Jeffrey Sacks on How to End the Syrian War and Human Tragedy

 Editor’s Note: Whenever we paste articles on our home site, we do so because the perspective is one that is rarely discussed in the mainstrean media–NOT because we necessarily agree with it. This particular perspective is given little attention because to do so would be to weaken one of HIllary Clinton’s claims to the presidency–that she has the experience in foreign affairs that Bernie Sanders does not and strengthen Sanders claim that having the experience does not equate with having the wisdom, since it was during her time as Secretary of State that this huge mess developed in large part because of US policy (or at least that it the allegation by Sacks). But there is a problem that the Sacks perspective needs to address. The nonviolent demonstrations against Assad were met with violence and repression. What exactly are people around the world supposed to do in such circumstances? Turn our heads and pretend it isn’t happening, when a ruthless regime murders and jails thousands of people engaged in nonviolent demonstrations? Should the U.S. have imposed a “no fly zone” on Syria to help the Syrian regime understand the seriousness of what it was doing and the consequences it might face unless it stopped? Would that have worked? Sacks avoids these questions and goes to the level of the international conflict that soon developed. Was there a way for the U.S. to have reached out to Russia and Iran before the conflict escalated, to seek a peaceful resolution? Or was violence the only alternative to ignoring the horrific acts of the Syrian regime? As a proponent of nonviolence, I don’t believe in its inevitability, but I do believe that those of us who support a consistent nonviolent approach to international tensions need to answer these questions. I believe that the Network of Spiritual Progressives’ Domestic and Global Marshall Plan is the way to go–but the question remains what to do “in the meantime” while we are trying to convince a majority of Americans that a Strategy of Domination is unlikely to work and that it’s time to try a Strategy of Generosity. Please reread our plan at and then seek endorsements from your professional organizaiton or union, your local social change movements and nonprofits led by progressives or liberals, your religious or spiritual leaders, your cultural heroes, and your elected representatives. –Rabbi Michael Lerner

Ending the Syrian War

Jeffrey Sachs
February 29, 2016

NEW YORK – Syria is currently the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe and most dangerous geopolitical hotspot. The Syrian people are caught in a bloodbath, with more than 400,000 dead and ten million displaced.

Violent jihadist groups backed by outside patrons mercilessly ravage the country and prey on the population. All parties to the conflict – President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the anti-Assad forces supported by the United States and its allies, and the Islamic State – have committed, and continue to commit, serious war crimes.

It is time for a solution. But such a solution must be based on a transparent and realistic account of what caused the war in the first place.

The chronology is as follows. In February 2011, peaceful protests were staged in Syria’s major cities, amid the region-wide phenomenon dubbed the “Arab Spring.” The Assad regime reacted with a shifting mix of violent repression (shooting at demonstrators) and offers of reform. Soon, the violence escalated. Assad’s opponents accused the regime of using force against civilians without restraint, while the government pointed to the deaths of soldiers and policeman as evidence of violent jihadists among the protestors.

It seems likely that as early as March or April 2011, Sunni anti-regime fighters and arms started to enter Syria from neighboring countries. Many eyewitness accounts tell of foreign jihadists engaging in violent attacks on policemen. (Such accounts are, however, hard to confirm, especially after almost five years).

The US and its regional allies tried to nudge Assad from power in the spring of 2011, thinking that he would fall quickly like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Many observers assert that Qatar funded an increase in anti-regime activity within Syria and used the Doha-based broadcaster Al Jazeera to boost anti-Assad sentiment worldwide, though such claims are hard to pin down definitively.

The US imposed a tightening noose of trade and financial sanctions on the regime. The Brookings Institution, a bellwether of US official policy, called for Assad’s ouster, and anti-Assad propaganda in the US media soared. (Until then, Assad was considered in the US media to be a relatively benign, albeit authoritarian, ruler, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted as late as March 2011 that many in the US Congress regarded Assad as a reformer.)

The launch of the war can be dated to August 18, 2011, when President Barack Obama and Clinton declared that “Assad must go.” Up to that point, the violence was still containable. Total deaths, including both civilians and combatants, ran perhaps to around 2,900 (according to one tally by regime opponents).

After August, the death rate soared. It is sometimes claimed that the US did not act vigorously at this point. Obama’s political foes generally attack him for having taken too little action, not too much. But the US did in fact act to topple Assad, albeit mostly covertly and through allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey (though neither country needed much prodding to intervene). The CIA and Saudi Arabia covertly coordinated their actions.

Of course, the chronology of the war does not explain it. For that, we need to examine the motivations of the key actors. First and foremost, the war in Syria is a proxy war, involving mainly the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran. The US and its allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, started the war in 2011 in order to overthrow Assad’s regime. The US alliance was met with escalating counterforce by Russia and Iran, whose Lebanese proxy army Hezbollah is fighting alongside Assad’s government.

The US interest in overthrowing Assad’s regime was precisely its reliance on Iranian and Russian backing. Removing Assad, US security officials believed, would weaken Iran, undermine Hezbollah, and roll back Russia’s geopolitical reach.

America’s allies, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, were interested in replacing Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria with a Sunni-led regime (Alawites are a branch of Shia Islam). This, they believed, would also weaken their regional competitor, Iran, and curtail Shia influence in the Middle East more generally.

In believing that Assad would be easily overthrown, the US – not for the first time – was relying on its own propaganda. The regime faced deep opposition, but also had considerable internal support. More important, the regime had powerful allies, notably Iran and Russia. It was naive to believe that neither would respond.

The public should appreciate the dirty nature of the CIA-led fight. The US and its allies flooded Syria with Sunni jihadists, just as the US had flooded Afghanistan in the 1980s with Sunni jihadists (the Mujahideen) that later became Al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and the US have regularly backed some of the most violent jihadist groups in a cynical miscalculation that these proxies would do their dirty work and then somehow be pushed aside.

According to the US and European mainstream media, Russia’s military intervention in Syria is treacherous and expansionist. The truth is different. The US is not allowed under the UN Charter to organize an alliance, fund mercenaries, and smuggle heavy weapons to overthrow another country’s government. Russia in this case is reacting, not acting. It is responding to US provocations against its ally.

Ending the war requires adherence to six principles. First, the US should cease both overt and covert operations to overthrow Syria’s government. Second, the UN Security Council should implement the ceasefire now under negotiation, calling on all countries, including the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran, to stop arming and funding military forces within Syria.

Third, all paramilitary activities should cease, including those of so-called “moderates” backed by the US. Fourth, the US and Russia – and, indeed, the UN Security Council – should hold Syria’s government strictly responsible to desist from punitive actions against regime opponents. Fifth, the political transition should take place gradually and with confidence building on all sides, rather than through an arbitrary, destabilizing rush to “free elections.”

Finally, the Gulf States, Turkey, and Iran should be pressed to negotiate face to face on a regional framework that can ensure lasting peace. Arabs, Turks, and Iranians have all lived with each other for millennia. They, not the outside powers, should lead the way to a stable order in the region.

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tags: War & Peace   
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