Revolutionary fervor has swept the Middle East into a heavy pull of political discord and reactionary violence. What began as civilian protests in Syria has turned into a full-scale civil (and now regional) war with no end in sight. It is estimated that over 220,000 civilians have died in the conflict. There is documented evidence that Assad’s forces are intentionally targeting civilian populations in Aleppo with the usage of barrel bombs. This constitutes a violation of the Geneva Conventions, an international treaty that seeks to regulate the use of force on civilians in combat zones and guides states on the legality of certain methods of fighting.
The ethnic and tribal sway of the violence lends to the elusive nature of the fighting which makes it difficult to stop attacks on civilians. The emergence of the Islamic State and the recent entry of Russia’s military fighting on the side of Assad has further complicated the battle zone. It is very difficult for the civilian population to represent any type of non-aligned movement, as most of the opposition rebels are non-uniformed civilians fighting for a multitude of extremist factions.
The Syrian Civil War has turned into a geo-political theater of competing powers (U.S vs. Russia) and has given traction to regional proxy wars within the Sunni-Shia divide (Saudi Arabia vs. Iran). Most importantly, it has helped to usher in the death of Arab Nationalism and replace it with the rise of militant Islamist movements. Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime is the last standing remains of Arab Nationalism, thus ending a phase of experimentation with Secular Nationalism in the Islamic world.
The conscience of the international community is at a standstill. Existing international institutions that seek to uphold humanitarian law, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, are not being used to forge protection for non-combatants in Syria due to the lack of a binding legal mandate. Furthermore, Russia is making a gamble to uphold the Assad regime as the political sovereign representing Syria in order to control the coming power vacuum. Human rights law is currently on the back burner, with its legitimacy hindered as great powers engage in regional power politics.
This briefing will advise on the strategies that can be pursued to lessen the impact of Assad’s forces indiscriminate use of violence.
OPTIONS FOR CONSIDERATION
- Allow for the creation of a broad international mandate (that includes Russia) that would provide for the legal basis of a coalition of the willing. Call on America’s traditional allies (like NATO) to formulate a decisive military agenda that would align with precedent set out in humanitarian law and the responsibility to protect. Targeting Assad’s most powerful elements of warfare, whether they are aerial or land, would have to remain on the table in order to thwart massive civilian causalities. Potential Cost: Because this mandate would be granted by individual sovereign nations outside the realm of the UN, there may be criticism that the collective political will to militarily attack another sovereign would constitute a war crime and violate the ethics of international law. Military adventurism is likely to cause more violence than safe spaces for civilians, thus creating more refugees.
- Craft a UN resolution that would impose a no fly zone over Syria that would eventually allow for the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces once fighting has lessened. It is important to weaken the legality of the Assad regime’s use of air power against its own citizens. The resolution must have clear objectives that resonate with the internal (dis)organization of the conflict. It may give an upper hand to anti-Assad rebels we are working with but can also be used by ISIS. Use international intelligence units to collect information on who the rebels are and how they can be used to prop up talks for a new government. Potential Cost: Although there is a legal ground and precedent for military action through the UN, it would not be seen as an act of humanitarian relief. A no fly zone would constitute a military tactic and thus an act of war. You will want to be concrete with how you define this intervention on grounds of US policy.
- Within the UN resolution listed above, secure the allowance to deploy US and coalition soldiers on the ground. If the aim is to end Assad’s military stature it also means taking him out politically. A no fly zone is not enough to ensure the Assad regime will come to the table for peace talks. The failure to do so would also tear apart the justification for humanitarian cause. If a military is deployed there must also be coordination of a transitional government to fill the power vacuum. Potential Cost: The precedent set by the Bush Administration’s endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan will not give you a strong international mandate to deploy forces. By upholding international legal order you must not override US domestic procedure by ignoring constitutional methods for approving war. Furthermore, foreign troops may aggravate sectarian elements and create further distrust among rival tribes. Iran and Russia are also working within the sectarian divide (on the side of the Shia influenced Alawite sect of the Assad regime) and may not want to fall under a military coalition led (and controlled) by the U.S.
- End the fighting immediately with a ceasefire accorded through the United Nations Security Council. Use the Arab League (plus Iran) to come together to begin drafting a treaty that will change the balance of power in the Middle East. Look to legal precedent to create a precursor for war crimes tribunals. The longer the violence continues, the quicker traditional borders will change. This is extremely dangerous for civilians living on the battle lines due to the tenuous nature of ISIS controlled areas on the Syria-Iraq border. Potential Cost: Regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia will be tough to keep at the negotiating table due to competing interests. It is unlikely they will have enough resolve to help create a Western friendly government in Syria. Western imposed borders along with a history of French colonialism has allowed for the lack of a stable Syrian nation-state. Military coups are a form of democratic practice in countries like Syria. It is going to take many attempts at treaty building by different leaders before we can see any alleviation of suffering for the average Syrian civilian.
Furthermore, we cannot forget about the massive human rights abuses perpetrated by ISIS. Any anti-ISIS coalition will have many weaknesses. It will not be a fortified bloc and will be plagued with competing interests. The United States is stuck in the middle of rapidly changing Middle East with precarious allies. Defeating ISIS may be a unifying end goal, but it is also a dangerous one. We must figure out what comes after military engagement that doesn’t include an entanglement with Russia, fascism here at home (due to anti-Muslim sentiment), or more failed nation-building in the Middle East. Human lives are depending on strategic leadership that will not relegate human rights law to history’s lost treasure.