The Syrian war and international norms

Brian M Downing

The Syrian civil war is in its eighth year. The government presently has the upper hand. It’s taken back a good deal of territory and all major cities save one, Idlib. That city is now under attack by Russian and Syrian aircraft in preparation for a ground offensive, as is the Ghouta district of eastern Damascus. Casualties over the years are judged to be between 350,000 and 470,000 dead.

International principles have eroded in the war. The principle of non-intervention in other countries’ affairs has never been widely respected and numerous nations have sent troops, arms, recruits, and money into Syria. The principle of not systematically attacking civilian populations has had better standing though, as has refraining from using chemical weapons. Both principles have been gravely damaged in Syria. We might see an increase in systematic attacks on civilians around the world, including the use of chemical and biological weapons.

The Syrian counteroffensive 

Early in the conflict, Assad’s forces had to retreat to the west, abandoning much of the country to rebel groups. Assad was able to consolidate in a Shia redoubt and with the help of Iranian militias and IRGC troops, rebuild his forces. A counteroffensive retook some territory but the war was essentially a stalemate.

The counteroffensive achieved more success once Russia began air support in 2015. The airstrikes were often directed on rebel positions in open terrain but they were especially prominent in urban centers. Infantry units loathe urban combat and for good reason. Defenders can turn buildings and piles of rubble into formidable positions. Every motor vehicle and trash bin can hide an IED. Snipers can do their work from almost anywhere. Attackers will ordinarily suffer very high casualties, and Syrian ground forces have taken high casualties over the years.

Urban areas can be retaken with fewer casualties on the attacking side by the use of intensive and undiscriminating airstrikes. Enemy positions can be leveled. The same holds for whatever lies in the path of advancing troops. The Syrian-Russian campaigns in Aleppo, Idlib, and Ghouta entail systematic targeting of hospitals, administrative centers, food caches, White Helmet sites, and anything that eases civilian suffering. The point is not only to defeat military forces but to drive a wedge between the populace and rebel forces, terrify civilians, and turn them into docile subjects once the smoke clears.

The air campaign includes the use of barrels bombs which are the poor general’s precision-guided munitions. Barrel bombs are dropped from hovering helicopters onto urban targets. Gravity offers a simple form of accuracy. Observers state unequivocally that civilians are being targeted.

Syria is also using chemical weapons, more so in recent weeks. Russia hasn’t stepped in. President Obama was outmaneuvered by Putin’s offer to remove Syria’s arsenals. President Trump promptly replied to one attack with a cruise-missile strike, but remains silent now. Foreign intervention isn’t on the horizon, though American and Israeli jets are nearby and capable of grounding the enemy aircraft.

A new age of chemical warfare?

Both sides used chemical weapons in the First World War. Both sides suffered grotesque casualties but neither gained an advantage. They were not used in the Second World War, at least not extensively. Japan used them on the Chinese. Significantly, they were unable to retaliate in kind. Japan fought American troops from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima yet never used chemical weapons. It knew the US would retaliate, leaving it with no advantage. Berlin knew this too, even as allied armies neared Berlin.

In the absence of an effective response to Syria and Russia’s use of chemical weapons, forces without the capacity to retaliate will be vulnerable to such attacks. So will civilian populations.

Russia is facing Islamist militancy in the Caucasus and its southern periphery from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan. Should an uprising gain control of an urban center or swathe of land, chemical weapons will reduce the costs of suppression.

The same holds for China and its Uighur population in Xinjiang province, the Philippines and Mindanao, the DRC and its rebellious regions, Turkey and its Kurds and those in Syria, Pakistan and the Pashtun and Baloch separatists. Iran could do the same to its Kurds and Balochs, but it will be recalled that though Iraq used chemical weapons in the long war with Iran, Tehran declined to follow suit.

It’s been a century since the end of Great War which saw the first use of chemical weapons. We may be entering a new era of small wars with chemical weapons used by at least one side – with little and perhaps diminishing opposition in the world.

Copyright 2018 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *