Once again, the silver bullet of humanitarian intervention in Syria is being bandied about in response to the continued human cost of the civil war. The “solution” (his words!) to the problem is, uhh, “strategic attacks by the west”. Let’s be charitable here – the man is advancing the use of military force in some sense to force the hand of the Assad regime. The examples this man has in mind are probably the use of airstrikes towards the end of the Yugoslav civil war, and against Serbia. There is a logic to this, the sharp end of the humanitarian impulse. However, I think the focus on airstrikes on implements masks the logical, and distasteful, conclusion of this way of thinking. I highlight the logic of violence because recently, via the bookshelves of Kieran Mitton, I’ve been leafing through Chirot and McCauley’s rather provocatively titled “Why not kill them all?” on the internal logic of genocide and mass one-sided political violence. It’s a good book on a contentious topic, but I’m interested in the logic of people like Anne-Marie Slaughter, humanitarian in outlook, who have been advocating the use of lethal military force for some time. Use overwhelming military force, they argue, in a very limited, highly specific way, to prevent mass slaughter of civilians. Perhaps they’ve already forgotten Michael Ignatieff’s warning in Virtual War that war, and the use of military force, is always a bloody affair.
So here’s an alternate logical outcome of the humanitarian impulse to order air strikes: find and kill Bashar al-Assad.
Maybe provocative – I doubt any of the humanitarians like to think of their military advocation as ending in murder – but still, I think that the same logic that drives the use of airstrikes against artillery units ultimately leads to Assad’s murder (or, ahem, extrajudicial killing, targeted killing, insert description here). After all, if your aim is to change the operating logic of the Syrian regime, then directly targeting that regime, rather than its units, is probably the soundest place to start. Would Assad care if the EU/NATO/USA start to bomb his underlings? One can’t assume that he does. Remember that while Milosevic might have pulled out of Kosovo, North Vietnam didn’t react in the “rational” way that America thought they would to strategic bombing. So if your ultimate goal is to change the logic of the regime, and prevent them from killing people, then it seems relatively indefensible to rely on an uncertain mechanism (bombing troops) and not to rely on one that will certainly alter regime behaviour (bombing the regime in person). I would like to re-iterate that there is no way for the ‘international community’ to deprive Assad’s regime of its ‘tools’ – tanks, artillery, planes, etc – using high explosives without killing a significant number of people.
Furthermore, if the ultimate goal is to preserve human life, then why focus on the formations and units? The bombing of these, without forward observers, will no doubt result in many civilian casualties. Why not put a blunt message out: “Hey, Assad, stop massacring your own people or you will die” coupled with a second message aimed at anyone who might conceivably take power after his death: “You have two weeks to stop the civilian massacres, or we will kill you”.
It seems to me that the above prospect is both highly distasteful, and wanted by no-one. Yet politicians and policy makers can get away with the excuse of “National priorities, Russia has nukes, international norms of behaviour, etc etc”, but the humanitarian community has no such fig-leaf. If they’re going to continue calling for the use of lethal force to prevent atrocities, then they need to fully engage with the purpose, limits and uses of that force. In particular, they need to articulate why they’re calling for the killing of hundreds of foot-soldiers and bystanders, instead of the people ordering them to commit atrocities. If the frameworks of (non)intervention are so alien to human security, then why are they talking as though this is the only option? And if they can’t come up with a suitable reason for killing those people instead of Assad, then they should probably admit that they’re as willing to use force as the policy-makers that they lambast: in a way that is constrained by their own belief system. Personally, I consider a fear of great-power confrontation to be a more valid limitation than squeamishness.