Above: two clips from a BBC interview with photojournalist Paul Conroy about his experiences in Homs, Syria. There is a small overlap between the clips.
In short, he describes the Syrian regime’s actions in Homs as a slaughter, and says that Homs is just the beginning of an escalating killing campaign by the regime, most of which will now continue away from cameras.
Up to now, governments wanting to stop the Assad regime’s slaughter have used non-military means: political, economic and legal pressure, and humanitarian aid. All of these have to continue, but despite some impact, events show they are not adequate.
I believe it is now time for governments opposing the regime’s slaughter to use force, specifically air strikes against the regime’s military.
Some commentators argue against any form of intervention, not just military, and declare that internal repression in one country is no concern of other governments. I believe this is both morally and practically wrong. Morally a Syrian life has the same value as a European life, as an American life, as any other human life.
Practically, for any nation engaged in international trade, national security and economic prosperity depend on a minimum of international consistency in the rule of law. Mass murder anywhere puts that at risk, even more so when it happens in regions of particular importance for trade and security, and when those behind the crimes are seen as untouchable. Thus a cause of internal justice becomes an issue of international security.
One strong caveat is that local knowledge is a benefit in intervening, and so local nations may be better suited to intervene than distant ones; though against that, local nations often have conflicts of interest that make them less suited.
Why force, and why now?
Political, economic, and legal pressure on the Assad regime is limited by Russia and China’s stance. Without the agreement of all permanent members of the UN Security Council, it’s impossible to impose a blockade of Syria as some have called for, and it’s impossible to give the International Criminal Court jurisdiction over atrocities in Syria as others have suggested.
While there have been conciliatory moves by Russia and China in signing up to a UNSC statement on humanitarian access, this hasn’t stopped the Assad regime from obstructing the Red Cross/Red Crescent. If it were possible for humanitarian NGOs and human rights observers to get wide access within Syria, this could help the population survive and resist regime violence. It's for this very reason that the regime will continue to obstruct access.
Both the regime and its sympathisers in the Russian and Chinese governments are likely to seek to put an acceptable face on this obstruction while allowing it to continue, so expect to see some occasional minimal access, but not enough to seriously interfere with the regime’s killing campaign.
With journalists driven out from Homs, or killed, with NGOs blocked and embassies closing, with no international observers on the ground, access is reducing as killing is escalating. The continuing partial political and economic isolation of the regime will weaken it, perhaps terminally, but not in time to stop its killing campaign. Instead, now that the regimeis commited to a path of mass slaughter, external political and economic pressures now become further incentives to accelerate the killing campaign in order to achieve ‘victory’ while it still has the means.
Therefore the only means left to cut short the killing are those military means that can most quickly deny the regime some of the resources it relies on to supress and kill. By this I mean extensive air strikes against the Syrian military.
Why air strikes?
Widespread air strikes against the Syrian regime would be difficult, dangerous and expensive, and would cause deaths of innocents. They would initially require the destruction of Syria’s air defences which would in itself be a major undertaking likely to cost lives of people, military and civilian, not engaged in repression. Air strikes would not by themselves stop repression and killing by the regime. The regime’s killing campaign would most likely continue to accelerate in the initial stages of an air campaign, and some would seek to blame this continued acceleration of killing on the air campaign. The air campaign would most likely have to continue for several months. While the air campaign could prevent certain outcomes, it could not by itself determine which of various alternative outcomes came to pass, but would nonetheless be held responsible.
Nevertheless, an air campaign is the only means fast and powerful enough to significantly reduce the regime’s capacity to carry out its current acceleration of killing. Its uncertain risks must be set against the certain disaster already underway.
Other suggested military measures are no alternative.
Supplying arms to the Syrian opposition won’t make them strong enough, fast enough, to withstand slaughter by the much more powerful Syrian Army with its artillery and tanks.
Limited punitive air strikes will not deter a regime that now sees its accelerated killing campaign as a race for its own survival.
Establishing and protecting humanitarian corridoors, or supplying aid by air without the regime’s consent, can only be done under cover of a full scale air campaign.
Establishing safe zones would also require a full scale air campaign to ensure their safety, would encourage population movement and increase insecurity outside the zones, and would very likely accelerate ethnic cleansing.
A major ground invasion would be politically unsustainable, would undermine the Syrian opposition, and could not happen fast enough to stop the accelerating slaughter.
For the sake of Syrians, and for the sake of the wider world, we need an air campaign, now.
Below are some links, many to opposing arguments.
Pressure Not War: A Pragmatic and Principled Policy Towards Syria, by Marc Lynch.
The Order of Battle Problem by Andrew Exum at his Abu Muqawama blog.
Some Degree of Airpower by Robert Farley.
The logistics of limited intervention at Slouching Towards Columbia blog.
How many divisions does moral rectitude have? A long sceptical post at Slouching Towards Columbia blog.
The Ambiguous Morality of Foreign Intervention in Syria by Jay Ulfelder.
Syria: The Agonies of Intervention, by Steven A. Cook.
'Adolescent' revulsion and moral shame (over Syria) by Norman Geras.