The Trouble with Air Strikes

Phil Orchard

People inspect a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the northern town of Atareb, in Aleppo province April 24, 2014. REUTERS/Abdalghne Karoof

In a recent piece, Anne-Marie Slaughter (the former Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department and Professor at Princeton University, now the President and CEO of the New America Foundation) argued heavily in favour of American-led air strikes in Syria. Her argument has two points. The first is that while the Obama administration cannot act in the Ukraine, they can decisively act in Syria to “change Putin’s calculations.” Her second point was that the widespread failure of the Syrian government to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2139 provides an opening for action, as it requires “all parties [to] immediately cease attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas…. such as the use of barrel bombs.”

There is no question that the increasing number of air strikes and makeshift barrel bombs by the Syrian regime (including one that may have killed 30 people yesterday) are a clear violation of the Resolution and of international law. However, Slaughter’s argument suffers from three main problems.

The first is that while she suggests Resolution 2139 could be enforced through the use of force “to eliminate Syria’s fixed-wing aircraft,” there is no such language included within the Resolution. Instead, she is effectively advocating a return to the 1990s, where humanitarian interventions in both Northern Iraq and Kosovo were launched by the United States and its allies with loose interpretations of prior Security Council Resolutions. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine was deliberately designed to close off this approach by requiring either Security Council, General Assembly, or regional organization approval (in the ICISS version), or Security Council approval alone (in the World Summit Outcome Declaration). Syria has certainly been a hard case for the R2P, but the doctrine continues to be referenced frequently by the Council. For the United States to back away from it now by going around the Security Council, as Slaughter suggests, would be to fatally undermine the fragile international consensus that supports the R2P.

The second problem is what form of force does Slaughter envision? Do one or more strikes against Syria’s fixed-wing aircraft envision the creation of a no-fly-zone, or systematic attacks against Syrian air bases? When President Obama was considering strikes last August following Syria’s reported use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, it was anticipated that the strikes, mainly using missiles fired from four destroyers, would last three days. A no-fly-zone would similarly expose pilots to Syria’s air defense, and, as Hayes Brown argued, the threat would increase the longer the no-fly-zone was maintained.

The third, related, problem is what about the protection of the civilian population? Elsewhere, Slaughter has powerfully advocated for defensive safe areas to protect Syrian civilians. But, while destroying Syria’s fixed-wing aircraft would remove one threat, the Syrian military would still pose a significant threat to both the divided opposition and to the civilian population. And it is unclear how these acts help to actually address, and ideally end, the Syrian conflict. The hope, here, is that the threat of limited strikes may cause the Assad regime and Russia to negotiate, as they did following the US threat last year. But the Ukraine situation has certainly changed Russia’s geopolitical calculations.

If not air strikes, what can we do? It is clear that the humanitarian situation is getting worse, as both UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and five UN agencies heads have made clear over the past day. But Resolution 2139 does include a clear reporting mechanism, and there will be heavy pressure on the Security Council to take further actions when it meets next week. And while the focus may be on humanitarian assistance inside Syria, the humanitarian effort as a whole remains significantly underfunded, having received only 18 percent of the $2.3billion requested. Providing additional support to Syria’s neighbours, who have taken in over 2.7 million refugees, is vital and can ensure continued access to asylum for those fleeing the conflict. Unfortunately, there are no good options in the Syrian conflict, but if the West wants to shift to using force, it needs to be far more clearly focused both on ensuring civilian protection and on a political solution.

Dr. Phil Orchard is a Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies and International Relations at the University of Queensland and Senior Researcher and Program Director, Doctrine, Concepts, and Inter-Agency Cooperation at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He tweets @p_orchard. 

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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