As the terrible violent suppression of the Syrian opposition continues, policymakers and commentators have scrambled to find some kind of solution. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former State Department Director of Policy Planning, has proposed peace” “no-kill zones in Syria”
as a form of action more robust than diplomacy, but theoretically less provocative than an all-out war. Setting up “no kill zones” would involve the limited provision of arms to the Free Syrian Army, and training and intelligence from foreign special forces from Arab League states, Turkey, and perhaps Britain and France. Using aerial resupply from unmanned aircraft, foreign intelligence, and support from special forces, the FSA would expand the “no kill zones” until a truce could be made with the Syrian government. Supposedly, these interventions will be too limited to exacerbate retaliation by Syria or greater involvement by Assad’s allies. However, Spencer Ackerman, firing back at his own blog
, noted that Slaughter’s piece is a prolonged exercise in avoiding the implications of R2P as the rest of the world understands them, and in doing so creates a militarily incoherent monstrosity that can only achieve its goals save by luck:
Now, why do I say this is a broader problem with the Responsibility to Protect? Because it shows that the R2P is a military endeavor that still lacks actual, substantive objectives for militaries to achieve. If I am one of the Qatari SOF captains who has to aid the “no-kill zones,” I don’t know from Slaughter’s guidance how to design my operational campaign. I get that I have to help the Free Syrian Army clear out a “no-kill zone” of loyalist Syrian troops; I can presume that I must hold that zone. But what happens when I get mortar fire from the loyalists who’ve pulled back? Does protecting that zone mean I can push it outward? If it does, then I am escalating the objectives as Slaughter has described them; if it doesn’t, then I have failed to hold the no-kill zone.
Slaughter, in a comment responding to Ackerman’s charges, elucidated her argument further. She premised her argument on three assumptions: the inevitability of international action stronger than diplomacy to relieve Syria’s crisis, the possibility of an FSA that seeks only civilian protection without regime change, and the disloyalty and demoralization of the “vast majority” of Assad’s forces. She further argues that foreign special forces, drones, and arms will not constitute international forces or the instigation of a proxy war – and that the threat of revoking this aid will keep rebels satisfied with civilian protection rather than regime change or revenge killings. However, these deployments are still military intervention, and any such choice demands careful scrutiny of the plan at hand, no matter how morally reprehensible the foe may be or dire the situation may appear.
The Wishful Thinking of Safe Zones
To recap my post at the New Atlanticist, Syrian safe zones are useless unless there are forces capable of defending them from massed armored and artillery formations. So long as even a fraction of the Alawite career military forces remain loyal to Assad, he will have access to heavy weapons and be able to reduce population centers and encampments with relative ease. Anti-tank weapons and anti-air weapons will only blunt these attacks, they will not be repulsed without the ability to direct counter-fires en mass. Furthermore, the attacks and sieges will not be successfully broken without a ground force capable of defeating Syrian forces in a stand-up fight.
Anne-Marie Slaughter and other advocates of a safe zone have argued that a guerrilla and paramilitary force armed with small arms, crew served weapons, and anti-tank rockets and missiles could defend against massed formations without devolution into siege warfare by cutting off communications using intelligence, communications, and support from special forces advisers. Particularly against a lightly-armed foe Syrian heavy forces could easily make a mockery of no-kill zones by simply pressing ahead with attacks on cities and any FSA forces foolish enough to concentrate themselves in their defense.
Look at the past example of Sarajevo during the Balkan wars. The siege of Sarajevo was not lifted when NATO airstrikes began. In fact, despite attempted negotiations, the siege continued, and Bosnian Serb forces did not fully withdraw until relatively equally matched Croatian and Bosniak forces were able to launch a ground assault in the area. Similarly, the Srebrenica safe area failed despite international observers, local militias, and air support precisely because the forces on the ground were unable or unwilling to risk a fight against Serb forces. In the case of Syria, a Free Syrian Army of a strength matching that of, say, Croatia’s, is certainly not forthcoming – which means that any city which falls under assault will be incredibly difficult to retain or incorporate into a genuine safe zone. The vast majority of proactive FSA warfare has essentially been guerrilla operations, raiding and bleeding Syrian armed forces rather than clearing, let alone holding, territory outright (with a few temporary exceptions in small towns). The notion that with just some unmanned aircraft and foreign special forces they can somehow develop the cohesion necessary for a unified command and control system that can successfully implement a coherent operational plan to actually assault Syrian forces at all points is wishful thinking. – Advocates of no-kill zones must acknowledge these shortcomings or advocate for more arms, more support, and more intervention to fill the gap between the opposition and they Syrian army.
