percent of civil wars were settled on the battlefield. Ultimately, faith in military might had to give way to the realities of politics and compromise – and it is now abundantly clear that the same will hold for Syria.

Mr. Kerry offered a welcome commitment “to a diplomatic process that can resolve [the Syrian conflict] through negotiation,” but that makes Washington’s decision last week to delay a key planning meeting for a substantive round of Syrian peace talks doubly short-sighted. Largely forgotten in the current rush to justify punitive strikes is the joint Russia-United States effort, in cooperation with the Joint Special Representative for Syria of the United Nations and the League of Arab States,[ii] to launch a negotiating process designed to produce a ceasefire and transitional government as a step toward greater democracy and stability.

Rather than allow gross violations of international law to derail talks, it’s time to follow the advice of former President Jimmy Carter and convert the chemical attacks into “a catalyst for redoubling efforts to convene a peace conference, to end hostilities and urgently to find a political solution.”[iii]

Of course, a credible peace process takes more than a conference, especially for a conflict involving, according to the Pentagon, some 800 to 1,200 fighting groups.[iv] The process must necessarily involve multiple tracks of diplomatic, political, legal and social initiatives as complex as any military campaign – and, like all military campaigns, peace processes are not without risks or the threat of failure. But delays in getting started will neither lessen the risks nor hasten success.[v]

A particular imperative of a Syrian peace process is the need to respond to the chemical attacks in ways that strengthen the norm against chemical weapons and hold those who authorized their use accountable. At a minimum that calls for a sustained effort to persuade the UN Security Council to refer the Syrian case to the International Criminal Court and to provide the Court with the means to investigate and indict the perpetrators. And there should be a commitment from any successor to the current regime in Syria to adhere to the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention banning all chemical weapons and mandating the destruction of existing stocks.

And if, as Mr. Kerry says, there truly is no military solution available in Syria, it is time to stop adding oil to the military fire. Incredibly, three years into the devastating fighting, there is still no UN-mandated arms embargo against Syria. The European Union and the US have practised some restraint, the Russians rather less so, and Iran not at all, but none now has a clear policy against supplying arms. And one of the things that keeps the rebels in particular from any serious pursuit of a political settlement is their expectation that any day now large volumes of more sophisticated arms will begin to flow their way.[vi]

Furthermore, it is not possible for the international community to even begin to address its responsibility to protect vulnerable Syrians without blocking the flow of arms to the fighters, on all sides, that have killed more than 100,000 and driven some six million from their homes and communities. Military intervention to protect civilians is neither possible nor contemplated in the current circumstances, so protection must come in the form of heightened humanitarian access. The UN continues to plead for it, and those with any influence at all over the fighters need to escalate those demands.

While all the major fighting groups, as well as their regional state sponsors, have to get to a negotiating table, a stable political order will not come to Syria solely via deals cut among competing warlords. The deeply fragmented society that Syria now is, and long has been, requires that the population beyond the regime and fighting militias be engaged in reconciliation efforts and in exploring foundations for a peaceful, democratic future. In other words, formal peace talks need to be complemented by ongoing consultations and dialogues among citizen groups, ethnic and religious communities, professional organizations, worker organizations and other civil society groupings. The costs and logistics of mounting such multi-track diplomacy efforts are daunting, but they pale in comparison to the costs of the cruise missiles now poised to attack, or in comparison to the legal, human, and moral costs of unleashing those missiles.

Finally, the chemical attacks in Syria are a stark reminder of the urgency of the ongoing but faltering effort to establish the Middle East as a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction. It has always been clear, and formally acknowledged, that Israel will contemplate nuclear disarmament and adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty only in the context of effective controls over other weapons of mass destruction in the region, and events in Syria serve only to reinforce that reality. A conference on the issue was promised for 2012, it was delayed, and the plans now await revival.

There is no short-cut, either military or diplomatic, to peace in Syria. The point, however, is that it is only through a comprehensive peace process that a path to peace will gradually emerge. It’s time to give up the blind faith in cruise missiles and start facing up to some hard realities at the conference table.

A version of this column appeared in The Record on September 4, 2013.


[i] Statement on Syria, Remarks by John Kerry, Secretary of State, in the Treaty Room of the US State Department, August 30, 2013.

[ii] Nick Cumming-Bruce and Michael R. Gordon, “Hopes for Syria Talks Hinge on Kerry-Lavrov Meeting, The New York Times, 25 June 2013.

[iii] Aamer Madhani, “George W. Bush: Obama has ‘tough call’ to make on Syria,” USA Today, 30 August 2013.

[iv] Jim Michaels, “Attack could boost hard-liners among Syrian rebels, USA Today, 27 August 2013.

[v] “In Peace Palace address, Ban appeals for political solution to Syrian conflict,” UN News Centre, 28 August 2013.

[vi] Gianluca Mezzofiore, “Syria Opposition Calls Off Geneva Peace Talks as Russia Warns US Over Strike,” International Business Times, 26 August 26, 2013.

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