Dear President Obama,
We are writing regarding your proposal that the US should be prepared to take military action in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. We are relieved that you have responded favourably to the Russian proposal for Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control and ultimately for those weapons to be disarmed. The use of chemical weapons by any party is unacceptable. But we are deeply concerned by your assertion that the United States must act to deter Syria from any future use of chemical weapons. On 10 September you said that the US is not the “world’s policeman”. But you also said it is “exceptional” and that it must act on behalf of the “international community” to stop countries like Syria from using forbidden weapons. We strongly oppose that notion. Under the United Nations Charter no state has the right to attack another state except in self-defense. Only the UN Security Council can authorize intervention in the internal affairs of any states. The UK Parliament has rightly rejected David Cameron’s proposals for military action against Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons there. We hope the US will also forbear from international action.
The experience of NGOs like AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) working in the region show that efforts to protect lives through military means, no matter how well intended, ultimately cost even more lives and cause more destruction. Military strikes also delay, rather than advance, the peaceful political negotiations that ultimately end conflicts. Violence only serves to deepen and prolong conflicts and undermines the security of all the people in the region. The proposed military strikes against the Syrian government will only prolong the suffering of the Syrian people and risk escalating the war. Instead we urge the US government to wholeheartedly support meaningful and substantive diplomatic efforts to end this war.
According to the United Nations, since March 2011, when fighting began between the Syrian government and opposition groups seeking to oust President Bashar Al-Assad, as many as 100,000 people have been killed, almost 2 million have fled to neighbouring countries, and a further 4 million have been internally displaced, At least 6.8 million Syrians, half of whom are children, require urgent humanitarian assistance. The Syrian government troops and militia have conducted deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate airstrikes and other attacks on civilians, used cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Armed opposition groups have also committed their share of indiscriminate shelling and serious abuses against suspected government supporters. Providing weapons and materiel to the government or non-state armed groups known to commit widespread abuses can make a party complicit in their abuses.
Reinforcing a “red line” against chemical attacks, while certainly important, is not the only international standard at stake. There is also international law prohibiting deliberately and indiscriminately killing civilians, which the Syrian government has flouted on a much larger scale. In addition to the 1,429 people whom U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said were killed by the chemical attack outside Damascus are the tens of thousands of civilians whom Syrian troops and militia have killed in two-and-a-half years of war. We condemn in the strongest terms all forms of violence and war, including targeted acts of violence against civilians, missile strikes, and the use of chemical weapons. Both the opposition and the government have been responsible for atrocities and we deplore all such acts.
At this time all efforts should be put towards revitalizing the search for a political settlement. A political exit from this war requires leadership that takes the moral high ground, and far-reaching concessions and a reduction in demands from all parties. The sole viable outcome is a compromise that protects the interests of all Syrian constituencies.
We therefore urgently call on all governments and parties to the conflict to end the violence in Syria by taking the following steps:
The U.S. should immediately call for a comprehensive arms embargo on all parties to the conflict. As your Administration has long recognized, the only viable and sustainable solution to the crisis in Syria is a political one.
We urge your Administration to provide full support to the efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint United Nations/Arab League envoy, and to press for the rapid convening of a Geneva II conference. For those conferences to be meaningful, they must include Iran in the search for a political settlement.
Seek a transition that builds on existing institutions, rather than replacing them, and does not alienate those people who have served the government or the army. Neither the interests of the U.S. nor the interests of the peoples of the region are served by collapse of the Syrian state and the resulting political vacuum.
Syrians must lift up the voices of their full population, including ethnic and religious minorities, refugees (Iraqi and Palestinians) and those who have served the regime, to ensure that none is privileged over the other, and that no component of Syrian society is targeted for retaliation.
Governments should respond to the United Nations’ call for humanitarian relief funding for displaced Syrians. As we write, the UN reports that donor countries have only provided a small fraction of what is needed. All should act before the refugee flows further destabilize the region.
We you will take compassionate actions that are stronger and more durable than further violence.
Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre
St John’s Church
Edinburgh EH2 4BJ