A stalemate, as Adam Elkus ably explains in his recent post on Slaughter’s piece, is simply an intermediary step, and will not serve military or diplomatic interests – and probably not even humanitarian interests. Enforcing a stalemate would simply prolong the war, because even if Assad chose to cut a deal or flee the country, fearful Alawite military officers or ministers might choose to fight on. Few within the government will be gullible enough to think that the ultimate goal would not be regime change, it is simply not a plausible argument. Few believed it in Libya, and fewer still will believe it now. “Assad must go” is the default position of the governments that would be involved in the intervention, who on earth would really think the intervention they sponsor would be unrelated to this end?
There is an assumption of neutrality about the “no-kill zones” that bears no logical weight. The no-kill zones, whether Slaughter intends them to or not, exist to deny control of the population to the Syrian government. They would function as safe havens for opposition activity. Slaughter, in a follow up comment in Ackerman’s piece, insists, “R2P is not about winning, it’s about forcing a government to fight fair, which means it doesn’t shoot civilians as a strategy.” Yet establishing a no-kill zone where the FSA may operate, but not the Syrian government, is providing protection to a movement seeking the overthrow of the Syrian government. Separating this from support for regime change is a matter of semantics, not policy.
Slaughter explains her argument for indefinite stalemate, and the political viability of enforcing it, starting with three assumptions:
1) That sooner or later something beyond diplomatic pressure will have to be done with regard to the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria;
This is not true in practical terms. R2P is a system of ideals that can be adopted or ignored in accordance with state preference. R2P is a luxury or a preference rather than an imperative, outside actors cannot be forced to alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. In fact, they might choose to intervene with goals indifferent or even antithetical to the humanitarian interests at play. No, if the diplomatic measures, as skillfully and clearly outlined by Marc Lynch, fail, then alternatives will basically be fighting a bloody war or proxy war under which humanitarian considerations will, for the most part, be undertaken by friction and the course of events, or the international community will have to live with Assad. Framing war as inevitable simply results in the narrow-minded and dangerous thinking that Diana outlined in her earlier post on how we think about waging war. Adopting that sort of mindset results in precisely the sorts of strategically illogical arguments that get intervening soldiers and civilians alike killed for minimal gains.
Slaughter tries to argue that the FSA can be restrained from undertaking offensive warfare (that is, warfare beyond the inherently offensive action of expanding the no-kill zones, although Slaughter does not portray it as such) by ascribing a solely humanitarian purpose to what is expressly an army seeking to liberate Syria, saying:
2) That the FSA started as a force dedicated to protecting peaceful protesters rather than attacking Assad and could be persuaded to return to that mission (although not if the decision is simply to arm them, as is happening now)
The goals of the FSA, insofar as we can derive the intentions of a disaggregated force from its leadership’s statements, are to bring about the destruction of the regime through attacks on military targets. See the statements of Colonel Riyad al-Assad, who argues the FSA must “work hand in hand with the people to achieve freedom and dignity to bring this regime down” and that attacks would occur across the country, arguing, ”We will target them in all parts of the Syrian territories without exception.” Offensive and defensive warfare are complementary, not contradictory – while a strategy can be weighted towards one or another, even a strategic defensive may require tactical offenses. A viable defense requires seizing key terrain features, population centers, counter-offensives, and the disruption of enemy logistics and lines of communication. Yet what expanding safe zones requires, and the FSA’s nation-wide guerrilla campaign acknowledges, the need for a strategic offensive, even if many of its components are tactical defenses. For the inherently offensive action of expanding safe zones, forward actions to disrupt or halt the advance of Syrian forces will prove necessary to secure the safe zones. Drawing an arbitrary line between offense and defense will only serve to confuse the issue, not restrain the Free Syrian Army. Even if some members of the FSA choose to forswear regime change and accept stalemate, some units will act offensively or new paramilitary groups might emerge to meet the aspirations of Syrian political leaders, people, and yes, the Sunni Arab states which are eager to see Assad gone. Already the Syrian National Council appears to be splintering, with 20 members forming the ”Syrian Patriotic Group,” a bloc avowedly in favor of the FSA. Fracturing among political groups might occur if the SNC acquiesces to Western pressure not to seek outright regime change through armed revolt.
