Civilians in Syria and R2P

Michael Zenko of the CFR argues that none of the plans to intervene in Syria actually address the causes of civilian deaths in the conflict.

He first takes issue with the claim that Assad has “massacred 100,000 of his own people,” something I myself noted as false over three months ago.

The piece cites the following statistics, based on numbers from the SOHR – a group of anti-regime activists:

Numbers from SOHR

Numbers from SOHR

He then says:

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.

After listing the methods in which those 40,000 + civilians were killed (at least those killed by Assad’s forces), Zenko then explains the types of strategies available for hindering those methods – none of which appear in the intervention proposals.

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.

This, of course, seems rather separate from the debate over weather specific, limited military action would be effective in achieving the more narrow goal of upholding the international norm against the use of chemical weapons.


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