November 30, 2015

4 ways to protect civilians in Syria and defeat Isis

Protecting civilians is the key to stopping the violence and driving out Isis

Any anti-Isis strategy must start with the recognition that Syrians do not want Isis in their country. Isis are considered by many to be a foreign occupying force and Syrians have pushed them out of many towns in the past. But they cannot do this while they continue to be targeted by the Assad regime and now Russia.

The international community can play a vital role in defeating Isis and accelerating an end to the conflict but only if the starting point for intervention is protection of civilians.

This means recognising that only a small minority of the killing of civilians in Syria is at the hands of Isis. The vast majority is by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and now increasingly by Russia. In the first half of 2015 alone, seven times more civilians were killed by Assad’s regime than Isis with the majority of these deaths coming from aerial attacks like barrel bombs.

These attacks are on opposition areas, targeting the same communities that have driven out Isis in the past.

Any coherent strategy to defeat Isis needs to start with protection of these communities, where most of the killing is happening in Syria. If we can protect these communities, they will drive out Isis.

Here are four ways the UK and other countries could intervene in Syria:

1. Anti-Isis Strikes

Bombing of Isis strongholds in the North and East of the country.

Prominent supporters: US-led coalition of more than 60 countries

How easy to implement? Easy – it is happening already. Whether that is actually having impact in weakening Isis is unclear. Isis controls more than 50% of Syrian territory.

How likely to protect civilians? Unlikely. The vast majority of civilians are not being killed by Isis and some evidence shows that US-led coalition strikes are damaging key infrastructure that civilians depend on within Isis areas. By hiding among the communities it occupies, Isis is effectively using them as human shields making civilian casualties more likely. Coalition anti-Isis strikes have killed over 250 civilians by the end of October, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Verdict: Without a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians this is selective at best.

2. Safe Zones

Protected areas in the North and South of country where the regime’s aircraft would not be allowed to fly which are also secured by ground forces. International humanitarian groups are wary of previous precedents of safe havens being targeted – as in Bosnia and Sri Lanka – and concerned that neighbouring countries would use these areas as an excuse to push back refugees. However, local humanitarians say it will enable them to deliver more aid.

Prominent supporters: Turkey, Certain UK and US politicians

How easy to implement? Hard. As with an arms embargo, you would likely need the UN to establish a true safe zone and that again would require the support of the Syrian regime’s strongest political backer Russia.

How likely to protect civilians? This would stop the biggest killer today, the indiscriminate aerial attacks, but there are serious questions around who might provide the ground troops to secure the area and whether they could really keep such a zone ‘safe’.

Verdict: This could go a long way to protecting civilians but there are serious political and logistical hurdles.

3. No-Fly Zones

Areas where the regime aircraft are not permitted to fly which would prevent the dropping of barrel bombs and other indiscriminate weapons. No-fly zones have been implemented in Bosnia, Iraqi Kurdistan and Libya in the past.

Supporters: Turkey, Hillary Clinton and other prominent US politicians, Syrian civil society groups

How easy to implement? Very tricky. Until the recent Russia intervention this was the main policy proposed to protect Syrian civilians from indiscriminate aerial attacks. There are credible reports that the Russian intervention was directly geared towards preventing a NFZ. Now that Russia has moved anti-aircraft weapons into the country and is flying in the same airspace as the Syrian regime, it is highly unlikely that any other country will try and impose a NFZ since it risks a direct confrontation between the US and Russia.

How likely to protect civilians? High. This would stop the main source of killing of civilians: indiscriminate aerial attacks from the Assad regime.

Verdict: While this would be highly effective at stopping the main source of the killing, the increased risk posed by a direct international confrontation between the US and Russia make this much less likely now.

4. No-Bombing Zone

A ban on aerial bombardment of non-ISIS targets across all of Syria . Unlike a NFZ, this would not be enforced by planes in the sky or require pre-emptive strikes to disable anti-aircraft sites (as in Bosnia, Iraq and Libya). Military experts have said this could be enforced by missiles from ships and submarines in the Mediterranean.

This would operate on a deterrence model, where any violation of the ban on bombing would result in a limited strike on regime targets, such as aircraft on the ground, radar sites or runways. Critically, it would involve no confrontation with Russian forces but would establish a dynamic where continued attacks on civilians would degrade the Assad regime and therefore be counter-productive. This would encourage the regime and its backers to pursue a negotiated end to the conflict, on the basis of a transition to a new government as agreed by major international parties including Russia and endorsed by the UN Security Council.

Supporters: Cross-party group of UK parliamentarians, Syrian civil society groups

How easy to implement? Easy. It requires declaring the ban on aerial bombardment and then enforcing it from existing ships in the Mediterranean. It does not require overflights, pre-emptive strikes or sharing airspace with Russian aircraft.

How likely to protect civilians? High. While this may not prevent aircraft from violating the ban (so not as protective as a NFZ) the deterrence effect would deliver a similar outcome. The regime would not want to be progressively weakened every time it bombed civilians. Nor would the Russians want the impact of their bombing to be the weakening of the regime.

Verdict: This could be implemented today and would deter the biggest killer of civilians – the indiscriminate aerial attacks. It wouldn’t involve confrontation with Russian forces and would help make real peace talks happen.

Contact your political representative and ask them to support implementing a no-bombing zone in Syria. 

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