Slaughter justifies the inadequate resource commitments of the no-kill zone plan by eschewing worst-case planning:
3) that the vast majority of Assad’s army will not in fact fight for him.
This is an example of the exact opposite kind of assumption to make when planning a military intervention. Even if the majority of Assad’s conscript forces defect or simply desert, that still leaves the best-trained and best-equipped professional formations relatively intact. The morale of these units is presumably more robust and the sectarian composition much more amenable to the regime’s interest. The more the FSA and associated movements look like a Sunni majoritarian force backed by co-sectarian partners in the Gulf, the more likely non-Sunni minorities will more fully throw in the lot with the regime. Furthermore, how many loyal, well-trained professional troops with heavy weapons does Syria need to put down a FSA that is basically limited to guerrilla attacks if they are willing to just blast the population into compliance? It may well not require a majority of the forces willing to fight, just enough cohesive and well-equipped ones which can overcome a much more nebulous force of guerrillas which is unable to coordinate attacks at an operational or strategic level.
Based on those three assumptions, I do think it is possible to use special forces, high-grade intelligence, modern communications, and a relatively limited number of specialized weapons to help the FSA establish and maintain these zones. Of course they could use those weapons any way they want, but see my second assumption. Further, if my third assumption is right then the zones will encourage more defections than attacks.
Such assumptions completely ignore the potential counter-actions of the enemy. If the number of weapons is limited, and indeed, even if they are widely distributed, it is highly unlikely that safe zones defended only by guerrillas that have proven manifestly incapable of protecting cities such as Homs from siege would trigger a collapse in Syrian, especially Alawite Syrian, military morale. In fact, the prospect of defections would likely spur more aggressive use of the military, as quickly and violently proving the safe zones unsafe would stymie defections and potentially draw the FSA into a defensive fight ripe for the sort of massacre Syrian forces have inflicted on cities and population centers before. Additionally, Syrian security services could take advantage of defectors by intentionally sending some as informants about FSA activity – something which has very likely already occurred, and is another potential source of distrust and division between FSA officers. Were the FSA to try and kill these informants within the no-kill zones, or militias were to conduct revenge killing, torture, or any of the other malign behavior all too common to civil wars, would we really imperil the vast majority of civilians within them by weakening the rebel groups? Or would supposedly fair, impartial, and humanitarian-minded outsiders need to take a bigger role?
Foreign Support: Mere Failure or Casus Belli?
Furthermore, it is utterly unconvincing that a “limited” shipment of “specialized” arms would smack any less of a proxy war from the Iranian or Russian perspective. Such arms shipments would almost certainly convince Iran and Russia to increase their support for the Syrian government and bring in “specialized” arms and advisers in return. Slaughter surprisingly argues that despite, in her original piece, for special forces from “Qatar, Turkey and possibly Britain and France,” and then Turkish and Arab League “remotely piloted helicopters, either for delivery of cargo and weapons — as America has used them in Afghanistan — or to attack Syrian air defenses and mortars in order to protect the no-kill zones,” as well as drones, because somehow drone strikes, unlike ground troops (which Slaughter is already advocating deploying in the form of special forces), will somehow not be perceived by Assad as an act of war or grounds for retaliation. Yet in her response to Ackerman, she claims she never mentions international forces. Domestic political audiences might swallow such semantic circumlocutions, but Assad and his allies will not.
Of course, special forces are hardly going to be able to provide FSA troops with the ability to isolate and defeat battalion-sized formations of Syrian troops – something that appears never to have happened, even during tactical withdrawals. Organizations such as MPRI did provide the Croatian forces with the ability to conduct complex operations such as Operation Storm in the Balkan Wars, but the Croat military was far more organized than the FSA and far more capable relative to its Serbian foes than the FSA is to Damascus’s troops.
