Responsibility to Protect?

Why none of the plans for intervening in Syria actually tries to save civilians.

During his opening statement before last week's House Armed Services Committee hearing on Syria, ranking member Rep. Adam Smith described the "civil war in which Assad has killed somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand of his own civilians." Versions of Smith's misleading characterization are repeated often by policymakers. As Sen. John McCain has often proclaimed, and repeated last week, "The fact is Bashar Assad has massacred 100,000 people."

That the security forces under Assad's authority have perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the use of chemical weapons, is beyond doubt. And as the head of state, he has effective control over his subordinate forces and must be held accountable before the International Criminal Court or a post-conflict special tribunal for Syria. However, most of the reported deaths in Syria have not been committed by those forces under his command.

The most widely quoted source for civil war deaths has been produced by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which consists of a handful of Syrian activists compiling information in a war zone and presenting the best estimates possible. Despite their potential for bias and the methodological challenges of tracking the Syria war, SOHR estimates are consistent with the latest United Nations numbers. In the past 10 days, both the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, and the high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, estimated that "more than 100,000" Syrians have lost their lives in the ongoing civil war.

This is how SOHR breaks down the Syrian deaths:

This grim account is not the Syrian civil war that U.S. policymakers and pundits reference when proposing and debating military intervention options. You will not hear senators assert that Syrian rebels have "massacred" over 45,000 Syrian regime or paramilitary forces. When Assad responded to the largely peaceful demonstrations in 2011 with brutality and extrajudicial detentions, Syrian rebels took up arms against the state. Their primary objectives are to capture and control additional territory and resources and, ultimately, to assure that Assad is removed from power, whether through diplomacy or warfare.

Saving civilians' lives, as opposed to those of regime security forces or members of the armed opposition, requires recognizing exactly how non-combatants are being killed. On this, the 11 reports and updates published by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic have proven to be the most reliable resource. After re-reading these gripping and detailed findings this weekend, I found that a half-dozen means of regime-directed lethality against civilians appear consistently:

  • Heavy machine gun, tank, and artillery attacks -- with occasional surface-to-surface missile strikes -- against areas predominantly populated by civilians.
  • Sniper fire against civilians and those medical personnel attempting to rescue them.
  • Unlawful killing of civilians during large-scale counterinsurgency raids into cities with ground forces.
  • Arbitrary mass arrests within civilian neighborhoods and at military checkpoints, which end in extrajudicial executions.
  • Aerial bombardment by helicopter gunships and combat jets against cities, including with especially indiscriminate weapons like cluster munitions and thermobaric bombs.
  • Ground raids into hospitals and temporary facilities operated by medical personnel and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which result in extrajudicial killings.

The U.N. mission report released on Monday investigated allegations of chemical weapons use in the Ghouta area of Damascus on August 21 and determined that they were used "against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale," with "clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent were used." This impartial finding directly implicates the Assad regime, though as journalist Liz Sly recently noted, less than 1 percent of all Syrian deaths have been by chemical weapons.

Fully comprehending these six primary means of regime-directed lethality against Syrian non-combatants -- as well as the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons -- should inform various demands in the United States for military intervention. But in the last two-and-a-half years, virtually no proposal for using force to protect civilians in Syria has taken into account how non-combatants are actually killed and injured.

This omission is not by accident. There are well-known and time-tested defensive countermeasures that the U.S. military could implement in Syria tomorrow to protect civilians there. You can find the tactics, techniques, and procedures for countering and defeating every way that Syrian civilians are being killed in the U.S. military's joint publications and the U.S. Army's field manuals. If you want these broken down into excruciating detail, the Pentagon also produces a 1,300-page universal joint task list. And for a more readable description of how military planners think about developing contingency operations to save lives, you can read the handbook produced by the Mass Atrocity Response Operations (MARO) Project. (Disclosure: I was a research associate for the MARO Project for nine months in its early stages.)

For example, mitigating or suppressing sniper fire requires well-trained infantry troops to detect, seize, search, and clear each floor the gunman is suspected of occupying. Counter-sniper tactics also include deploying your own snipers to painstakingly determine the patterns and location of an adversary sniper. As an Army field manual instructs: "The sniper must place himself in the position of the enemy and ask, ‘How would I accomplish this mission?'." Once found, the sniper is targeted by another sniper. (The 2001 Jude Law film Enemy at the Gates was supposedly a realistic representation of such tactics, as used by German and Russian snipers during the siege of Stalingrad.)

