What We Should All Want to Know about a Military Intervention for Syria by Sarah Holewinski

Who among us isn’t envisioning ways to stop Assad’s bloodletting of his own people?

The best solution to any conflict is a political one, but those on the table right now for Syria may fail. Assad met Kofi Annan’s ceasefire with hellfire, reining punishment down on rebellious towns as a show of power and, perhaps, irreverence. This isn’t the international sign of cooperation.

If military intervention becomes the only way to protect civilians from this regime, there are a few things I want Turkey, the US, NATO, or any other military volunteer to be asking and answering before they utter the word Tomahawk.

Will taking out Assad’s air defenses harm civilians?

Check yes or no. See ramifications if yes.

If anti-aircraft missiles and radar are based in civilian populated areas, then a decision has to be made about what level of “collateral damage” is acceptable for completion of the mission and under international laws. Claims of stability for future generations thanks to bloodshed now have never held much water. Speaking of water, assessments should also be made about what form of military intervention has the least risk of cutting off essential supply lines of water, food, and power, and access points for immediate humanitarian aid.

Acceptable civilian loss is a horrid calculus—one that I would never want to be in a position to make. But someone has to, at the very least out of respect for the people who may be harmed.

What’s the downside to safe zones for civilians?

‘Safe zones’ is the buzz phrase in Washington right now, invoking an idyllic image of holding pens where, even if the conditions aren’t entirely pleasant, civilians can avoid being killed. I like that image too, but I want to know what could go wrong.

Assuming an intervening power creates these areas of safety and protects them from ground forces, tough questions remain about potential retaliation from Syrian forces (what has Assad got to lose at this point?), the potential of the Free Syrian Army being able to fight back in the rest of the country, and the fate of all the people who don’t make it to safety. Surely there isn’t going to be enough room for everyone, the holes in coverage simply presenting Assad with sitting ducks in other unprotected towns. Also recall that in Sri Lanka, civilian safe zones gave the government a bombing target.

And while many would argue that stopping the slaughter in some places is good enough in an impossible situation, civilians that survive have a very human way of needing food, water, sanitation, and medical care—necessities not assured if the country erupts into, for example, sectarian violence.

What’s the goal of a military operation?

If the goal of the military intervention is to stop Assad from killing more people, then limited airpower (or perhaps short-term sea power) could probably destroy his air defenses, and help prevent artillery and tanks from firing into cities.

But that leaves the snipers and Assad agents who’ve been killing and torturing on the ground, among the people. Human Rights Watch reported that as late as March, Syrian security forces summarily executed more than 100 civilians, including women and children.

It’s worth mentioning that a no-fly zone in the air isn’t a no-kill zone on the ground. If planners don’t believe they can stop Assad’s atrocities through airpower alone, they’ll have to seriously consider their appetite for sending in troops and accompanying occupational obligations. In either scenario—limited airpower or boots—civilians will be at risk of retaliation from the regime’s remaining forces, crossfire harm, power outages, food shortages, deaths, injuries and more displacement.

What’s the exit strategy?

This one’s worth asking for a host of reasons, among them the reality that Syria is far more complicated than Libya and few Western nations have the stomach for another Iraq. And, any military planner worth his or her stars will want to know what the closing credits look like on their operation.

From a protection perspective, though, an exit strategy should ensure civilians are safe and better off than before the intervention—a subjective threshold that needs to be explained in plain English (and Arabic).

Once the operation takes out Assad as the main threat to civilians or mounts some other protection effort (see no-fly zone, safe-zone and airpower above), most countries won’t want to stay, especially if Assad doesn’t leave in the latter case. Civilians should know what they’re in for, whether a potential power vacuum, destroyed infrastructure, a peacekeeping force, or—as in Libya—militias with guns roaming freely through their streets.

What does the Free Syrian Army (the rebels) know about guns?

Arming the Free Syrian Army and its allies is a form of military intervention, albeit at a distance. Knowing if they can shoot straight is one thing; knowing if they have a proper chain of command, know how to use weapons in a way that avoids civilians and have the expertise required to balance their revolutionary mission with the humanitarian imperative is quite another.

Arming rebels and deploying airpower in Libya is being written into lessons learned as a relatively cost-free (of blood and treasure, when compared to a full force invasion) way to mount a military intervention, but the costs to civilians of both these actions have yet to be fully assessed. It’s too early to call this one-two punch a panacea to dictatorial brutality. We know, for example, that militias armed during the rebellion are causing ongoing civilian protection problems across that country, targeting minorities and Qaddafi loyalists, and acting independently of the new state’s security forces.

Questions like these are often the last thing considered in military planning and execution—ironically even more so in operations considered noble. Military planning shouldn’t detract from a political solution in Syria. But that doesn’t mean these kinds of tactical questions should be ignored until it’s too late to properly consider the risks to civilian lives.

Sarah Holewinski is the Executive Director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

Photo credit from top to bottom: REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad, Reuters.