Tag: Syria (page 3 of 5)

Questions about Syria

The US and UK are apparently preparing for air strikes against the Syrian Assad regime, claiming there is little doubt that it is responsible for horrific chemical weapons attacks. Syria has allegedly crossed President Obama’s ‘red line.’

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague claims that “We can not in the twenty first century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity, that people can be killed in this way and that there are no consequences for it.”

Several problems here:

This rush to judgment is happening before the UN has established beyond reasonable doubt who is responsible. Do we really need to be reminded that WMD-related claims are worth subjecting to a decent standard of proof before going to war?

There is a greater amount evidence from the UN to date that Syrian’s rebels, or at least some of them, may have also used chemical weapons, which has been substantiated though not conclusively found by a formal investigation. If so, they did it in the twenty first century, killed people and so far the US and its allies have not applied punishment.

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Popular Culture Can Crowd Out International Relations

Daniel Drezner writes that Meghan McCain’s proposition that attention paid to Miley Cyrus can crowd out attention paid to Syria is bunk.

With all due regard to Drezner, let me debunk the bunk claim—or, at least, show that the “Twerking Kills” hypothesis is plausible:

This paper studies the influence of mass media on U. S. government response to approximately 5,000 natural disasters occurring between 1968 and 2002. These disasters took nearly 63,000 lives and affected 125 million people per year. We show that U. S. relief depends on whether the disaster occurs at the same time as other newsworthy events, such as the Olympic Games, which are obviously unrelated to need. We argue that the only plausible explanation of this is that relief decisions are driven by news coverage of disasters and that the other newsworthy material crowds out this news coverage.

That’s the abstract to an important paper by Eisensee and Stromberg.
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The Syrian Chemical Attack: Things Fall Apart, the Centre Cannot Hold

The news out of the Damascus suburbs this morning is highly disturbing and, if the reports are confirmed that this was a chemical attack, no doubt will mark a turning point in the conflict.  Dan is somewhat skeptical that it will change the intervention calculus. I disagree.

For the better part of the past two years, the Obama administration has pursued to a strategy of conflict management and containment.  It doesn’t look like that policy has worked.  Today’s events appear to have been a major chemical attack with a large loss of civilian life.  The raw and devastating images will alter the political landscape in Washington, throughout Europe, and throughout the region.   This looks to be Syria’s Srebrenica. Continue reading

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Will this be the Straw that Break the Back of Non-Intervention in Syria?

There are gruesome reports out of Syria today of a chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus. If they are accurate, the chemical weapons inflicted mass civilian causalities. As David Kenner reports at Foreign Policy:

The information coming out of the Ghouta region, where the rebels enjoy significant support, is still unconfirmed by independent observers. But videos allegedly taken Wednesday in the area showed Syrians lying on the floor gasping for breath, medics struggling to save infants, and rows of bodies of those who had reportedly died in the attack (warning: the footage above is graphic). Syrian state media denied that chemical weapons had been used, attributing such stories to media channels that “are involved in the shedding of the Syrians’ blood and supporting terrorism.”

The opposition Local Coordination Committee, however, reported that at least 755 people had been killed in the attack. If that figure is true, what is happening on the outskirts of Damascus today is the worst chemical weapons attack since then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein unleashed poison gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 people.

The pro-rebel website, The Revolting Syria collects videos that, frankly, I had to stop watching. If this is propaganda, then it is incredibly effective propaganda.

Assuming the veracity of these reports, will it prompt a consequential US intervention? My gut reaction, is no. Continue reading

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Syria: Intervening Not Now But Later

Syria2 A full-scale US military intervention in Syria is off the table, as is a no-fly zone. The US decision to provide arms to Syrian opposition forces is nonetheless intended to shift the military initiative away from Assad regime. But the opposition is splintered, which has allowed the Hezbollah-backed government forces to level the playing field. Although the outcome remains unclear, it may be time for Western governments to begin serious planning for potential post-conflict stabilization operations.

