Just when you thought the Syrian and Russian human rights violations couldn’t get worse – isn’t chemical barrel bombing and systematic destruction of hospitals enough? – incendiary bombs are raining down on civilians in Aleppo and Idlib. Last week, 15 of Syria’s dwindling number of doctors sent President Obama a bitter written denunciation: “Continued U.S. inaction to protect the civilians of Syria means that our plight is being willfully tolerated by those in the international corridors of power.” They assert, correctly, that in allowing Syria, Russia, and Iran to get away with murder, with war crimes, with “no effort on behalf of the United States to lift the siege or even use its influence to push the parties to protect civilians,” the United States is morally complicit in the worsening humanitarian catastrophe that is Syria.
Inaction on this front is often justified by an argument that action might make things worse, and that if we cannot map out exactly how any action, humanitarian or military, ends in an acceptable outcome, we would be better advised to take no action at all. In an ideal world that is how one sets and achieves policy goals. But in the real world we don’t always have that option, and experience tells us that limited short-term action, including using military force or the threat of force, can save many lives.
The United States and its coalition partners should declare their intention to deliver relief to Syria’s beleaguered and besieged residents through humanitarian organizations under the protection of a no-fly zone or safe zone over Aleppo and other areas where civilians are starving, deprived of food, medical assistance and safe shelter. We should be ready to enforce this zone through military force and communicate this directly to the Russian government. We should seek U.N. Security Council approval, but be prepared to proceed without it.
We have already set that precedent in Kosovo, also on humanitarian grounds. This won’t be easy – so we should start with Aleppo and delineate a clear narrow no-fly area for a set period of time – say, three months. This will keep our objectives and commitment limited, but at least provide some relief. The administration has demonstrated that it can separate the issue of resolving the civil war in Syria from the fight against ISIS and other terrorists, regardless of the wisdom of this approach. It should, therefore, be more than able and willing to separate out humanitarian objectives from political ones. We ought to at this point in the miserable stalemated war be willing to take some action to help the innocent Syrians caught in the crossfire. That limited objective should be sufficient justification for action. But it is also likely that the act of alleviating the human suffering will fuel a new dynamic that ultimately begins to change the course of the war. If we do the right thing and achieve positive results, we will regain our confidence, regain some moral legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people and the world. And maybe that is the first step, the first butterfly flutter to pulling everyone out of the hellhole.
This was certainly the case in Bosnia. After refusing for more than three years to take any real action to save Bosnian lives, we started to change the dynamic when the United States led NATO to use force to protect civilians, in August 1995 in response to a Bosnian Serb attacks on the main open air market in Sarajevo. In Iraq in 1991, we came to the rescue of the Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein’s attack helicopters by creating a northern no-fly zone and bringing the Kurds down from the mountains where they were dying from exposure. It led to no immediate change in the overall geopolitical dynamic, but it saved lives and the subsequent air operations kept the Kurds safe from any further attack by Saddam Hussein’s government forces.
Americans expect our government to fight terrorists who threaten us and our allies. They also expect their government to act not only in furtherance of cold hard U.S. interests, but also when possible in defense of humanity out of compassion and as an expression of universal humanitarianism. Americans have supported the use of force to protect innocent civilians from the aforementioned Operation Provide Comfort in Iraq, to the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, Somalia, and most recently in 2011 to protect the Libyan people from Moammar Gadhafi’s credible threats to retaliate with vengeance against them for rising up against his government. The fact that events in the latter two countries unfolded in a manner contrary to U.S. interests doesn’t change the fact that those interventions were justified by limited humanitarian objectives and did, indeed, saved lives.
It is worth noting that in the case of Bosnia, the use of force to prevent further ethnic cleansing by the Bosnian Serbs backed by Serbian President Milosevic was accompanied by a U.S.-funded train-and-equip program for the Bosnian Muslims and Croats, who then went and leveled the battlefield against the Serbs. The end result was all sides were motivated to cut their losses, lock in their gains, and seek peace. For this reason, we should also increase our military support to the Syrian opposition. And given today’s sophisticated sanctions – a tool we had not yet honed in the 1990s – we should sanction Russia with our Middle Eastern and European coalition partners for its assistance to Assad in violating the human rights of Syrian citizens and committing war crimes.
The Kremlin no doubt will be prompted by impending U.S. humanitarian action to make more empty promises to provide aid themselves, convince some of our partners to oppose our efforts, and test our resolve in the air. Our response should be to stick to our guns in the knowledge that humanitarian action is the only hope for salvaging our self-respect, and changing something about the increasingly miserable dynamic. Neither side can win. The least we can do is help the Syrian people live to see the inevitable political compromise they will be lucky to have to endure.