Glen Retief’s recent letter to Friends Journal, “A Pacifist Reconsiders Military Action in Syria,” reflects the dilemma many Friends feel about our country’s role in confronting brutal violence. Retief questioned his Quaker pacifist stance in the face of the use of chemical weapons in Syria that killed over 1,000 people, which President Obama called a violation of “international norms” and stated he would use military strikes to punish Syria. It’s a complex situation, and it makes sense that reasonable people might disagree about the ethical response to these atrocities.
For Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), our reaction to the use of chemical weapons and to the president’s idea of using the U.S. military in Syria was clear. Responding to a political problem with military action would only invite more violence. Our assessment of the situation was that military strikes would escalate the bloodshed and could inadvertently disburse chemical weapons. If backed into a corner by military intervention, the Assad régime might have been more likely to use chemical weapons on a broader scale.
While FCNL is known for our “war is not the answer” slogan, our day to day work in Washington is offering our U.S. policymakers alternatives to war, which we did immediately. We wrote to President Obama recommending the use of international institutions such as the International Criminal Court to pursue justice for the offense of using chemical weapons, and we recommended engaging Russia and Iran through the Geneva II process for advancing solutions to the war in Syria. We recommended that the U.S. could do more to address the humanitarian crisis of refugees that is overwhelming Jordan and Turkey.
The president’s decision to seek the approval of Congress was an extremely important step. We sent our ideas to Congress—via published op-ed’s in the media and by lobbying on the Hill. We encouraged Friends and others to join the majority of Americans who opposed military action and voice their concerns to their members of Congress. We have heard from colleagues on the Hill that the overwhelming response from constituents against military strikes was a key factor in influencing members’ positions.
Despite the fact that U.S. military strikes have been tentatively averted, there is still a war going on in Syria—thousands have died, and millions have been displaced. We should be focused on exploring diplomatic ways to help end this violence. The fact that the U.S. did not engage in military strikes adds to our ability to navigate solutions to the conflict.
It is a stunning and encouraging advancement that steps are being taken to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons and to actively engage the key stakeholders in diplomacy that might lead to a political settlement. That Russia would initiate movement to broker disarmament of Syrian chemical weapons and that Iran would condemn the use of these weapons publicly and create overtures with the U.S. are all important steps in the peace building process that has a long journey.
As the war in Syria rages on and fades from the front pages, those who care about peace and human rights must press for commitment to the long term solutions that will advance peace. Diplomacy is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. We must continue our training for the long race for peace and a better world.
As we strive to live in “in the virtue of that life and power that [takes] away the occasion of all wars” Friends seek ways to live into that power, both in our personal and public lives. As a historically pacifist church, we are not always in unity about how we can counter violence—particularly violence perpetrated by nations against their own citizens. The encouraging work that Quakers are doing with US policy makers is educating and lobbying for U.S. foreign policy that addresses the root causes of deadly conflict, recognizes and invests in civil society operations and builds the accountability of the international bodies working for peace and justice.