“Any action taken will just make things worse” – How Acting Against Assad Can Help Protect Civilians In Syria

Disclaimer: I am just a person with an 2:2 undergraduate degree in International Politics who graduated in 2006, I am by no means an expert on the conflict in Syria. I’m writing this because I keep discussing this online and I just wanted to get most of my thoughts down in one place.

That can be done in Syria that will improve the conditions of the people who are trying to live their lives among  the rack and ruin of a country that has seen up to 180,000 documented deaths as a result of the Syrian Civil War. The number of deaths in the Syrian War now exceeds those of the Bosnian War in the 1990s. The number of civilians alone who have been violently killed during the civil war is over 100,000. Of these 100,000 92% were killed by the actions of the Syrian government forces and their allies. 

As with so much of this war, the figures themselves are subject to intense debate . Like the Bosnian war, there are many sides in the conflict and there is also an international dimension with ISIS spreading themselves between Syria and Iraq, with an international coalition fighting them on the ground and in the air in order to combat that specific threat to international peace and security that spawned wave after wave of brutal attacks in Sryia, Iraq and throughout the Middle East and Europe.

What action could be taken that would make the situation better? Won’t action by the US, France and the UK just make a bad situation worse?

The Syrian government has frequently used chemical weapons in attacks on civilians. This is a clear violation of the Geneva Protocol, which the Syrian Arab Republic acceded to in 1968.  This protocol calls for all parties to not use chemical or bacteriological weapons in warfare. The Syrian Government has violated this treaty., most recently in Douma, repeatedly even after promising to destroy its chemical weapons and facilities after the Ghouta attacks in 2013 that many in the UK remember for the defeat of the government of the day’s motion to authorise UK armed forces to take action against the Syrian regime following the Sarin gas attack that resulted in  the deaths of hundreds of children. This latest use of chemical weapons to attack civilians (the center of the attack was a bakery) was delivered by airstrike. 

The Syrian Air Force is a powerful force multiplier in the Syrian War, the opposition forces do not have an air force and the uncontested airspace allows the Syrian Air Force to operate with impunity and carry out attacks on civilians from the air. Attacks that civilians will find hard to protect themselves against.

What good would “more bombing” do? First of all it would divert the regime’s attention away from, say, gassing civilians, to being forced to protect its assets. Does it risk using its air force to defend Syrian air space or just meekly submit to the will of the US, French and Royal Air Force and Navy planes and missiles? Every day that the Syrian Air Force has to worry about their US, French and UK counterparts is a day that they can’t barrel bomb rebel-held areas.

Secondly bombing would degrade the Syrian government’s capabilities in the medium term too by attacking and destroying runways, hangars, radar installations, fuel dumps and munitions stores.

Thirdly, the attack would further put the regime on notice that its actions do have consequences. You cannot breach international law, especially international law that pertains to the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, without their being consequences. The Syrian regime is a pariah and deserves to be punished as such. don’t take my word for it, read Oz Katerji’s excellent article in Newsweek.

There have been four attempts to create a lasting cease fire in the Syrian War with talks held in Geneva. Four times these have failed. If targetted action is taken to degrade the capability of the Syrian armed forces to wage war, the chances of a fifth round of talks happening and succeeding are higher. The idea that air strikes against the principle belligerent partner in the Syrian War might could lead to peace might at first seem counter-productive but this strategy worked in the Bosnian War. Air strikes by NATO against Serb artillery in 1995 convinced the Serbs to go back to talks and the Dayton agreement ended the war as a result.

I’d go further too and establish a no-fly zone for over Syria for the Syrian government forces. No-Fly zones protected the north and south of Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s air forces between 1991 and 2003, allowing a the Kurds in particular to become almost autonomous. Patrolling the no-fly zone will also allow for aerial surveillance to document any war crimes committed on the ground something which needs to be addressed by either a special international tribunal or by bringing cases in the International Criminal Court.

Organisations such as Together For Syria have long argued that the UK can and should take action to protect civilians in Syria, through demanding better standards of intelligence before air strikes are called in against ISIS targets, enabling air drops of humanitarian relief in non-regime held areas, and acting to destroy Assad’s air and heavy artillery capability, thereby helping to protect civilians from the side in the Syrian War that has been responsible for 92% of all civilians killed in the last 7 years.

Doing nothing has enabled a regime to act with impunity and kill 100,000 civilians as a result of its actions and illegally detain and torture thousands more. Air strikes against the regime wont immediately halt the Syrian War, but it could be the starting point for a genuine roadmap to end this nightmare that the UK and the rest of the world has been watching unfold for 7 years.