In June I returned from living in Jordan, where I spent six years as regional director for an international humanitarian organization. I had significant contacts with some of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees pouring into Jordan over the past two years. Many expressed the simple hope that the multiparty violence engulfing their country will end soon.
If U.N. inspectors conclude that the Syrian government knowingly used chemical weapons against its own civilians, I concur with President Obama that President Assad and his top military leaders should be held accountable for such egregious actions.
What is less clear to me is how U.S. military strikes — especially acting with little international support — are an effective strategy for holding the Syrian government accountable or making the Syrian people more secure. In response, Syria and its allies will almost certainly target Israeli and U.S. interests, plunging the region into even deeper chaos. Besides, another U.S.-led military action will further serve as a potent recruiting tool for al-Qaida.
Even if military strikes substantially weaken the Syrian government, can the United States be certain that the conditions on the ground are conducive for the formation of a new government that will better serve the interests of all Syrian people?
The Middle East is an honor and shame culture. A far more effective response would be to work with Arab governments to broadly expose the evidence of chemical warfare, using pictures and stories of innocent children and civilians to publicly shame those who perpetrated inhuman acts.
Furthermore, international tribunals exist for situations precisely like this. Why not use the International Criminal Court to indict and try Syrian leaders for war crimes?
Perhaps the most effective long-term strategy is the one least often mentioned in the current frenzy: U.S. modeling of what it means to be a global neighbor who is consistently accountable to democratic principles and international law. As matters now stand, many in the Middle East do not see the United States as a reliably positive example.
Indeed, there is a broadly held regional consensus that the United States only selectively supports democracy, international law and human rights. Frequently cited are a history of U.S. support for long-term dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and Egypt; providing cover for the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank; and increasing use of unmanned drones to assassinate leaders of groups like al-Qaida — strikes that often cause “collateral” civilian deaths.
Without a doubt this is a complex situation. Having previously worked as the director of a public policy office in Washington, I know that there are no easy answers. But I cannot see how introducing cruise missiles or smart bombs will do anything to calm an already extraordinarily volatile situation — especially if innocent civilians are killed as part of the U.S. attacks.
At the center I currently direct, we have received messages from about a dozen Syrians who have previously been students here. With few exceptions, they are opposed to a U.S. military strike, regardless of whether they lean toward Assad or against him.
The United States would do well to work with the international community to collectively seek the safety and well-being of the Syrian people. In the long run, patiently working with others to forge a political settlement inclusive of all parties to the conflict holds the greatest promise for a Syria where Alawites, Sunnis, Christians and others can flourish together.
This op-ed originally appeared Sept. 5, 2013, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is being re-published and circulated by EMU, with permission of the Times-Dispatch. If used further, just credit the Richmond-Times Dispatch.