At this stage it appears the Assad regime has the momentum, aided in particular by Hezbollah but also Iran and Russia.  US and European efforts to provide direct military aid to the Syrian opposition have been slow to take shape, which in combination with regime gains on the ground have fed the new conventional wisdom that Assad is on course to hold on to power.

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Syria and the Politics of Prudence

According to the Washington Post, the Obama Administration is meeting to “reassess” US policy toward the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah’s intervention appears to have tilted the balance in favor of the Assad regime. Sectarian violence is on the rise. This has, naturally enough, led to hand-wringing about growing Iranian influence throughout the region.

Defenders of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy sometimes stress its general commitment to prudence and deliberation. John McCain and Lindsey Graham may call for ‘strong’ and ‘decisive’ US commitments at the drop of a hat, the argument goes, but the Obama Administration knows better. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. Or, perhaps, when the costs seem relatively low. As Michael Crowley observes (see also an old post of mine), “The unfortunate truth is that Obama didn’t intervene in Libya despite great risk. He did it because it was a relatively low-risk venture. Whatever you think should be done, the same can’t be said about Syria.”

The problem, of course, is that “prudence” and “deliberation” can translate into “hoping for the best.” This looks to have been the case with the Syrian civil war. If the Obama Administration considers gains by Hezbollah and Iran intolerable, then perhaps it should have adopted policies that took that contingency far more seriously.

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Is Syria Infecting the Middle East?

800px-Azaz_Syria_during_the_Syrian_Civil_War_Missing_front_of_HouseThis is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter received his PhD from Georgetown University in May 2013, and was a Fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia during 2012-2013. His research focuses on religion and foreign policy; he has also written on terrorism and religious conflict.

A recent article in The New York Times illustrates much of what, in my opinion, is concerning about US debate over the crisis in Syria. The piece makes the bold claim that the conflict in Syria is not only affecting the region, it is infecting it with sectarian tensions. The authors use dramatic language, like “a contagious sectarian conflict,” “shaking the foundations of countries cobbled together,” and “simmering” ethnic tensions in the region.

The authors committed a bit of a taste faux pas by combining public health, architectural and cooking metaphors in one relatively short article. But if readers can get beyond these overwrought images, they might notice another thing: there’s not much evidence to back up their broad claims. Continue reading

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What’s wrong with red lines?

obama pic

So everyone is bashing Obama’s use of red lines on Syria.  In Sunday’s New York Times, Daniel Byman took the concept of red lines to task because failure to act on them weakens America’s credibility and reputation:

…when deterrence fails, the United States looks weak and indecisive…. Moreover, not acting after issuing ultimatums harms America’s reputation.  As Mr. Rogers and others have argued, inaction makes it more likely that American red lines elsewhere in the region will be questioned, especially in Iran, which is facing pressure on its nuclear weapons program and watching Syria closely.

But here is the question:   Does the United States really look weak and indecisive if it fails to follow through on a bluff?   The United States uses force at a rate that is several times greater than others – it has already toppled regimes on Iran’s western border and on Iran’s eastern border – and somehow it is the lesson of Syria that is more salient for Iran?   More broadly: why should an occasional bluff matter?

Well, actually it doesn’t.   Robert Jervis demonstrated four decades ago that signaling is complex business.  Jon Mercer’s excellent book on reputation shows that we’ve spent far too much blood and treasure over the folly of preserving our credibility.  Daryl Press spent years trying to demonstrate the costs of lost credibility when a state fails to follow through on its threats.  His finding?  The conventional wisdom on credibility “is wrong.”  In his book Calculating Credibility:  How Leaders Assess Military Threats, Press writes:

A country’s credibility, at least during crises, is driven not by its past behavior but rather by power and interests.  If a country makes threats that it has the power to carry out – and an interst in doing so—those threats will be believed even if the country has bluffed in the past….When assessing credibility during crises, leaders focus on the “here and now,” not on their adversary’s past behavior.

He and Jenny Lind have a nice post on Steve Walt’s blog warning against using the idea that we have to intervene in Syria to defend American credibility in the wake of Obama’s red line.  We don’t.

