By Elizabeth Hume
According to the World Bank, the Syrian conflict has led to more than 500,000 deaths and forced the displacement of nearly 5 million people, more than half of Syrian’s 2010 populations. Additionally, from 2011 until the end of 2016, the cumulative losses in gross domestic product (GDP) have been estimated at $226 billion, about four times the Syrian GDP in 2010, and decades of development gains have been wiped out. Assad’s government has also been accused of using chemical weapons on the rebel held areas. The World Health Organization believes that as many as 500 people may have been affected by the recent chemical attack on the rebel-held town in Eastern Ghouta resulting in airstrikes by the United States, France and UK.
According to a robust body of International Humanitarian Law, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977, civilians and noncombatants are to be protected, and the means and methods of warfare restricted. These are bedrock principles of international law, and are considered the most sacrosanct rules protecting innocent civilians during times of war, which makes this conflict and the chemical attacks so horrific.
There is no military solution to the Syrian civil war. Bombing sites where chemical weapons are produced may degrade Syria’s ability to produce those weapons for a short time, but it will not stop the violence. Any broader military action would risk casualties among the civilian population, Russians, or Iranians and retaliation against US personnel in the region and possibly creating a regional or global conflict.
At this point the US does not have a coherent and consistent policy for this region. This latest military strike was conducted only days after President Trump stated he wanted to pull the US out of this region much to the surprise of those in his administration. This statement was then countered by his announcement of airstrikes in retaliation for the chemical attacks where he stated the US would undertake a sustained diplomatic, military and economic response to stop the use of chemical weapons and stay focused on defeating ISIS.
The US needs to develop a comprehensive strategy for this region. Only a set of negotiated ceasefires and/or settlements will end the violent conflict. Therefore, President Trump needs to follow his statement with action. The US must have a seat at the table and not just focus on ISIS and let Iran and Russia determine the fate of Syria and ultimately the region.
Just as importantly, peace will not just happen; it will have to be built. There is already development and peacebuilding work underway. We should encourage local efforts to restore governance and services in war-torn areas. UK-based NGO Peace Direct, for example, is providing backing for Zoom In, a local peacebuilding organization in Idlib Province that is working to set up local councils and rebuild schools and community. We should also fund efforts to resolve the long-term status of refugees by helping them develop professional skills and finding permanent homes. For example, the US-based NGO Mercy Corps is working with Microsoft Philanthropies to use technology tools to support identification documentation, access information and develop job-related skills.