I’ve been reading a wide range of pundits, experts, and pollsters, hoping to find someone who could make a convincing case for one strategy or another in Syria. To a greater extent than with most issues, I find that I agree with some things most writers are saying, but not with everything anybody is saying. Smart, well-informed, well-intentioned people seem to be exceptionally far from consensus on how the US should respond to the probability that the Syrian government gassed its own people.

I agree with those who commend President Obama for seeking Congressional authorization. Even if the Administration’s limits on the time frame and scope of American involvement succeed in keeping us out of a quagmire, the decision to once again serve as the world’s police force has profound implications for our international standing and our national identity; such a decision should be as broadly based as possible.

But can Congress overcome its partisan gridlock long enough to speak clearly to the Syrian question?

Meanwhile, US efforts to enlist the support of other nations are made more difficult by the revelations concerning the scope of US surveillance of citizens and officials from other countries. So the population of Syria is, arguably, an indirect and, hopefully, temporary casualty of the way the US is conducting its War on Terrorism.

Finally, given the amount of trouble the Obama Administration is having persuading Congress and the American people, not to mention other countries, to endorse a retaliatory strike, can we really believe that a time-limited, unilateral effort on the part of the US would have much value as a deterrent?

Possible Consensus

Everyone pretty much agrees that the situation in Syria is intolerable, and that it imposes on the rest of the world a moral imperative to do something. If there is a consensus further than that, it is that the United Nations is the only organization that can legally authorize force – a position that seems to be gaining strength, judging by the September 7th statement from the European foreign ministers and the similar response to President Obama’s lobbying at the G20 summit – but that the UN is not able to do anything in this case because Russia would veto any Security Council resolution that calling for action against the Syrian government.

This, of course, isn’t the first time that a veto from one of the five permanent members of the Security Council (the P5s) has prevented the UN from acting in a crisis. The US, for example, has repeatedly vetoed resolutions condemning Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

Identifying the factors that prevent the UN from taking action – the veto power of the P5s is certainly one of these, but probably not the only one – and figuring out what, if anything, should be done differently isn’t easy. Various suggestions have been made over the years, but have foundered due to issues such as national sovereignty.

Window of Opportunity to Strengthen UN

I suspect that only in a time of international anguish might it be possible to get enough member nations to agree to try some new ideas. World War II, the great international anguish resulting from the failure of the League of Nations, led to the formation of the United Nations, which incorporated lessons learned through the League’s attempts to prevent war. The UN Charter is now almost 70 years old. In that time, the UN has accomplished much and learned much.

Maybe the agony in Syria presents us with a window of opportunity to improve the functioning of the UN. Today’s international community can try to build on the UN’s accomplishments and experience to fine tune the organization so it will be better able to:

→ Enforce international treaties such as the one banning chemical weapons,
→ Apprehend and prosecute alleged perpetrators of war crimes and terrorism, and
→ Facilitate political solutions to conflicts.

Refugee Crisis Can’t Wait

Deliberations to accomplish this will take months, if not years. The people of Syria, including refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), can’t wait that long. Neither can the surrounding countries that are struggling to cope with 2 million refugees from the war. Starting immediately, we should:

→ Work through the UN agencies already on the ground there to provide aid to refugees and IDPs,
→ Turn over such evidence as we can to help the International Criminal Court issue whatever indictments (against Assad or some other party) are warranted, and
→ Make chemical weapons antidotes available to the most trusted groups in Syria and surrounding countries.

The UN’s Syria Regional Refugee Response plan calls for $3 billion dollars to address the acute needs of refugees until December of this year, but is currently only 38% funded. So about $1.86 billion more is needed to meet the most urgent needs for just the next few months. After that, establishing a level of funding that would do more to help refugees meet long term needs – education, for example – would be a good start on enabling the UN to achieve its potential. Throughout its history, the UN has been seriously underfunded.

Ideally, all member nations of the UN would contribute to this effort – although no more than a token contribution should be expected from the poorest nations – because all would then have ownership of the effort. But the US should be prepared to make an immediate and large contribution. On September 3, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel informed members of Congress that an American military operation in Syria would cost tens of millions of dollars. If that amount were instead funneled into the UN refugee program, it would ease the plight of a lot of people.