But, this also raises another interesting question.  Continue reading

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The Syria Endgame: A Way Forward

syrian-flag  Russia

With the increased likelihood that Assad will fall, even were he to hang on until a Gaddafi-style bitter end, pressure is mounting on the U.S., Europe, and Turkey inter alia to come up with a game plan for the post-endgame.   The good news is progress is rapidly being made:  stepped up aid from the U.S., aid from Europe, intelligence sharing among Turkey-Jordan-US-Europe, and direct training of Syrian opposition forces.

All of this may be enough to tip the balance against the Assad regime, leading to its end sooner rather than later.  But it is not nearly enough to handle the widely expected chaos once the endgame is reached.  What about playing the Russia card?  The greatest fear is that extremist al-Qaeda affiliated groups will get their hands on a variety of weapons caches in the capital and elsewhere, let alone a full-blown civil war that would seriously destabilize the entire region.  Special forces from the aforementioned countries will be needed, but they will likely be operating in an incredibly volatile if not thoroughly unstable environment.

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10 Years On in Iraq: the Chance We Missed

war-in-iraq

The debate is indeed on, and the Duck is paddling rapidly on this one with excellent posts from Robert, Jon, and Dan.  I take/took a slightly different tack.  I opposed the war at the time and like everyone else watched how President Bush–whose job ratings were so low on 9-10 that he was rapidly on his way to being a one-term president–relied on Karl Rove to use 9-11 to his supreme political advantage.  A la Jon’s post, it took the American people six more years to wake up to the (inter)national disaster that had been wrought.

But remember Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule?  Taking that as a departing premise at the time, I wrote a piece that analyzed what could realistically have been achieved long after the Bremer decisions that the Neocons are now blaming for their ill-conceived adventurism.  This piece was about Iraq, but in the present context its frame could be applied to Libya and Syria.  For example, if Assad were to use chemical weapons and force the West’s military hand in the process, pretty soon the assembled coalition would be in the position it was in prior to the surge in Iraq:  it would be an occupying force.  Let’s hope this doesn’t happen, but if it does…

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The Syrian Conflict: to Internationalize or not to Internationalize

Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that the Obama administration blocked a Pentagon supported plan to provide arms to Syrian opposition forces.  For civilians in Syria hoping  for meaningful intervention to stop the conflict, this must have been difficult news to absorb.  I was reminded of this story yesterday while attending an informative workshop in Amman, Jordan on Islamic law and the protection of civilians. At the time, we were discussing how a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) becomes an international armed conflict (IAC) under international humanitarian law (IHL).   In legalese, this happens when a state becomes “a party to the conflict”, aligning with the rebels in opposition to the government.  This discussion made me wonder whether the United States would become a party to the Syrian conflict if the Obama administration did decide to arm the rebels.  It’s pretty clear that taking part in hostilities on the ground, say dropping bombs on government targets, would make a state a party to the conflict.  But what about more indirect involvement like supplying weapons to rebel forces?  IHL says a state can become a party to an armed conflict if its support of an opposition force is such that the opposition force’s actions can be attributed to that state.  What acts would create this relationship under IHL is subject to debate.  Providing military aid might qualify if it is done so that it enables a state to exert some control over rebel forces.  While the United States has rejected plans to arm the Syrian rebels, some regional countries allegedly have supplied them with arms.  If the weapons transfers enable these states to exert legally sufficient control over the rebels, it may well transform the Syrian conflict from a NIAC to an IAC. Continue reading

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The Tragedy of Fragmented Rebellion

Guest Post by Lindsay Heger and Wendy Wong.

In a recent and rare speech, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dug in his heels. While nobody could have realistically expected him to simply walk away from his post or even give much ground to the opposition, negotiations seemed possible. After all, the rebels had made several recent and promising military advances. In December the Obama administration acknowledged the rebel movement as representative of the Syrian people, increasing pressure on Assad to step down. Even Russian officials, who seemed loyal to a fault, had begun showing signs of reversing course. Yet Assad’s speech seemed to ignore all these developments. Instead, he rallied Syrians to oust who he calls terrorists and criminals, while giving no indication that he planned on doing anything short of fomenting continued violence.

