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Syria: What we could do now

Syria: What we could do now
Published 7 Oct 2016   Follow @RodgerShanahan

I wrote previously about the practical difficulties of military intervention, difficulties which pundits and commentators gloss over when criticising Obama for doing nothing ('Syria: What Are We Going to do Now?'). 

One key element missing from the plans of the 'for God's sake let's do something' crowd is strategic intent. Political leaders must articulate exactly what they want to achieve with military force. The military planners then provide options to achieve their intent, and advise on the strengths and weaknesses of the courses of action they have developed. Most commentators demand military action without having to explain exactly what their aim is. For instance, they say they want to (1) stop civilians dying, while (2) also punishing Assad and the Russians.

Yet these goals may well be incompatible. Let's consider a couple of courses of action that might achieve each of the pundits' twin aims, and why they can't both be achieved.

Aim: Stop civilian deaths in Aleppo

The Assad regime and its supporters have encircled Aleppo with little prospect of the siege being broken. They seek to attrit the armed elements which are fighting among the civilian population. Even if the regime and Russian forces took all care to minimise civilian casualties (which they don't), innocents would still die. Assad is likely to take Aleppo and it is simply a matter of how many civilians will die before it is done.

Rather than call for military intervention to attempt the rather quixotic task of stopping Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces attacking Aleppo, a more likely path to limiting civilian deaths would be to pressure armed groups to leave Aleppo and to provide a UN presence on the ground to ensure that fighters are given safe passage out of the city.

Just as it is against the laws of war to indiscriminately conduct attacks within populated areas, it is also against the laws of war to fail to make efforts to remove civilians from areas where combatants deploy their forces. There is a strong case that in Aleppo both state and non-state actors are guilty of war crimes; one for deploying among the civilian population and the other for failing to discriminate in their attacks. So the argument that assisting safe passage for anti-Assad fighters simply rewards war criminals loses some of its cogency if one accepts that both sides have ignored the laws of war and caused suffering to civilians. One can argue relative responsibilities, but in absolute terms both are guilty. Stefan de Mistura, the UN representative on the Syria issue, even offered to escort the 900-odd al Qaeda fighters out of Aleppo.

Needless to say, under such a proposal Assad's forces would be handed a significant victory while Washington would stand accused of assisting him to expel Syrian rebels. And the regime will see that continuing its encircle-and-destroy tactics will bring success. Jihadist groups, meanwhile, will likely see it as further 'proof' that the West is complicit in the slaughter of Muslims, and this may raise terrorist threat levels somewhat. The fall of Aleppo will also put regime forces in a stronger position when the next round of Syrian negotiations commences with the new administration in Washington and limit US options for military responses in the future.

But if the aim is simply to save civilian lives then the global community should shift its effort from vague demands for military action into calling for fighters to leave Aleppo so the regime no longer has a justification to attack it.

Aim: Exact a cost on the regime so it stops bombing Aleppo

This is difficult to achieve from the outset because it assumes that such actions would be lawful (which is by no means clear) and that there is a level of military action that is sufficient to dissuade Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces from attacking Aleppo but that it is not so high as to allow jihadist groups to re-take areas they have lost. That is difficult to achieve and is the main reason it hasn't been done before.

If you are to punish the regime, however, it should have shock value. The minimalist approach, with a neatly scaleable series of small target packages, is exactly what would be expected and easily countered, since the regime and its allies can continually dare you to do more. A large-scale attack that destroyed military infrastructure such as airfields, communications nodes, selected weapons systems and killed a few commanders would send a powerful message. You might also conduct a follow-up attack to hurry along the decision-making process. This is a strong and forceful approach, just as many pundits have been asking for.

But it is a one-shot (or perhaps two-shot) weapon. If the regime rides it out then either Washington would have to pummel it into submission or cease action, having weakened the regime militarily to absolutely no effect. There is also the quite real possibility that, even with the best target selection possible, several Russian or Iranian advisers would be killed, which would cause enormous problems. And most importantly, there is very little likelihood that the regime would stop bombing Aleppo as a result of such action. Indeed, given the regime couldn't exact a direct price on Washington for any attack, it would more than likely redouble efforts to batter Aleppo into submission, in order to send Washington a signal. So the military option may have the opposite result to the one it seeks to achieve, with more rather than fewer civilians killed.

These are not the mad rantings of some pro-Assad flunky. Rather they are an attempt to get pundits and commentators to intellectually engage with their calls for military action. If anything, it is a pro-Obama rant, because he alone can authorise the use of force and he alone must decide on the strategic intent and whether it can be achieved through military means. To date he has decided that it can't. It is up to his critics to offer a coherent plan that enunciates a strategic (as opposed to tactical) aim and a means to achieve it. Nobody has yet been able to do this.

Photo by Flickr user Christiaan Triebert.

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