I fear that the time is past when the US can lead the world through unilateral action. Because of both the requirements of international law and the realities of our domestic politics, we need to lead by example, which means acting the way we want and expect other nations to act.

Our best hope of helping the people of Syria is to find ways to make the UN more effective in carrying out its mandate. If the present crisis represents a window of opportunity, it would be a shame to not even try to take advantage of it. If we succeeded, the bonus would be that the enhanced UN would give us a leg up in dealing with the other tensions that the future will surely bring.

Other Resources

Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide. Joshua S. Goldstein. Dutton/Penguin, ISBN 978-0-525-95253-4, 2011, 385 pages. Available in bookstores and libraries.

A million children are now refugees from Syria crisis
2 million refugees, 1 million of them children, 740,000 of those under 11 years old
7000 children killed in Syrian war, 2 million children IDPs within Syria
Here are some of the things UNHCR is doing about it.

Latest Refugee News New registration site in Jordan clears Syrian refugee backlog
“Amman, 30 August (UNHCR) – Even as Syrian refugees continue to flood across the border, the UN refugee agency expects next week to slash the time they need to register in Jordan from up to eight months to a single day.

Provided external events do not interfere, UNHCR plans from Sunday, 1 September, for the Anmar Hmoud Registration Center to process new arrivals in a few minutes on the same day they approach the UN refugee agency. A year ago a Syrian refugee approaching UNHCR could wait six to eight months.”

Daily Show Exclusive – Andrew Harper Extended Interview
Sept 3, 2013
Countries around Syria are doing great work helping refugees. Jordan tried to avoid putting them in camps, but at some point had no alternative. The US people as a group have been the biggest contributor. For more info or to donate: unrefugees.org

http://nytimes.com Subscription site allows readers 10 free articles per month
“On Syria, A U. N. Vote Isn’t Optional,” Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro
“Arm and Shame,” Thomas L. Friedman
“Shadow of a Doubt,” Maureen Dowd
“The Right Questions on Syria,” Nicholas D. Kristof
“What Would Sir William Do in Syria,” Alex de Waal and Bridget Conley-Zilkic

Americans Say UN Is Needed, but Doubt Its Effectiveness
March 28, 2013
66% of Americans say UN is necessary, 35% say UN doing a good job

ELCA presiding bishop calls for diplomacy over military strike in Syria
The ELCA presiding bishop wrote that the 4-million-member church is directly engaged in responding to the needs of Syrians displaced from their homes both within the country and in neighboring countries. In addition to assisting in the operation of Za’atari Refugee Camp in northern Jordan, funds from ELCA Lutheran Disaster Response have provided rent for families, health services and supplies for children and infants, and have supported medical programs and surgeries. ELCA members have been invited to contribute toward these needs.

“Given our knowledge of the conflict, we are eager that this war will be brought to a peaceful resolution. Our Christian companions in the region wonder why — notwithstanding these chemical weapons attacks — the U.S. is considering an action that cannot help but increase suffering among Syrian civilians and potentially unleash a broader regional war.”

The ethics of a Syrian military intervention: The experts respond
Aug 29, 2013
“As the Obama administration readies for a probable military strike against Syria, Religion News Service asked a panel of theologians and policy experts whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria in light of the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Would the “Just War” doctrine justify U.S. military action, and what is America’s moral responsibility?” Responses from:
Stanley Hauerwas, Professor emeritus of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School
William Galston, Senior fellow, Brookings Institution
Qamar-ul Huda, Senior program officer in the Religion & Peacemaking Center of the U.S. Institute of Peace
The Rev. Drew Christiansen, Jesuit priest and visiting scholar at Boston College and longtime adviser to the U.S. Catholic Bishops on international affairs
Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, Chair of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons and author of “The World Is Not Ours To Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good”
Rabbi Michael Broyde, Professor of law and senior fellow, Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion
Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor of international relations at Boston University
Robert Parham, Executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.