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International Law and Armed Conflict (Syria version)

The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) recently determined that the situation in the entire country of Syria can be classified as a non-international armed conflict.  While this may not have been news to many watching events unfold there, what makes this statement interesting is that this position differed from the position advanced in May 2012 by then ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger.  At that time, Kellenberger claimed that parts of Syria could be classified as an “internal” armed conflict, particularly in the area around Homs and in the Idlib district.  The difference may appear inconsequential, but may in fact have some significant impact on the ground.  The difference between whether an entire country is embroiled in a non-international armed conflict versus specific locations within that country has bearing on what constitutes a violation of international law.  The two main bodies of international law relevant to armed conflict are international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL).  IHL is the body of law which governs armed conflict and is only triggered when there is an armed conflict.  IHRL generally applies in peacetime, although it can apply during war time as well.  What is interesting about Kellenberger’s statement is that it is a departure from how IHL has traditionally understood territoriality within the context of non-international armed conflict. Continue reading

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Syria and Presidential Debate Bingo

Greetings, Duck Followers.  I’m Amanda – assistant professor at Mizzou, avid hiker, crazy sci-fi romance novel reader, and pretty competent mother.  I’m excited to be a new “duckling” on the block.  On the eve of the next US presidential debate, I’ll go out on a limb and guess that the dire human rights situation in Syria will be mentioned.  I’ll also bet that neither candidate will say definitively that a humanitarian military intervention is needed.

But, in line with my research and that of my colleagues, some forms of military intervention – especially intervention with a stated humanitarian purpose and that against the perpetrator of the abuses- could really help the extremely dire human rights situation in Syria.  Other interventions, however, could exasperate human rights problems.  David R. Davis  and I have made the case that only peacekeeping operations with a stated humanitarian goal will improve human rights after civil war – some other forms of peacekeeping actually lead to a decrease in human rights…. But, that’s after the conflict. What about during the conflict/genocide/craziness?

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Syria and the magic wand

Yesterday’s NYTimes had an op-ed from Michael Doran and Max Boot on five reasons why the U.S. should show some backbone and intervene in Syria now: 1) it will help contain Iran; 2) it will help contain the regional spread of conflict; 3) it will contain the influence of Al Qaeda and other extremists in Syria; 4) it will improve U.S. relations with regional partners; and 5) it will stop the humanitarian crisis.

Syria is tragic and complicated and I certainly do not want to contribute to the narrative that says nothing can be done to protect civilians. But, it is not helpful to pretend that external intervention is a magic wand. A little due diligence please.

Doran and Boot are not just talking about arming the FSA, they are talking about using U.S. ground troops, backed by US and coalition air power, to work with Turkish troops and Jordanian troops to move into Syrian territory to support the FSA. I have no idea how they think this could/would be done, but this is not a small-scale intervention.

I see a lot of parallels between Syria and Bosnia and there may be some plausible scenarios for the limited use of international force that might help stop or mitigate the violence against civilians in this case. But all these scenarios entail a significant degree of risk — especially those with the US out in front without UN backing.

Yet, nowhere in the piece by Doran and Boot — or the broader advocacy on Syria from McCain and friends — is there consideration of potential risks or costs that are almost certain to be significant in an intervention of this magnitude. All of this is going to happen with no opposition? No civilians killed by American or international forces? No backlash? No power vacuum or disarray if/when Assad’s regime collapses? No regional, Iranian, or Al Qaeda reaction? The simple application of American military power and Iran and Al Qaeda will cower, the violence will end, the world will celebrate America’s return?

Ten years ago this month, just as the congressional debate on Iraq began to move to center stage on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I wrote a piece that ran in the Hartford Courant titled “Baghdad or Bust.” (A major national newspaper rejected it on the grounds that I was overstating the risks of military action). I argued that the Bush administration was

…so hyper-focused on Saddam as a threat that it has been unwilling and unable to consider the range of uncertainty or the potential costs of going to war. In this sense, the current war planning is reminiscent of the ideologically motivated wishful thinking that dominated American planning in Vietnam: The administration and the war hawk pundits simply believe this war will be quick, decisive and easy.

