It took the impact crater of a tomahawk missile for many of us to take U.S. President Donald Trump seriously. When the attack on Syria was followed by dropping the "Mother Of All Bombs" in Afghanistan a week later, it became crystal clear that that was the point.
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airfield, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, April 6, 2017. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)
With American ships sailing close to North Korea, and threatening tweets resounding through cyberspace, his critics are seeing their jokes about the folly of giving Trump access to nuclear weapons become a real concern, even while his supporters see his recent militaristic streak as a fulfillment of the type of action he promised to take during the first 100 days of his presidency.
While much ink has been spilled about justifications for these attacks, such discussions are a distraction. By asking if an attack was justified, we imply that these attacks may have in fact been just, despite the fact that America is not technically at war in Syria, or even Afghanistan (America has not actually declared war since the Second World War). No unilateral military action outside of war has any hope of being deemed justifiable under any definition of Just War, not to mention violating numerous international treaties and laws including the United Nations Charter.
Let's be clear: while a sarin gas attack is a disgusting breach of international law and of humanity itself, in responding with military force outside of any formal war the United States has breached more international laws than the gas attack did. Whether or not the U.S. was effective in stopping any further gas attacks in Syria, whatever the motivations of president Trump, and even whether or not the attack was necessary, we should not be lulled into some sense that unilateral military action is OK.
What is perhaps more concerning than the United States taking illegal military actions is the way that the rest of the world responds to it. Not only are these strikes part of ongoing proxy wars involving the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, Iran and China (to name a few), but they are condoned -- however cautiously -- by virtually all of America's allies and friends, including Canada.
Donald Trump's contempt for internationalism, including the UN and NATO, is well known, and fuelled by the notion that the international community is both slow to act and ineffective. That this is perhaps most obvious in its continual failure to address America's long history of undeclared war and unilateral military actions is somewhat ironic, but very concerning.
The various wars and factions (and even nations) in the Middle East were largely created by past Western actions in the region, and Syria's internal conflict is greatly exacerbated by nations that are openly friendly even as they not-so-secretly manoeuvre for advantage over each other. That several of these nations have permanent seats on the UN Security Council ought to be cause for shame on their parts.
We know from experience that empowering factions with weapons and training not only prolongs wars, but also easily backfires.
The international community must call these nations together and make it clear that peace in the Middle East is a strategic advantage for everyone. A political solution in Syria will not only save thousands of lives there, but will also create greater stability in the region, whereas a military option will likely allow extremist militias to rise from the rubble as ISIS did in Iraq.
We must not do nothing about the terrible violence in Syria, but we must resist any sense that it is better to do anything at all. We know from experience that empowering factions with weapons and training not only prolongs wars, but also easily backfires (lest we forget that Osama bin Laden was armed and funded by the CIA as part of a proxy war against Russia).
U.S military vehicles and Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) drive in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria April 28, 2017. (Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters)
We also know from experience that winning wars in the Middle East is no less difficult than brokering peace: so far, we haven't managed to do either effectively. Nonviolence is often derided as an impractical ideal, but even as an ideal it is foundational to the charters of both the United Nations and the Global Greens; the Green Party of Canada would like to apply that ideal through concrete policies encouraging nonviolent conflict resolution and prevention, but in the current state of things, simply saying "we will not give the military blanket authorization to drop a massive ordinance air blast at will outside of an official state of war" is actually progressive.
So, what would a nonviolent approach look like?
Numerous ceasefires, which are the start of any non-violent solution, have collapsed; clearly there is a role for the international community to play other than egging on their favourite factions. Syria needs help to reinforce those ceasefires, create safe zones for civilians fleeing violence, and establish sufficient stability to permit effective international aid and host fair elections.
This is the only viable way toward a pacific settlement of Syria's disputes and a more unified front against ISIS, and would set a new and just tone for engagement in the Middle East (and perhaps North Korea). If the UN member nations are serious about their own Charter, and if the US is serious about its claim to be working toward peace and stability, then it is time to condemn all acts of violence, however necessary they seem at the time, and commit to political, nonviolent conflict resolution in Syria.
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