Can Military Intervention Halt Mass Atrocities in Syria?

That the human cost of Syria’s political violence has escalated during the past several weeks is a harrowing, if under-discussed characteristic of the 17-month conflict. The conflict’s toll on Syrian civilians has expanded exponentially, with more than 5,000 conflict-related deaths during the month of August, according to Syrian human rights activists. If a cursory Google Trends search is any indication, popular attention has not kept pace with Syria’s escalating crisis; Syria-related media consumption has dipped since the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) July bombing in Damascus, which expanded and intensified the Syrian opposition’s insurgency against Bashar al-Assad’s security forces.

Despite the gradual decline in popular attention, the Syrian opposition’s Washington diplomats continue to broaden calls for various forms of U.S. and international political, economic, and military assistance. Late last month, the Syrian Support Group (SSG), an FSA-affiliated diaspora network, submitted to the Obama administration a formal request to implement a no-fly zone against the Syrian government’s security forces. In justifying the no-fly zone, the SSG cited the Syrian government’s heightened use of fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft in urban fighting, which poses a significant threat to both opposition forces and civilian bystanders. In addition to a no-fly zone, the SSG has encouraged the administration to provide lethal and non-lethal assistance to opposition forces on the ground in Syria.

Syrian opposition representatives have proven successful at the latter, if not the former policy approach. While the extent of international covert and overt support to the Syrian opposition is unclear, most Western media accounts have conveyed an ongoing flow of humanitarian supplies, small arms, communications equipment, and training to opposition operations on the Syrian-Turkish border. The assistance, however, is not geared towards encouraging short-term civilian protection, but rather--as in Libya--towards facilitating the demise of Assad’s fragmenting regime. The persistence of international assistance to Syria’s opposition, as well as the SSG’s continued calls for a no-fly zone against Assad’s security forces, bring back to the fore a question central to international human rights policy: what, if any, is the potential value of a military solution to Syria’s mass atrocities?

Popular commentary on Syria’s crisis, seeking to construct an entry point for a military-oriented policy, has offered a full spectrum of plausible actions, from humanitarian corridors along Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey to opposition safe zones. As Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute’s Mass Atrocities Prevention and Response Operations handbook makes clear, each variation, with the potential exception of a limited, likely ineffective no-fly zone, requires an extensive ground-force commitment, in order to ensure the adequate management of human intelligence networks, the destruction of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons systems, and the physical protection of civilian areas. Comparing safe-zone recommendations to recent operations in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Iraqi Kurdistan, Dan Trombly observes that “safe zones in Syria would likely pose the greatest military undertaking of its kind.” It is unlikely that, following such an operation’s technical and fiscal burdens, Congressional officials would sustain their political support for an extended civilian mission.

From the standpoint of political feasibility, any military intervention in Syria—whether a safe zone, a no-fly zone, or a humanitarian corridor—would likely not serve as an adequate short-, medium-, or long-term solution to Syria’s present day atrocities. The political cost, strategic impact, and fiscal burden of military intervention in Syria are relevant considerations, insofar as rights-minded policy priorities continue to operate within the constraints of domestic politics. But if, as human rights advocates, we hold ourselves to a higher moral standard, political feasibility is a secondary consideration. Irrespective of an operation’s myriad costs, would a military intervention effectively, plausibly, and sustainably fulfill a civilian protection mandate?

A speculative survey of projected opportunities for military action suggests that, in contrast to statements by legislative officials, Syrian oppositionists, and public advocates, military intervention—of any form—would do little to stem the tide of Assad’s atrocities; in a worst-case scenario, an international military operation could aggravate the conflict, escalating Assad’s use of force against civilians. Operational, topographical, and strategic limits abound. From an operational perspective, neither a safe zone, nor a humanitarian corridor, nor a no-fly zone can provide sufficient protection to civilian populations to counterbalance the risk of retaliatory escalation by the Assad regime, which has used excessive force in response to perceived existential threats. The Syrian government’s chemical and biological weapons arsenal is well-established, but neither the United States nor its multilateral partners have the technical capacity, on-the-ground intelligence, or force capability to prevent their use. Topographically speaking, the FSA’s insurgency primarily operates in urban terrain, and densely-populated cities like Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs are the focal centers of the regime’s crackdown. Air strikes, despite vast improvements in targeting technology, would likely stop short of effectively combating Syrian artillery; ground operations, on the other hand, would probably do more to devastate urban, civilian population centers than protect them.

The strategic standpoint, however, remains the central moral hazard of a military approach. In spite of the SSG’s unified veneer, Syria’s opposition movement remains deeply divided, due to the ethnicized politics of the FSA’s insurgency, a mounting base of foreign fighters, and an unstable interaction between militia leaders and opposition politicians. Now, a unified opposition movement is not necessarily a prerequisite for dictatorial downfall, but a common transitional emphasis on the rule of law, civilian protection, and inclusive governance goes a long way towards ensuring adequate human rights policies under a post-Assad regime. The FSA’s periodic abuses against Alawite civilians have given the Syrian minority due cause for concern. Without an opposition emphasis on broad-based, communal security during an increasingly likely transition, international actors have little guarantee that a post-Assad government will represent a marked change from its predecessor.

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