This optimism is dangerous. It is largely speculative, and it obscures very real risks…

… fighting a war on the other side of the globe is a perilous enterprise that defies absolute predictions. It is dangerous to think otherwise. Planning for war requires strategies for fighting and for managing the potential range of costs.

One might think that in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, we are in a different place. But here we are, ten years later and still in the midst of these disasters, and the same voices are again waving the magic wand of military force, discounting the likely costs of war, and going on about how only force begets respect — selling simple platitudes such as “wield it and they will yield,” “war on the cheap,” etc… We see it in Doran and Boot’s article. And, we see it the hawks’ demands on Iran.

It hasn’t and won’t go away.

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Lessons from Syria…thus far…

The violence in Syria is spiking. 1,600 killed in the past week and 100,000 new refugees in the past month. After a year-and-a-half of violence, the UN reports that there are now more than 230,000 refugees, 1.2 million internally displaced persons, more than 2.5 million in need of humanitarian aid. Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN/Arab League envoy called the violence “staggering.” Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo yesterday condemned Assad’s “crimes against humanity.”

So what have we learned over the past year-and-a-half?

First, despite all the complaints about the era of hyper-interventionism and the fears of R2P run amok, the default response by the international community — especially in complex environments — tends to be restraint. Libya appears to be the exception, not the rule. Neither the Obama administration nor the U.S. military wants any part of an intervention in Syria, the Security Council is deadlocked leaving the UN Secretary General, his special envoy, and the UN observer missions little leverage to alter conditions on the ground. Lots of talk, lots of posturing, but not much effect. In all of these regards, Syria is no different than Bosnia in 1992, or 1993, or 1994.

Second, major external military intervention likely would have significant costs — the conflict would likely escalate and lead to spill-over effects.

Third, limited (or no) intervention also likely will have significant costs — the conflict has escalated and does havespill-over effects.

In other words, the best argument for the current international response to date is that its the least worst option. That may well change…

…because, fourth, it looks like Assad’s regime is likely to become even more ruthless in the weeks and months to come. All of our indicators of the likelihood of mass atrocity events are present in Syria — a minority regime that is under acute military, political, and economic distress and one that has engaged in prior mass atrocities/genocide. It really can get worse.

Jon Lee Anderson’s reporting on the gruesome events ten days ago:

What happened in Daraya follows a pattern that is becoming chillingly routine. Last Saturday, after a withering five-day bombardment, Syrian Army forces entered Daraya and conducted a “mopping-up” operation. What occurred there can only be imagined, but the results are visible in YouTube videos that have been uploaded by activists in the days since then: hundreds of bodies piled up inside houses, in basements, and in a mosque. Many of the bodies were those of young men of fighting age, but there were also children there, and at least one toddler. Many of the victims, as in so many other body-dumps showing up in the environs of Damascus in recent weeks, bore the telltale signs of bullets to the head, fired close-up, execution-style.

Finally, while tipping points are difficult to predict, Assad’s escalation of violence against civilians, if unchecked will generate a new wave of political demands on the United States and others to do more — probably a lot more. A lesson from Bosnia two decades ago is that conflict duration coupled with spikes in intensity of violence against civilians eventually alter the political, moral, and strategic calculations about intervention. This is where the new era of intervention does come in. It may make generals nervous and realists uncomfortable, but global attitudes and norms on civilian violence have changed. We may not live in a world where “Never Again” is sufficiently strong enough to mobilize preventive or early response, but we do live in a world where “Enough is enough” eventually is triggered — my sense is that it’s just a matter of time…and lives.

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Chicago CFR Survey Says….

A majority of Americans support a no-fly zone in Syria. I expect that  “no-fly zone” comes across as a relatively anodyne, costless policy to the US public. And, indeed, most of the policies that would be required to make such a zone work poll considerably less well. 

UPDATE: (via) Daniel Larson makes the same point, but with more words.

