What should be done about Syria? This question has been asked and answered by an immense number of politicians, diplomats, pundits, and academics. Most of these answers boil down to some abstract version of ‘something’. A more interesting question, I think, is what should be done about Syria?
The shift in emphasis between these two questions is an important one. Yes, what is going on in Syria clearly fits the rubric of a violent humanitarian crisis that befits an international response. But what does that mean in practice? What should be done? This question cannot be sufficiently answered by vague allusions to the application of military force or sanctions. It demands a specific and detailed examination of how military technology can be used to alleviate the suffering of Syrians caught up in the conflict. What quickly becomes clear is that the international community lacks an answer to this question because there is no precedent, recent or otherwise, for an intervention like the one required to arrest violence in Syria.
Indeed, as the debate around Syria demonstrates, we don’t even know where to begin. The prognosis for Syria, unfortunately, was not good from the outset, and those calling for swift action in the wake of the chemical weapons attack would be best off proceeding with caution. The only thing that is clear at this point is that the narrative Western powers have been spinning about Assad is bringing us to a decision point, a real one this time. In the end, however, this decision point is more likely to illustrate the fact that right now humanitarian intervention is far from being a coherent concept that can be applied to Syria.
To some extent, the exuberance for action is being fueled by memories of the 2011 Libya intervention. According to Thomas Weiss, the quick, decisive, and robust Libya intervention finally proved that the UN and R2P have teeth, and effective ones at that. Unfortunately, if you take a moment to think about the Libya intervention from a practical perspective, things get a little more complicated. Yes, the Libya intervention was successful (even if the jury is still out on reconstruction). Yes, the quick response of the international community did provide some evidence that humanitarian intervention is not as controversial a concept as it was in the 1990s. The hitch is that the situation on the ground in Libya may have been the most perfect match between NATO’s preferred style of warfare and humanitarian intervention yet witnessed. Pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces lined up in the desert and fought what amounted to a pitched battle. Both the typography and layout of the battlefield made it a perfect context for the expansive, technologically advanced, and highly effective airpower that NATO mustered in support of anti-Gaddafi forces.
The Libya intervention is just the latest addition to a growing list of ‘interventions from above’ undertaken by NATO. Ever since the fabled ‘Black Hawk Down’ episode in Mogadishu, Somalia, NATO has been developing a de facto doctrine of intervention: use bombs…early and often. In Bosnia-Herzegovina it was air support by NATO warplanes that made other UN-led operations possible. Again in Kosovo, NATO used air power to subdue Serbian aggression, leading Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark to identify this as the way to ‘wage modern warfare’.
What are the same commanders expected to do about Syria? How would this ‘modern war’ play out on the ground? Damascus is a city of roughly 1.7 million people. Its dense suburbs, which make it so easy for government forces to inflict such massive casualties, as the latest chemical attack attests, simultaneously prevent undertaking the air-support operations NATO is accustomed to. To be blunt, bombing Damascus’ suburbs from the air is not the solution to the Syrian conflict.
What about putting boots on the ground? French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said that if reports of the chemical weapon attack are confirmed, "there is no question of sending troops on the ground." The French seem emboldened by their frankly surprisingly swift 2012 military intervention in Mali. French troops, as part of Operation Serval, became the tip of the spear in Mali: 4,600 French troops, transported in light armoured vehicles and supported from the air, moved swiftly to displace rebel forces and bring stability to the countryside. As of July 2013 Operation Serval had only experienced seven casualties.
Intervention in Syria, however, would be a different story altogether. Rather than leading a force to hunt dispersed rebel groups, an ‘on the ground’ intervention in Syria would amount to asking Western troops to undertake an intense, urban military campaign – waging a street-level war, fighting house to bloody house. To be clear, this is not simply a question of whether or not to put Western lives in such harm’s way. More important is that this kind of fighting, when and wherever it is witnessed in history, brings immense urban destruction and loss of life. Are we really sure such an operation, in such dense, close quarters, would not create more suffering than it would alleviate?
There is also the matter of cost. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said an intervention in Syria would cost billions. Unfortunately, debate following this statement has only obfuscated the more pressing operational and practical considerations. Sure, an intervention in Syria would cost billions, and that is by no measure insignificant. That said, interventions are always expensive, and yet we see them occur with stunning frequency. Price is only part of the problem here.
More important than money is the fact that the international community lacks a military doctrine that could serve as a foundation for an intervention in Syria. This lack of doctrine is directly linked to the parallel point that many militaries lack specific tools that could be used in such situations. In his report of 27 June 2011, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said “Doctrine for the possible use of peacekeeping and military assets in the context of preventing, deterring or responding to atrocity crimes is not well developed”. The Secretary General is only partially right. NATO’s reliance on air supremacy proved a usable doctrine in the case of Libya, but is ill-suited for the Syrian case. Similarly, the French approach seen in Mali could also be taken to be a doctrine (they have undertaken similar operations in other parts of Western Africa as well). So the world does have doctrines for humanitarian intervention, they just aren’t universal. And any assumption that they are, or that they could easily be appropriated, is dangerous.
The sum of all of this is two lessons, one specific to the current conflict in Syria and one related to the future of humanitarian intervention and R2P. In the case of Syria, the onus sits squarely on political leaders to ask their military commanders for a useful military strategy. However, any such strategy will truly be without precedent. The West simply has no institutional knowledge or similar cases on which it can directly draw on in deciding how to respond militarily to the Syrian conflict. Unfortunately, unless Western military commanders have been busy preparing such a strategy behind closed doors it will take time to compile and will certainly not be easy. Perhaps more importantly, if such a plan is devised, it will be provisional – likely more of a learning exercise than a skilfully executed operation. More worrying is that, without informed pressure, it is unlikely military commanders will produce a plan that deviates in any meaningful way from their standard operating procedures and existing operational doctrines. Bureaucracies, no matter what their purpose, are notoriously difficult to change. The likelihood of such stubbornness leads directly to the more general lesson.
The second lesson is that violent humanitarian crises tend to be immensely complex and demand a more practical approach. There is a wide gulf between accepting that Syria represents a threat to human life that befits international intervention and operationalizing that acceptance in the form of military operations. It is essential that we develop a doctrine for crises like the one being witnessed in Syria and ensure states develop the operational capacity to carry such a doctrine out. In some instances this means analysts may be better off studying procurement and standardized military practices rather than principles or norms.
Whether or not we intervene in Syria now, the international community has already failed. In early June, 2013, the UN estimated the Syrian conflict had already claimed nearly 93,000 lives. Even if an intervention occurs soon, the number of deaths will likely rise steadily before it stabilizes. The country itself is in tatters; beset by sectarian divisions, the majority of infrastructure has been destroyed and the humanitarian situation is steadily deteriorating.
It may be the case that the challenges discussed above have already precluded intervention in Syria. But we should look at this debate as an operational learning experience rather than failure of principle. While many have pointed to the quick rise of humanitarian intervention and R2P to international notoriety, we must remember how new the concept is. We have a lot of learning to do and that will not happen if we concentrate on the optics or abstract principles involved in cases like Syria. As the R2P concept develops, it is going to be essential that analysts, advocates, and diplomats engage with it on this practical level, and that will include distilling solid lessons from the Syrian conflict. There is much to be learned.