If you want to disrupt mobile artillery shelling, you need advanced counter-battery radars synched with counter-battery fire, or else lots of manned or unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets circling overhead to identify the fire source in real time (which Syrian rebels do not possess). Or, you can always "send in the infantry," assuming they are trained in the basic fire and movement tactics required to locate and attack self-propelled artillery.

The reason these specific countermeasures are never proposed is that they entail a level of cost, commitment, and risk that neither pundits nor policymakers are willing to accept, including the unmentionable "boots on the ground." Rather, intervention proposals focus on using stand-off weapons against largely static "regime targets" in an effort to coerce Assad to change his behavior, or enforcing (or just announcing) a no-fly-zone, which would be largely irrelevant. As President Obama stated in June: "The fact of the matter is for example, 90 percent of the deaths that have taken place haven't been because of air strikes by the Syrian air force."

The types of interventions that proponents have endorsed for Syria are often based on deep misunderstandings of how U.S. force was used on behalf of humanitarian missions in the past, and have almost nothing to do with how Syrian non-combatants are actually being killed. As someone who has been researching and writing for a decade about how military force can be used to save lives, I find the unwillingness to confront the realities of the conflict in Syria puzzling and disheartening. Either saving Syrian non-combatants from a violent death is so important to the United States and the international community that it necessitates an effective military response, or it isn't. Intervention proposals that consciously ignore or downplay the amount and type of force needed to protect civilians are just wishful thinking.

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Micah Zenko

The Wrong Way to Be Right

Obama's shoddy case for striking Syria to enforce international norms.

Over the past two years, many thoughtful pieces have advocated for U.S. military intervention in Syria's civil war. A review of such pieces reveals three core justifications: protecting civilians; altering the battlefield to help topple Assad or facilitate a diplomatic solution; and countering Iranian influence in the region. Very few have emphasized the need for the U.S. military to uphold international norms.

However, since the White House recently made norm-enforcement the primary, professed basis for attacking Syria, intervention advocates have adopted this reasoning. Indicative of this shift, in the 24 months preceding Secretary of State John Kerry's August 26 speech, the words "international norm" and "Syria" appeared together 263 times in the 6,075 English-language news publications surveyed by the search engine Lexis Nexis, and 792 times in the 13 days after. Naturally, the normative argument has also become fodder for those opposing intervention, with Sen. Ted Cruz proclaiming on Sunday, "I don't think that's the job of our military, to be defending amorphous international norms."

There are two fundamental questions at the heart of this debate that are worth discussing: what, exactly, norms are and how a state can and should go about enforcing them. The answers to these questions, taken together with recent, contradictory statements by the administration about its aims, reveal that, when it comes to international normative arguments, the U.S. is on shaky ground with its quest to strike Syria.

Norms, defined as "shared expectations about appropriate behavior held by a community of actors," are socially constructed, highly contested, and forever changing. In international relations, both weak and powerful states attempt to promote and socialize norms that are in their own self-interest, while diminishing the salience of those that are not. As political scientist Ward Thomas notes, norms are "both products of and constraints upon state action, serving an essentially instrumental purpose." For example, President Richard Nixon unilaterally abandoned U.S. offensive biological weapons programs (over the unanimous objection of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) in part for moral and diplomatic reasons, but also for material ones: Biological weapons provided no strategic deterrent advantages over nuclear weapons.

As compared to other norms, the one against the use of chemical weapons in warfare is widely endorsed, meeting international relations scholar Jeffrey Legro's three criteria for what constitutes a robust norm: specificity, durability, and concordance. Somewhat counterintuitively, the norm's durability has been further reinforced in Syria: Assad has been compelled to claim that he has never used chemical weapons, and his patron, Russia, is contending that chemical weapons attacks have only been conducted by rebel forces. Since Syrian security forces have not deployed chemical weapons in a widespread and indiscriminate manner since the opening days of the civil war, Assad has not embraced their use. He has also negotiated the -- albeit delayed and constrained -- United Nations chemical weapons inspection team access to sites where the attacks occurred to collect physical evidence.

