Responding to Syria. What does the evidence suggest?
No one wants war. Likely, most people are relieved that imminent threats of US military interventions against Syria have been postponed. However, what remains is the question of what to do about the humanitarian crisis which has left over 100,000 people dead and more than one million people seeking refuge in neighboring countries. How should the world respond?
Conventional wisdom tells us that negotiation is a good thing, but when that fails, it’s time to bring out the guns. After all, the thinking goes, military power is a time-tested method to rid the world of tyrants who terrorize their own people.
But what does the evidence tell us? Unlike our forefathers and mothers who fought good wars against evil dictators, we now have the benefit of reliable research that has examined the evidence as to whether military responses bring about positive results.
The first question we can ask is this: what would happen if the US (or another country) were to send troops to Syria? This question was studied by a group of social scientists who examined third-party military interventions over the past several decades. The result? On average, when a country sends troops to assist a rebel group to topple a dictator, civilian deaths rise by a startling forty percent! The reason? Regimes respond to such external threats by actually increasing their brutality on their own people.
No one says this response is rational or justified, but studies show this response is consistent. Therefore, if our aim is to reduce the serious humanitarian crisis in Syria, the evidence shows that military intervention is the LAST thing we should be considering.
Another question: how do we deal with regimes that resort to desperate measures such as the use of chemical weapons? Again, our conventional wisdom tells us that a strong military intervention will achieve our goal swiftly and justly. But what does the evidence show? Studies that have examined government responses to terrorist organizations have consistently demonstrated that when leaders use aggressive military tactics, terrorist activity (and support among the population whom the terrorists say they represent) actually increases. On the contrary, when governments respond to terrorist activities by taking the time to understand the underlying concerns and offer genuine concessions, popular support for terrorist activity drops considerably, as do actual terrorist attacks.
This may seem counterintuitive at first, but if we stop to think about it, most of us respond better to our adversaries when they offer us an olive branch rather than when they try to escalate the conflict. Again, if our aim is to reduce human suffering caused by terrorism, military responses do not seem to be the solution.
A final question is this: does nonviolence really work? Again, many people believe that nonviolent actions are great, but when they don’t work, we need to resort to violence, because violence works. What does the research tell us? A seminal study was recently conducted which reviewed over 300 violent and nonviolent campaigns in the last 100 years. A comparison was done to see which strategy was more likely to achieve its goal. The result? Nonviolent campaigns were 40 percent more likely than violent campaigns to achieve their goal. Not only that, success achieved through nonviolent means was much longer lasting than success achieved through violence. The reason for this, it is suggested, is that nonviolence is infectious – it captures the spirit of ordinary citizens in a way that violent campaigns do not (they tend to only attract young men), which strengthen grass root democratic institutions. Violent campaigns sometimes achieve immediate success, but long term success is marred by a cycle of violence where a leader with big guns is simply replaced by another leader with big guns. Real peace remains elusive.
We live in an era where scientific research is held in high esteem. No one would go to a physician who practised medicine that was outdated or ineffective. So why do we continue to consider war as our most viable solution to large scale conflict? I suggest that it is time to critically question our centuries (or millennia) old custom of using violence to bring about positive change and consider the solid empirical evidence of the benefits of nonviolence. Additionally, Canada has an abundant supply of mediation professionals who are specially trained to work on conflicts such as the current Syrian crisis.
It’s time we learned from our past.
Dr. Randy Janzen lives in Nelson and teaches Peace Studies.