Tag Archives: military ethics

Playing at war

So, the Americans, British, and French have done their bit, and fired off 100 or so missiles at Syria. After all the fears expressed by pundits that this could be the start of World War III, it’s turned out to be a bit of a nothing-burger. That’s not to downplay the symbolic significance of the Western states’ assault on Syria, in which they acted as judge, juror, and executioner while the investigation into the alleged misdemeanour was still ongoing and chemical weapons inspectors were on their way to the site of the supposed incident. But, if early reports are to be believed, nobody was killed in the attack and the physical damage is fairly minimal. The Brits fired a mere 8 missiles; the French only 12. Those are hardly significant numbers. Given that the Brits and Americans have been meddling in the war in Syria for several years now, arming and training various groups, and bombing targets on their behalf (including occasionally bombing the Syrian Arab Army), this doesn’t really constitute much by way of escalation. Tomorrow, the Syrians will brush off the dust, and things will go back to the way they were. Russia (along with Iran) will continue to back the Syrian government, and the latter’s forces will continue to advance and regain more and more territory. It is most unlikely that this assault will have any meaningful impact on the outcome of the struggle in Syria.

What stands out for me is the choice of weapons in this attack: long-range missiles. The Brits, for instance, fired their missiles from close to their airbase on Cyprus. They didn’t come close to Syria. It seems that they were afraid of Syrian and Russian air defences, and they weren’t prepared to go to the effort of suppressing them, which would have required a long and costly campaign and would have run the danger of getting them into a war with the Russians. The Russian Ministry of Defence says that its own air defences didn’t get involved but that those of the Syrian army shot down 71 of the 103 missiles fired. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (not normally noted for promoting pro-Assad propaganda) claims that 65 were shot down. The Americans are currently denying this. The truth is hard to determine. It may be that the Western allies are right to be fearful of the Syrian/Russian air defence system. Or maybe not. What is clear, though, is that they don’t seem to be willing to take the chance. They also don’t want to get too deeply involved. So, they have limited themselves to firing a few missiles in an utterly pointless manner, while making some wild claims that this would ‘set back Syrian chemical weapons programme for years.’

This is playing at war. Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of how the Americans and the Brits wage war nowadays. They can’t resist getting involved, but the outcome doesn’t matter to them enough for them to commit the resources, and make the sacrifices, required for a successful outcome. So, in Afghanistan they committed themselves enough to stir up the locals, to flood the country with money which boosted corruption and filled the coffers of the Taliban, and generally to make everything worse, but not enough to win (which would  have required a simply enormous amount of resources). In Libya, they did just enough to push the country into chaos, but not enough to put it back together again. In Syria, they’ve pumped in enough weapons and money to thoroughly mess the place up (and in the process supply a whole bunch of people who really aren’t their friends), but not enough to overthrow Assad. And so on.

Now, to be fair, it’s a sign of some intelligence that they haven’t gone any further than they have. It would have been completely disproportionate to have done so. We must welcome the fact that in attacking Syria, they limited themselves to a symbolic gesture and stayed well clear of Russian targets. As I said in my last post, achieving the objective of regime change would require enormous destruction. It’s a good thing that our leaders aren’t prepared to go that far. The problem is, though, is that if they want to succeed that’s how far they have to go. If they’re not prepared to do so, they shouldn’t get involved at all in the first place. Unfortunately, they just can’t stop themselves. Consequently, they end up playing at war, failing time after time, while causing a lot of death and destruction in the process

These endless wars allow politicians to claim that they are being ‘strong’, or more precisely fend off complaints that they are ‘weak’. But they don’t make Britain, America, or France any safer, while those at the receiving end of Western militarism suffer greatly because of it. As far as Syria and Russia are concerned, I suspect that the net result of the latest assault will be to reinforce Russian perceptions that the West is hell-bent on a policy of military and political aggression in which Syria is the front line. They will conclude that Russia must see the war in Syria through to a successful conclusion, and also that the Western states, despite all their bluster, don’t possess the will to stop it. One can therefore expect Russia to press on, and because it has the superior will, it will most likely succeed.

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Unprecedented destruction

In October last year, troops of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, with the assistance of the US Air Force, finally captured the city of Raqqa, which had previously been the capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On 1 April this year, an inter-agency team from the United Nations (UN) entered Raqqa in what was the first UN visit to the city since ISIS’s defeat. According to the website of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR:

The UN team entering Raqqa city were shocked by the level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before. A cascade of rubble lies along the streets with hardly a single building intact.

It’s worth repeating some of that again. The UN team found a

level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.

