Why Pacifists Might Support the Syria Strike

As a pacifist who was opposed to both the Iraq and Afghan wars, I've come around to thinking that President Obama's proposed strike in response to Assad's chemical weapons attack might turn out to be a good thing. I say this not because I think war is justified, or that an act of violence can ever be a positive force on its own. But sometimes it can help to create a momentum towards peace.

The proposed strike would not be an act of war. It would not be comparable to the military invasion of Iraq, nor would it be similar to the occupation of Afghanistan. It would be a limited strike in response to a particular, horrible act of chemical warfare, a form of warfare that has been internationally outlawed for almost a hundred years.

Though anything could happen, and the response to the strike could make matters worse, it is also quite possible that it might things better. It might goad Assad towards a negotiated settlement that he has thus far been uninterested in pursuing.

This settlement might look something like the ideas behind the "Six-point Peace Plan" proposed by the United Nations envoy and former Secretary General Kofi Annan in March, 2012. Assad was said to have agreed to the plan and then later abandoned it, and Kofi Annan resigned from his position as envoy in disgust.

What the plan was leading to was a power-sharing arrangement that would protect the interests of the Alawite and Christian minorities, provide a voice for the Sunni majority, and enable a transition to shared power without violence. The ideas were not unlike those that made possible the Good Friday accords in Northern Ireland that brought an end to decades of the "troubles," a euphemism for savage inter-religious warfare and horrible acts of terrorism on both Catholic and Protestant sides. What was created by the Northern Ireland agreement was a system of checks and balances within governmental bodies to make certain that neither side could exploit their positions of power to marginalize or demean the other. And it has largely worked.

The peace solution in Northern Ireland could work in other contentious areas of the world as well, including Syria. But what brought both sides to the table in Northern Ireland was the clear conviction that they had no choice. Neither side seemed able to win, and the violence went on and on.

The violence has been going on for much too long in Syria as well. But as long as it appears that victory is just around the corner it is unlikely that either side will want to come to the negotiating table. Lately it has been the Assad regime that appears to have the upper hand.

If the proposed US missile strike has no other effect, it might send a clear signal to Assad that victory is not at hand, and the time has come to begin to think of a graceful way out. Alas, people only negotiate when they think they have to, and if Assad thinks that he cannot easily win--especially not through the easy route of chemical warfare--this may push him towards the negotiating table that he has resisted for so long.

One of the great lessons of the conflict strategy adopted by Mohandas Gandhi is that talk is empty without some force behind it. In Gandhi's case, he was trying to create a nonviolent force through massive protests and demonstrations. But that show of power was necessary, he thought, in order to bring sides to the negotiating table.

The same may be true in Syria. In order for a peace process to begin, the ongoing violence has to be countered and halted in its tracks, and the parties involved must be forcefully nudged into negotiation. It is a paradox, I know, that the path to peace sometimes has to begin with a forceful shove.

There are risks in that shove. But inaction might be an even more risky option.