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NATO intervention in Syria Wouldn’t be Easy

That’s the takeaway from a new working paper by Brian Haggerty, a doctoral student at MIT. His conclusion:

The United States and its NATO allies no doubt possess the capabilities required to achieve some measure of air superiority over northwest Syria and to maintain patrols over population centers to defend them from some incursions by Syrian forces equipped with heavy weapons. But as this analysis shows, an intervention to establish only three safe havens, in Homs, Hama, and Idlib, linked to each other and to the Turkish border via a humanitarian corridor, would be a substantial military undertaking. Given Syria’s air defense capabilities, the ubiquity of its tanks, artillery, rockets, and mortars, and tens of thousands of al-Assad-regime allies willing to carry out acts of repression, it does not require any heroic assumptions to suggest that such an intervention would require greater resources, face greater risks, and have a lower probability of success, than any of NATO’s previous air campaigns in response to humanitarian crises in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Libya.

This conclusion is derived from two major considerations. First, Syria possesses
an air defense system with enough mobile surface-to-air missile systems that any attempt
to defend safe havens from the air would require a major, sustained suppression effort for
the duration of the campaign. This would not simply require a large expenditure of
resources up front in order to degrade Syria’s integrated air defense system (although
such a large expenditure would indeed be required); Syria’s strategic air defenses could
likely be degraded or destroyed relatively quickly. The problem is that Syria would still
possess large numbers of tactical mobile SAMs (some quite advanced) that the United
States and its NATO allies have historically had little success in destroying outright when
adversaries have failed to be anything less than cooperative…..

Second, the al-Assad regime still maintains enough strength on the ground,
whether elite elements of the Syrian Army, the thousands employed by its security and
intelligence services, or its shabiha militias, to ensure that determined allies of the regime
could still carry out attacks against civilians that would perpetuate Syria’s humanitarian
crisis. Even if NATO were willing to deploy enough strike aircraft to maintain 24-hour
coverage over safe havens in the northwest capable of engaging significant numbers of
Syrian fielded forces within short periods of time, it would still have only limited ability
to detect and identify hostile elements from the air. Crews flying strike coordination and
reconnaissance missions would have little ability to prevent the infiltration of Syrian
forces carrying small arms and capable of carrying out many of the repressive tactics that
have thus far contributed to Syria’s humanitarian crisis (e.g., the massacres at Houla and
Qubeir)….

Thus, despite a decade of advances in ISR technology since NATO operations
over Kosovo, the problem of emerging target detection and identification would still pose
a major challenge for NATO air forces without help from boots on the ground, and was
so even in the relatively permissive airspace over Libya. The “true worth” of air power, then, still appears largely to reside in its effectiveness when combined with highly trained
and capable ground forces. To hope for air power as a “low-risk” alternative to the use of
ground forces in Syria or future humanitarian interventions would thus be to
misunderstand the basis for air power’s relative success to date. 

You should read the whole thing, as Haggerty provides a nuanced and thoughtful analysis. My sense is that he’s basically right. Degrading and suppressing Syrian air defenses would be a major undertaking; NATO would need a significant ground presence of some sort to leverage its air assets against Syrian army operations. Indeed, the best argument in favor of an “easy” intervention comes down to the claim that NATO’s airpower would deter the Syrian military. But that didn’t happen in Libya, a country with far less robust military capabilities and well-trained conventional forces.

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Crime and Punishment in Syria

The ICRC has stated that the violence in Syria constitutes an non-international armed conflict. This is significant because it means the organization tasked with guarding and promoting the Geneva Conventions is declaring that at least portions of the Geneva Conventions (especially Common Article 3) applies to the conflict and unlawful attacks on non-combatants could be prosecuted as war crimes.

At Lawfare Blog, University of Texas’ Robert Chesney has a terrific round-up of legal questions this raises, including the “legal geography of war,” whether Assad will draw on precedent set by US targeted killings to argue that some noncombatants are legitimate targets, whether the war is already internationalized, and how far the ICRC’s view on the matter is decisive.