Additionally, providing “high-grade intelligence” will require large amounts of manned and unmanned platforms, both at sea and in the air, in order to adequately support the SOF on the ground, and as Robert Caruso notes, this could balloon into a commitment of thousands of U.S. personnel. As for the remotely-piloted helicopters and drones, without a much broader campaign of electronic warfare, suppression of enemy air defenses, and other combat operations involving jet aircraft, bombing, and manned platforms, it is highly unlikely drones and RPAs would be reliable conduits of supply for FSA guerrillas in the field. After all, even the USMC has only talked about flying K-MAX, the Afghan-tested resupply drone Slaughter references, at night because small arms fire - Taliban with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades – might fell it. How well will it do against crew-served anti-air guns, man-portable missiles, or SAM sites? Not well enough that I’d bet the combat viability of outnumbered, outgunned, and logistically and organizationally-impaired FSA troops on it.
Operation Viking Hammer, a 2003 assault by U.S, Special Forces embedded with Iraq’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is an instructive contrast to Slaughter’s happy vision. The assault’s success required, firstly, a massive over-match in manpower. Thousands of PUK troops attacked an Ansar al-Islam camp of just a few hundred men – roughly the size of a battalion. The PUK was an older, more cohesive organization with which the US CIA had prior ties. Furthermore, it occurred in the context of a logistical tail that involved huge numbers of C-130 cargo aircraft and the attack itself required air support from U.S. combat aircraft that drones are unlikely to match. To expect foreign special forces with intelligence, communication, and drone support to take on Syrian armored units is to demand a much tougher fight with far fewer necessary tools.
The Self-Defeating Humanitarian Stalemate
The very logic of the no-kill zones and the associated policies gives the FSA an incentive to launch offensives it is theoretically not allowed to conduct, and practically unlikely to succeed in – but the unacknowledged reliance of these zones on offensive success might give rebels a tool to escalate foreign involvement.
Merely establishing the safe zones for civilian protection would just be a stopgap measure, and it would likely undermine the prospects for a lasting truce. Instead, they would provide the impetus for further civil war. Some towns will be leveled or besieged to prevent the safe zone from reaching them. Truces will be attempted and then their limits tried. The dynamics of internal warfare will continue.
When some of the safe zones are rolled back when FSA troops are unable to hold them – when special forces troops are killed in these events – will the international community strictly adhere to its policy of stalemate for the civilians sake, even as Syrian assaults render it a laughingstock? Or will safe zones provide a political platform or more arms, and more and deeper intervention? How will the international community respond when Bashar uses the extra time of stalemate to strengthen loyalist forces and draw more resources from Russia and Iran? How would it respond to the strengthening of more radical or militant secular and religious components of the FSA and armed resistance which aren’t content to seek a truce with their oppressor?
How will the rule against revenge killings be enforced? Slaughter claims that the curtailment of support will discourage revenge or extrajudicial killings, but this is utterly impractical. Gulf Cooperation Council and other Arab League states do not care about human rights, they care about deposing a pro-Iranian minority government and empowering a Sunni, anti-Iranian majority. Furthermore, the FSA does not necessarily trust all defectors, who were not the original participants in the armed resistance, since some of them are informants for the regime. Additionally, irregular groups might attack within these zones to disrupt FSA training. Assad’s local rivals will pump money and arms into the opposition regardless of their human rights record, because just like their complicity in the oppression of protests in Bahrain, Arab intervention in Syria has nothing to do with embracing R2P and everything to do with geopolitical interests.
Ultimately, the combination of vague and indefensible no-kill zones with supposedly limited arming of the mass of armed groups under the banner of the FSA- all done through allies and proxies with limited specialized capabilities and interests at variance with humanitarian protection and perhaps even American interests – will, at best, produce a stalemate that prolongs the Syrian civil war before what would likely be a violent conclusion or the centrifugal unraveling of its central authority. At worst, it will accelerate the incipient proxy war by provoking further Iranian and Russian support for Assad and Sunni support for their own favored militias and terrorists, or even provoke a further military intervention when failures force the U.S. to uphold its commitment to the failed plan by providing yet more resources to its original objectives, and likely supplementing them with more muscular and direct action. Military intervention must be based on the conditions on the ground, the capabilities and standing interests of the parties involved, and a viable end state to which the intervening parties can affix a strategy. Ignoring obvious truths – that foreign special forces are international forces, that foreign armament of rebels is proxy warfare, that regime change and power politics, not civilian protection, will guide armed rebel and intervening partner behavior alike – may provide for a satisfying narrative with which to assuage our rightfully anguished consciences, but it woefully fails policymakers’ responsibilities to their citizens and armed forces, nor, ultimately, will it provide the basis for adquately protecting civilians.