With an understanding of what constitutes norms, the more pointed version of the second question of interest here is whether the U.S. bombing of Syria, with little overt or direct international support, would be the most widely accepted and enduring means of enforcing the norm against chemical weapons. As one senior administration official warned, "[D]oing nothing sends a message... that you can carry out chemical weapons attacks with impunity." This assumes both that any alternatives to military force are "nothing," and that the only way to enforce this international norm is with a few days of cruise missiles and airstrikes.

Unfortunately for the White House, there are norms about enforcement that contrast with its approach. Syria is a state party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of "asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases" in warfare, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which forbids the arbitrary deprivation of life. Neither of these treaties allows for a single country to be the arbiter and enforcement authority. Most world leaders and international lawyers believe Syria's referral to the International Criminal Court, U.N. Human Rights Council, and/or the Security Council must be the first step before collective enforcement and punishment procedures are chosen.

If President Obama does not follow any of these near universally accepted enforcement procedures, and -- with or without Congress's approval -- authorizes a near-unilateral attack against Assad regime targets, the U.S. will be derided, rejected, or ignored by much of the international community. An attack would build upon the already long and tragic history of American military involvement in the Middle East. Nobody in the region, or elsewhere for that matter, would conceive of this particular intervention in isolation from all the U.S. troops, missiles, and bombs that preceded them. Nothing captures public attention and anger like widely televised and well reported uses of military force. Should Obama proceed on the current path, the world will again remember America's bombs far longer than the horrendous war crime that they were a response to.

Further weakening the U.S. stance are the ways in which it has already undermined its norm-enforcement argument. Many of the upcoming targets, for instance, would be unrelated to chemical weapons. During the analogous four-day, U.S.-United Kingdom bombing of Iraq in December 1998, only 30 of the 100 target sets were connected to Saddam Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction or ballistic missile capabilities. Saddam's presidential palaces and Baath Party headquarters were severely damaged, his air defense system was temporarily crippled, and approximately 1,400 Iraqi soldiers were killed in their command posts and barracks. It is worth recalling that, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Hugh Shelton initially presented the December 1998 operational plans to Bill Clinton, the president voluntarily increased the number of cruise missile and strike sorties that would be permitted so the U.S. military could expand the target set in Iraq. The same scope of targeting beyond those forces or facilities associated with chemical weapons is being prepared for Syria.

In a similar vein, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Obama and Kerry have told members of Congress privately that the goal of the strikes is to "change the momentum" on the battlefield. Once initial Tomahawk cruise missiles arrived, the United States would become a co-belligerent in Syria's civil war, on behalf of the armed opposition. This contradicts public assertions about norms. Kerry, for instance, has contended, "We are trying to enforce the international norm against that behavior, and that's all that this military strike seeks to do." However, no matter how often a near-unilateral U.S. military operation is touted by the Obama administration as norm enforcement, it would primarily be about regime erosion. Everyone would correctly perceive it as such -- and if it fails, judge it as such.

The Obama administration has also harmed its norm-enforcement case in its attempts to claim that there are no distinctions among chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and that any diminishment of the norm against chemical weapons could embolden, in Kerry's words, "every other terrorist group or dictator that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction." Moreover, Kerry has elevated chemical weapons above nuclear or biological weapons by contending that chemical weapons are "the most heinous weapons." This is simply false if destructive power, lethality, or degrees of human suffering are components of the heinous-ness of the tools of warfare.

Furthermore, Obama has made an extraordinary claim of global norm-linkage, saying that, "if that norm [against chemical weapons use] unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unraveling." This normative domino theory is mere speculation and without any confirming evidence in recent history. Just as nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons should not be lumped together, all norms are not created equal, nor are they so tightly coupled.

The combination of Obama's choice of norm enforcement by military means without the active participation of many other countries and outside of widely agreed-upon violation procedures explains why, although most countries agree that prohibiting chemical weapons use is an international norm worth defending, they overwhelmingly disagree with how the United States wants to enforce it in Syria. As the Middle East scholar Shibley Telhami noted recently in Foreign Policy, "It is improbable, then, that people who don't believe America is acting because of chemical weapons use will draw any new conclusions on chemical weapons norms."

Punishing and deterring transgressions of the norm against the repeated and indiscriminate use of chemical weapons is something the United States should endorse. Unfortunately, with regard to Syria, it has chosen the wrong style, process, and military-first approach to do so.   

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