Working towards peace and sustainability

Pursuing Alternatives to War on the Islamic State

President Obama, while not going to Congress for a declaration thereof—as required by the U.S. Constitution—has, in effect, declared war on the Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS or ISIL). He has announced that the U.S. military will be making war against IS in both Iraq and Syria, the latter intervention being clearly in violation of international law.

Peaceworks, while appalled by the crimes of IS, recognizes that the administration’s approach is likely to fail at achieving its stated goals, and, in fact, likely to do more harm than good. As has been the case with every American military intervention in the region, Obama’s war on IS will bring more death and destruction. Its likely outcome will be more, not fewer, enemies and greater regional instability. It is also likely to be very costly in every sense of the word.

Our opposition to the use of violence to address IS is based in part on upon practical concerns. Our government has repeatedly intervened or taken sides in civil wars and internal conflicts with consistently negative outcomes. From Central America (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala) to Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos), to Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, proponents of intervention have a hard time coming up with a success story they can point to.

Mr. Obama embraces the pursuit of military victory primarily via aerial bombing and drone strikes. But, this approach has repeatedly failed, and for good reason. It is extremely difficult to wipe out an enemy by bombing, and, inevitably, many innocent civilians are killed while trying. Fallen combatants are made into martyrs, and are portrayed as making the ultimate sacrifice fighting the powerful and evil foreigners. With the U.S. taking sides in a civil war, there is greater polarization and less opportunity for reconciliation between warring factions.

This does not mean we reject taking action. We simply call for action that is consistent in means and ends and more likely to succeed. We must start, first and foremost, with diplomacy and work with other states in the region, not to make war together, but to seek a just and inclusive peace. Here is a list of actions that we think would be more effective, borrowed from our friends at Veterans for Peace:

1)  Stop the airstrikes because the Sunni leaders and militia, who President Obama acknowledges must be persuaded to break with ISIL, see the U.S. as acting as the air force for the Kurds and Shia against Sunnis. The driving force for the Sunni-ISIL alliance is the alienation of Sunnis from Baghdad by the previous Iraqi administration. Bombing Sunnis will not help mend this relationship.

2)  Stop the slippery slope of sending troops to Iraq and stop sending more weapons that fuel the conflict killing more civilians and ignoring human rights violations committed by “allies” This includes pressuring countries to stop supporting and selling arms to ISIL and stopping all black market weapons sales.

3)  Make diplomacy the number one priority. Since it is clear there is no military solution, seriously engage with everyone in the region, including Iran, which is needed to force the Iraqi government to be more inclusive with Sunni leaders. Without an inclusive government in Iraq there is no way to effectively confront ISIL.

4)  Initiate a new effort at building a broad diplomatic solution in the United Nations to use diplomatic and financial pressure to stop countries from financing and arming ISIL and other fighters in Syria. An arms embargo on all sides should be on the long-term agenda.

5)  Make a real effort to restart UN negotiations to end the civil war in Syria. Set aside preconceived demands and work to end the violence. Once that is achieved the people of Syria can begin to chart their destiny.

6)  Massively increase humanitarian efforts through the UN and any other means. Real and effective efforts to relieve suffering will go a long way in convincing people to break with ISIL. More U.S. bombings and killings will only confirm that the U.S. is the enemy of Islam.