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Dr. Jerrold Shapiro, Ph.D. Headshot

Rethinking Syria: An Open Letter to President Obama

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We write this with some temerity and a large dose of humility. We do not have any access to the intelligence, the pressures or the implications of world politics, nor the broad scope of U.S. interests. Neither of us have ever before composed such a letter, yet we feel compelled to do so, because what we do understand seems missing in the reports of the decision-making process.

We are beginning with the assumption that Bashar al-Assad did in fact add to his lengthy list of atrocity crimes with the recent use of chemical weapons on civilian populations. It is incredibly difficult to fail to respond to such an act in a forceful manner. So what are our reservations against what has been described as precise military strikes?

Well, for one, there will be more civilian casualties. No strike against Assad can be guaranteed to hit only military targets (in fact there are reports that the regime has characteristically moved prisoners to act as human shields or perhaps as a public relations contingency). Any strike will only add to the horrendous toll that is mounting daily in Syria. Additionally, based on a great deal of evidence, our intervention would not be seen as an act of salvation or protection of human rights. For a variety of reasons, the U.S. will be viewed rightfully or wrongly as an aggressor throughout the region.

For many years the older of us served as a family therapist, learning how families could break if members destroyed each other by seeking redress and even revenge; watching as parents turned away from their children; observing the impact of getting in the last best insult to win a battle, and in the process losing the family.

The best way to ameliorate the situation was to approach the family from an understanding of the overriding system that provided a context for the battle. Frequently, I was told, "you just don't understand what s/he did (or said)." Of course, I didn't, nor could I know what occurred within the heart and mind of another person from a different culture (every family is at core, unique ). To understand the family culture, I could not explore motivations, or even actions - I had to be aware of consequences.

The disadvantage of being unable to know their pain directly, was also my advantage. By experiencing their dilemma from the outside, I had a 10,000 foot view. From that topographical vantage point, I could see them and say to them, "when this occurs and you respond in this predictable manner, the inevitable result is also predictable. " As Einstein noted, we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. We need a different paradigm.

Before focusing on world politics, there was of note a very personal experience as a child over six decades ago. While trying out for a Little League Team in a ghetto neighborhood of Boston, I was confronted by a rival who also wanted the position. He was a known bully and after threatening me for almost a full day, he was successful in goading me into a fist fight. The fight was temporarily satisfying for my 8-year-old self, but when it came time to be picked by a team, I was eliminated from consideration for "picking a fight." It was no solace that he also went unchosen. It was for a child, a Pyrrhic victory.

How could this possibly relate to world politics? We suppose the best answer is that when you end up playing by the other fella's rules, you always lose, regardless of the score. If we allow ourselves, again, to be seduced into retaliating and being viewed as the aggressor, we lose. Even if we know we are right, based on our standards and values, we lose. For at least a thousand years, the west has been seduced into intervention in Middle East politics and wars. We can't get it right, because the game is rigged and we don't know all the rules. Think of it as a game of whack-a-mole, except in this version the moles get points each time one is hit with a mallet. Understanding the context of our actions in an asymmetrical power dynamic offers further insight, from this perspective, Assad's commission of a horrendous war crime, somehow has the outcome of him being attacked (punished) and yet perversely being portrayed in the Middle East as the "victim." That may seem almost paranoid, but from a contextual perspective, this is exactly what is likely.

Perhaps, we need to examine this dilemma from a different perspective, one that might lead us to a whole different line of consideration. We wish we knew how to resolve the multiple dilemmas in the Middle East, or in the U.S. We wish we knew a way for Congress to focus on doing what's best for those they purportedly represent. We don't, and greater minds than ours have tried for years to unwind the quandaries and impasses. But as a clinical psychologist/therapist and graduate student in Public Diplomacy, we do know something about the process of human interaction. From that perspective, we can see that we are in a no-win situation; damned if we act; damned if we do not. We also know that when faced by that apparent choice between two poor outcomes, we need to leave the game and play by a new one that has more equitable rules.

It is fascinating that this is all occurring as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King's brilliant ability to change the game. He didn't dismiss the awful wrongs and the continuing unfairness to our brothers and sisters. Instead of trying to directly redress past wrongs, he led us to believe in our children having a better life together.
That juxtaposition is very telling. Non-violent witnessing and resolve to make the world better incrementally for all people was certainly a message that most of the world could honor. In a way, that may also be the challenge here. What can we do to hold the true moral high ground? How can our compassion balance our anger? How may we act to show the world what a true demon, Assad is, without being seduced into doing it his way?

What is needed now is not a psychologically tempting, seemingly justifiable military reaction, because the idea of chemical weapons is so loathsome. For perspective, over 100,000 people have died since this conflict began, the overwhelming majority were not killed with chemical weapons, but rather died by the ubiquitous and mundane bullets and bombs which somehow did not arouse our ire.

Let's not forget about the internally and externally displaced peoples who have flooded into neighboring countries and live in sprawling tent cities so large they rival in population the top five cities within those nations. The emotional need to punish Assad for his crimes is compelling, videos of children suffocating and twitching horrifies us and makes us angry and when we are angry we tend to fight on the bully's terms. A military strike on Assad could be disastrous and though we understand the dangers associated with inaction, expanding a civil war into an all-out war in the region seems too risky a cost.

So what can we do in the interim? Let's think more in terms of a Marshall Plan or Berlin Airlift. We need to reach out to those refugees from Syria and other Middle East countries in Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere. We need to find a way to offer love to the Syrian people, even as the vicious factions in their country reigns misery upon them.

Let's let America stand as the beacon offered by our Statue of Liberty: a promise to welcome, protect and offer freedom.