Why the red line in Syria is not where Obama says it is, and why it has long been crossed

It may seem logical that Barack Obama declared the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s Civil War a “red line“ that would warrant intervention. Most people take it for granted that ABC-type arms are worse than conventional ones, and that their use constitutes nothing short of a war crime. They have a point. After all, chemical weapons can kill far more people than conventional ones and make it harder to differentiate between combatants and civilians.

And yet, there is something fundamentally wrong with this argument. The weakness of Obama’s red line is not its acknowledgment that chemical weapons are bad, but its implicit assumption that using them automatically makes a warring party more violent and inhumane. Is it worse to kill thousands of civilians with chemical weapons than to kill them with cluster bombs? I don’t see why it would be.

The Syrian government and certain parts of the rebels have been murdering civilians for two years now (Recently, the New Yorker had a chilling piece on massacres in Aleppo, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/04/29/130429fa_fact_mogelson). Some of the worst atrocities in human history have been committed with conventional arms, think of the Rwandan genocide or the mass murder of Soviet Jews at the hands of the Wehrmacht in 1941. These acts would not have been any more or less horrible if chemical weapons had been involved. My point is this: If Obama’s concern is the wellbeing of civilians, he should intervene when they are being killed in large numbers, irrespective of the type of weapon used. By this logic the US military should have gotten boots on the ground a long time ago.

Rather than focus on chemical weapons, a quick look at military history suggests that the red line in Syria lies somewhere else, and has long been crossed. What matters most in Syria’s civil war is not the type of weapons used, but the mindset of the combatants.

David Bell’s book The First Total War and James Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle both argue that warfare became fundamentally more drawn-out, brutal and deadly in Europe some time around the year 1800. Before then, wars were relatively brief and had fewer casualties. The beginning of a new kind of warfare, which both authors call total war, was not the result of new weapon technologies, but of a change in thinking. In the 18th century, wars were fought over disputed territories and usually ended with one side ceding a certain region to the other. Total annihilation of the opponent was out of the question, and while boundaries moved around, monarchies remained stable.

In the wake of the French revolution, an ideological shift occurred that made an end this aristocratic culture of war. Ideals of pacifism and popular sovereignty meant that it became increasingly difficult for rulers to justify going to war. Out of this dilemma emerged the concept of the just war: Fighting was only acceptable under exceptional circumstances against a truly evil enemy that posed an existential threat. And if the enemy was truly evil, a desirable end to a war could only be the enemy’s complete annihilation.

From the 19th century on wars became increasingly rare, but also more drawn-out and deadly. World War I was propagated as “The war to end all wars”, a final clash between barbarous Huns and Western democracy, which was precisely what made a quick armistice impossible. World War II came to embody the new total war in its worst form. Hitler’s belief that Germany would either destroy and enslave its enemies or go down in ruins led to tens of millions of deaths between 1941 and 1945. The US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under George W. Bush are another case in point. Both aimed not at a settlement, but at a complete removal of the enemy. More than ten years after the invasions, an end to the violence still isn’t in sight.

Which brings me back to Syria. The fighting crossed its red line when both warring parties stopped seeing any possible end to the war apart from either death or complete destruction of the enemy: when the civil war became a total war. The process that led to this shift was gradual. From the very beginning, the Syrian rebels were fighting for nothing less than the removal of Bashar al-Assad. Similarly, the dictator made it quite clear that he had little interest in serious negotiations or a truce. Nevertheless, a quick solution to the war was still far from impossible. This changed with the escalation of violence. As more and more soldiers were ordered to massacre opponents by an increasingly desperate regime, their fate became tied to the survival of Assad’s rule.

Many government troops know that they are held responsible for the regime’s atrocities and cannot expect any pardon if the rebels emerge victorious. In consequence, they are more likely to fight with indiscriminate brutality, knowing that their survival depends on it. The same logic applies to the rebels. The longer the war lasts and the more government officials are assassinated, the less the insurgents can expect to come out of this conflict alive if they lose. As the desire to avenge the dead pushes the wish to end the conflict as quickly as possible aside, a truce becomes almost impossible.

A foreign military intervention that shifts the momentum of the war against the government will do more harm than good here. If Assad’s followers see themselves with their backs against the wall, unable to expect either victory or pardon, they will react with more and more brutality. Total wars have a tendency to cause the most casualties at their very end, when one side has nothing to lose. During World War II more people died in Europe in 1944 alone than in 1941, 1942 and 1943 taken together. It is not far-fetched to expect a similar dynamic in Syria.

Those who are optimistic about a quick outcome to the Syrian Civil War often point to Libya, where rebels were able to overthrow Gaddafis’s government with Western military help in a matter of months. But the way the Libyan rebels succeeded highlights precisely why a similar outcome cannot be expected in Syria. Far more important than the intervention of France and Britain was the fact that several heads of Libyan clans chose to change sides and fight against their former ally Gaddafi. That they were able to make this choice shows that their fate was not inevitably tied to the survival of the regime. In other words: There was a third option available besides defeating the rebels alongside Gaddafi or going down with the regime.

In Syria, this third option no longer exists. Even if the Alawites, the religious group that is most closely associated with the regime, had clan leaders, and even if they formally chose to switch sides, they could hardly expect the rebels to welcome them. This is not to say that no defections are possible. Many of Assad’s supporters could conceivably start fighting for the rebels, who would welcome more support. But many more have every reason to believe that their fate is tied to that of the regime, be it because they are personally known for crimes they have committed, or because their old military unit or religious affiliation guarantees the rebels’ mistrust.

A foreign military intervention may speed up the fall of the regime, but, if military history is any indication, may lead to many more civilian casualties as the regime desperately struggles for survival. Instead, the best way to save civilians’ lives is by artificially re-creating the third way out that the course of the war has destroyed. Granting Assad exile has been suggested, but doing so won’t solve the problem by itself. What is needed is an amnesty and possible exile for all those who see their fate as tied to that of the regime and have reason to fear for their lives or livelihoods in the event of a rebel victory.

This would be a bold and difficult measure, since it would entail finding a new home abroad for tens if not hundreds of thousands of Syrians. But considering how easily leaders embark on military interventions, a general amnesty would prove far less costly in financial and most certainly in human terms.

It is far from clear if such a programme would work, but it is certainly worth a try. Day by day, regime troops and rebels are fighting for their lives. Compared to that, the international community has very little to lose.

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