1. Update
  2. Middle East & Iran, Syria

Don't Add Fuel to Fire in Syria

Safety for Syrians and security for everyone can only be won by non-military means

By Leah Muskin-Pierret, March 16, 2017


With so many Syrian civilians’ lives caught in the balance between myriad military powers and militias, actors interested in peace should press for a political solution to the conflict. Congress should exercise its constitutionally ordained role in exerting oversight of the executive branch to press for a non-military path forward in Syria.

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As the Syrian war enters its seventh year, the Trump administration sent 400 more US troops to Syria, nearly doubling the troop presence there, and is considering deploying 1,000 more troops in the coming weeks. With the possibility of further US escalation in Syria looming, Congress should exercise its constitutionally ordained role in exerting oversight of the executive branch and should press for a path forward in Syria that recognizes three realities:

1. War isn’t working

We cannot fight fire with fire, and it is becoming increasingly clear that Washington’s military-centric approach is only fanning the flames. FCNL stated it, alongside 14 other organizations concerned about civilian protection in 2014, and we say it again now: the civilian toll of US bombing and raids emboldens extremist groups and perpetuates rather than mitigates cycles of violence.

Extremism cannot be bombed out of existence. ISIS, one must note, was bombed into existence.

As my colleague Kate Gould explained concisely, US military force works as a force multiplier for ISIS and other extremist groups. She writes, “Killing people - ISIS fighters and especially civilians - in the quest to destroy ISIS assists the group in recruiting additional fighters.” Indeed, “Extremism cannot be bombed out of existence. ISIS, one must note, was bombed into existence.”

Even worse, the US has accidentally helped arm ISIS. The bulk of ISIS weaponry is looted from Iraqi government stocks and originates from countries including the US. As Patrick Wilcken of Amnesty International has explained, “lack of oversight of the immense arms flows into Iraq going back decades have given ISIS and other armed groups a bonanza of unprecedented access to firepower.”

Adding fuel to the fire, President Trump’s anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric at home provide fodder for extremist recruitment videos by the ISIS and other militant groups. Experts across the political spectrum agree that discrimination against Muslims at home provides frightening kernels of truth for Islamic State propaganda claims that the US is at war with Islam.

FCNL opposes these increases in US troops in Syria as further steps in the wrong direction, and we recommend that the US pursue the path of diplomacy to reach peace.

Background Treat ISIS Like an Artichoke: A Non-Military Route to the Heart of the Crisis 

FCNL's Kate Gould explain that, to get to the heart of the ISIS crisis, we must press our elected officials and other policy makers to treat ISIS like an artichoke. The most promising way to deal with ISIS is to use non-military means to strip off its overlapping layers of recruits, weapons, and political and financial support.

2. “Safe Zones” protect militaries and endanger the Syrian people

“Safe Zones” are not a solution for refugees, and in fact could further endanger vulnerable Syrians. We speak out against President Donald Trump’s call to "absolutely do safe zones in Syria" because, as Human Rights Watch has warned, “[a safe zone] is more likely to be a death trap than a place of sanctuary.” FCNL’s Kate Gould described the core problems in Vox: “A safe zone would concentrate vulnerable people in one place, making them a perfect target” and “defending the safe zone would widen the war and make a political settlement less likely.”

“Safe zones” are part of a disturbing trend of humanitarian rhetoric exploited by international actors in a scramble to partition Syria into zones of geopolitical influence.

So, these zones don’t serve civilians, but they do serve more short-sighted objectives of military forces. Journalist Lorenzo Trombettapart explains that “de facto safe zones” already exist on three out of four international Syrian borders. “Safe zones” are part of a disturbing trend of humanitarian rhetoric exploited by international actors in a scramble to partition Syria into zones of geopolitical influence. The structure of these safe zones is determined not what would make Syrian civilians safe, but by what is judged to be in the best interests of military forces in the region. The geography of the already existing safe zones has largely been determined by the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah on the Lebanese border, Jordanian-influenced rebel groups on the Israeli border, and the Turkish military and Kurdish forces on the Turkish border. Syrian civilians’ right to safe passage and safe haven is only protected in these situations when geopolitically convenient for these military forces.

Take the proposal for an official “safe zone” on the Syrian-Lebanese border, called for by Lebanese President Michel Aoun in early February 2017. President Aoun is an ally of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, and analyst Abdulrahman al-Masri notes that his proposed “safe zone” is not designed to provide a safe place for refugees to flee, but would serve to “shield Hezbollah’s arms supply line, cement the militia’s position in the contentious Lebanese political landscape, and secure Iran’s geostrategic interests.”

In addition to these militarily strategic “safe zones,” policymakers have called for similar zones to protect targeted religious minorities. This plan, too, borrows the language of humanitarianism but ultimately supports only militarism. Manal Omar of the US Institute of Peace explained how such zones could breed resentment against the protected minority and force civilians to become dependent on other countries and militaries for protection and assistance.

A successful No Fly Zone would require deployment of 70,000 soldiers, or more than 70 times current US troop levels in Syria

And lastly, No Fly Zones represent another similar proposal that use humanitarian rhetoric to defend a military escalation that puts the Syrian people at greater risk. No Fly Zones are not a less militarized approach to the US presence in Syria: General Martin E. Dempsey estimated in 2013 that a successful No Fly Zone would require deployment of 70,000 soldiers, or more than 70 times current US troop levels in Syria. And even worse, experts have warned that such a policy would most likely ignite a US war with Russia that uses Syria as a battleground. While US-allied forces might emerge victories from escalating US confrontation in Syria to this level, the Syrian people can only lose more of their homes, communities, and loved ones under international bombs.

FCNL in the News A "Safe Zone" in Syria Sounds Like a Great Idea. It Would Be a Disaster 

FCNL's Kate Gould writes: "The goal of a 'safe zone' is a laudable one: to protect civilians from attacks in a designated area. But despite its misleadingly simplistic name, establishing a 'safe zone' in Syria would put civilians in even greater danger and risk prolonging Syria’s bloody nightmare."

3. We must pursue a non-military path forward

With so many Syrian civilians’ lives caught in the balance between myriad military powers and militias, actors interested in peace should press for a political solution to the conflict.

The administration should use its leverage with all actors in the region, especially its influence with the Russian government, to end the killing and urgently curtail the systematic targeting of civilians. Congress should also support generous funding for humanitarian aid in Syria and throughout the region.

Leila Al-Shami explains powerfully that non-military solutions are necessary for Syrian civil society to bloom. Bombing campaigns have so far suffocated the nascent post-revolution civil Democratic experiments in Syria.

“Trump admires Putin and is likely to work with both him and Assad directly, paying even less lip-service to issues such as human rights, democracy or civilian protection... Assad, Russia and Iran believe in a military solution to this conflict. It is now up to people, globally, to build a sustained anti-war movement that stands with the Syrian people against all states participating in and perpetuating this conflict.”

Now, we need an international movement of solidarity with the Syrian people, dedicated to peace.

Update Syria: Diplomacy, Not More War 

With Aleppo burning and war drums beating, it’s more urgent than ever to continue to press for the only way to stop the bloodshed in Syria: an immediate negotiated ceasefire, and ultimately, a political solution to end the crisis.

Letter 15 NGOs Sign Letter In Support of Civilian Protection in Iraq and Syria 

FCNL joins 14 other organizations in calling for greater protection of Civilians in Iraq and Syria.

Leah Muskin-Pierret

  • Program Assistant for Middle East Policy

Leah Muskin-Pierret works with Kate Gould to support FCNL’s lobbying on issues of militarism and the possibilities for peace in U.S. Middle East policy. She lobbies and provides support for FCNL’s network of constituent lobbyists to promote diplomatic solutions over military action in U.S. policy towards Iran, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Israel/Palestine.