One other thing that should be noted: Reuters’ story on this declaration makes it sound as if heretofore atrocities against civilians were beyond judicial scrutiny, though as Chesney notes the article does point out that human rights law did and continues to apply. But in fact most of the previous violence in Syria would also be judiciable through the concept of “crimes against humanity” under the Rome Statute of the ICC. Of course, since Syria has signed but not ratified the Rome Statute, the court would only have jurisdiction if Assad or a ranking official traveled to the territory of a state party and were extradited the court, or if the Security Council were to act.  Since this appears unlikely, any international war crimes court would need to be constituted ad hoc, most likely by a regional organization. Still, governments could also try Assad or his officials under the principle of universal jurisdiction for some crimes, notably torture.

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Russia and Syria

Dan Drezner asks “Dear realists: please explain Russia“:

I raise all of this because a few days ago Charles Clover in the Financial Times wrote an interesting story about Russia’s foreign policy in Syria:

A respected Moscow-based military think tank has published a report that is likely to fuel more questions about the wisdom of Russia’s uncompromising support for the Syrian regime. It concludes that Russia really has few – if any – fundamental national interests to defend in Syria…. 

Russian support for Syria appears to be more emotional than rational, according to the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a consultancy with strong links to Russia’s defence community. It characterised the Kremlin’s Syria policy as a consensus of elites who “have rallied around the demand ‘not to allow the loss of Syria’ ”, which would cause “the final disappearance of the last ghostly traces of Soviet might” in the Middle East. 

“The Syrian situation focuses all the fundamental foreign policy fears, phobias and complexes of Russian politicians and the Russian elite” said CAST.
Russia’s actual stake in Syria is not massive, according to CAST. It described Russia’sarms exports to Damascus as a “significant, but far from key” 5 per cent of total arms exports last year, and characterised Tartus, Moscow’s last foreign military base outside the former USSR, as little more than a pier and a floating repair shop on loan from the Black Sea fleet.

Now, it sounds an awful lot like CAST is arguing that Russian foreign policy leaders are wildly inflating their interests and acting in a — dare I say it — neoconservative fashion towards Syria. 

To which I respond: it depends on the meaning of “realism.”

I suppose I could just stop there. We’ve known for quite some time that “national interest” is a slippery concept (a point I made a few hours ago, come to think of it) — if not best understood as a rhetorical element of the ‘foreign policy’ genre. But if we’re going to play this game, we might start with what I’ll call “realist materialism”– the view that security interests can be assessed simply by crude material indicators. This position is popular among some realists; it holds particularly widespread appeal to critics of contemporary realism.

From this perspective, it should be clear that Moscow has some security interests in Syria. For a country that can’t adequately capitalize its defense industry, five percent (apparently around $4b) isn’t a ton, but it isn’t exactly nothing. To the extent that Syria is Russia’s last ally in the region, that has to count for something as well. But the real question isn’t so much whether Russia’s “material” stakes in Syria are minor, but what costs Moscow faces for supporting the regime. My answer: virtually none. Pretty much all the Kremlin needs to is block UNSC resolutions. No great power is going to inflict material harm on Russia for its stance on the issue. Most of the costs people write about — to reputation — are pretty wooly if we live in realist-materialism land.

But what if we are less dogmatic in our crude materialism — and, I would argue, much closer to modal realism? Then we need to consider additional concerns. First, Russia has good reasons to oppose further erosions of sovereignty norms for repressive regimes. While Russia is a much more open society than many of the authoritarian states (electoral or otherwise) it often gets lumped together with, it is still quite willing to use repressive means to protect the regime and the state (cf. the North Caucuses, where a slow-burn civil war is underway). Second, Moscow is likely still smarting from the fact that it acquiesced to a UN resolution on Libya that quickly became a pretext for NATO-sponsored regime change. Unless something happens to change its calculations, I’m not sure why Moscow should want to do anything to promote western interests in Syria.

Finally, we might move to a more sophisticated realism — one that provides a more traditional, and accurate, understanding of the scope of realpolitik. The Kremlin, in many respects, has a very traditional view of what it means to be a great power. This includes having an acknowledged sphere of influence, extra-regional allies, and a significant voice in the “international community.” We could characterize these motivations as “emotional” or “identity-based” or whatever…. The fact is that they form a coherent, realist, approach to foreign policy. Being a “great power” — and being recognized as such via these trappings — directly enhances international influence, territorial security, and other power-political imperatives. 

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