That’s quite something. There have been a fair number of destructive wars in recent years, including some which have done quite a lot of damage to urban infrastructure (e.g. the various wars in Iraq, the war in Libya, and so on). Yet Raqqa exceeds them all. Specifically, the UN reports that in Raqqa:

With nearly the entire infrastructure totally destroyed, public services barely exist and no safe water or electricity. The widespread presence of explosive hazards, including unexploded ordnance, landmines and improvised explosive devices, particularly in those neighborhoods of the city that were the stronghold of ISIS towards the end of hostilities, pose a significant threat to civilians; some 130 civilians having been killed and a further 658 injured in blasts since the city was retaken from ISIS in October 2017.

In addition to unexploded ordnance, the UNHCR protection team on the mission, who met with women, men and the youth, identified numerous protection and other challenges, risks and threats, ranging from criminality, early marriages and other SGBV [sexual and gender based violence] concerns, to lack of safe water, electricity, healthcare and education services. But these are just a few of the many challenges preventing people from regaining their dignified life.

I mention all this because throughout the civil war in Syria, and particularly since the Russian Federation became involved, we have bombarded with complaints about the particularly barbaric methods of war used by the Syrian Arab Army and the Russians. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, for instance, ranted about the ‘flagrant disregard for human life’ displayed by the Syrian government during the battle for East Aleppo.  Former American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, accused Russia of ‘barbarism’ in Syria.  ‘Russia is abetting mass murder in Syria’ shouted the headline of a recent article in The Atlantic magazine. And so on. There’s far too many such statements to count.

Accompanying these complaints are repeated claims that ‘something must be done’. This normally means something military. The aforementioned Atlantic article, for instance, claims that,

Military force and deterrence may also be the key to ending the Syrian war. … The war in Syria will only end when the aggressors know America is serious—about diplomacy, about sanctioning the aggressors, and about using military force not just to fight isis, but to protect Syrians. Continued failure to take these steps will only make America an accessory to evil.

And yet, if we are to believe the UN report I began with, the United States and its allies have been more destructive than the Syrian government and the Russians. Raqqa is not a unique case either. Patrick Cockburn of The Independent newspaper, for instance, has described the ‘mass slaughter’ of civilians in Mosul, with ‘appalling damage inflicted by continuing artillery and rocket fire aimed over a five-month period at a confined area jam-packed with civilians who were unable to escape.’ Despite this, there seems to be an extraordinary lack of indignation over such matters, let alone any calls to ‘do something’ to stop the Americans and their allies from killing civilians.

Of course, none of this excuses any excesses committed by the Syrians and the Russians, or means that they have been particularly mindful of civilian casualties during their military operations. It also shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that the Americans are worse than the Russians. In my view, they’re one and the same. The massive destruction one can see in places such as Raqqa, Mosul, and Aleppo is simply an inevitable consequence of urban warfare. There is no way that you can destroy an enemy who is in a city and who is determined to stand and fight without destroying much of the city in the process. And if a lot of civilians are present (perhaps because the defenders won’t let them leave), there’s no way that you can do it without killing large numbers of civilians as well. This is reality, and the fact that both Americans and Russians end up doing much the same thing is a reflection of it.

In short, the problem isn’t that either the Russians or the Americans are particularly barbaric, it’s that war itself is brutal, and there is no getting around it. This is a message that the ‘something must be done’ crowd seem unwilling to learn. They seem to believe that there is some simple, cheap, and relatively benign way of applying force, which will solve all sorts of problems without killing a lot of innocent people along the way. This is (99 percent of the time) a myth.

Yes indeed, the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad is hardly a shining example of liberal democratic values. Yes, it would be nice if it could be replaced by something which was. But how exactly do the would-be intervenors imagine that Assad could be overthrown? Their problem is that they don’t have a plan. Well, let me tell them what their plan would have to be if they were serious about ‘regime change’. They couldn’t just drop a few bombs or fly in a few rockets, and expect that to do the job. It wouldn’t. They’d have to create a land army, and support it over a prolonged period of time as it ground its way slowly forward taking government-held cities one by one: Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, and others, and ultimately Damascus. And every time, they’d have to do to them what they did to Raqqa.

So, I have a simple question to our armchair humanitarian warriors: How on earth would that help save the lives of innocents?

The Folly of Military Intervention

Last Friday I gave a talk at the University of Ottawa for the Institute of Liberal Studies on the subject ‘The Folly of Military Intervention’. Give that at this moment the British House of Commons is debating whether to join the war in Syria, this seems a good time to post the talk, which was filmed by one of the audience (the first couple of minutes are missing). You can watch it below.