The Proportional Response

This past week the Syrian civil war claimed another five hundred lives, including 121 children, this time in a locality by the name of Eastern Ghouta. The air campaign by the Assad regime was officially meant to drive rebel forces away from the city they’ve held from years, the reality was one of the worst civilian slaughters of the war.

There is much ado about the use of Russian soft power to meddle in the affairs of the United States, but the Ghouta murders are an example of uninhibited Russian influence in a vulnerable country. While the Russians themselves were not responsible for pulling the trigger, it is well known at this stage that the Assad regime answers to the Kremlin. Unsurprisingly, resolutions introduced to the UN Security Council early in the week to call for a cessation of the bloodshed were one vote short of the required unanimity, and I’ll give you one guess as to who was responsible.

While a tentative thirty day ceasefire was agreed upon eventually, this situation begs the question: what can we actually do to help the people in Syria? The mechanisms of the United Nations to deal with a problem such as this are woefully inadequate, yet that cannot be used as an excuse to sit on our hands and do nothing. The Assad regime, along with the Russians, have willfully and knowingly attacked civilians under the pretense of combating terrorists, and these actions cannot be ignored.

There are three options for the United States to take action: The Diplomatic Response, The Disproportionate Response, and The Proportional Response.

The Diplomatic Response, simply put, is the continuation of the policy the United States advocates for currently. In this scenario, the US works mainly within the UNSC to broker diplomatic solutions, while only rarely performing unilateral action beyond small scale training and arming of rebels. While this option has its downsides, such as more or less doing nothing for the situation on the ground, it is certainly the most stable of the current options on the table. While the declaration of cease fires are all well and good, there is no way for the United States to make sure these shaky treaties are actually enforced, and often times they are not. While the United States is spared from putting many American soldiers into harm’s way, it comes at the cost of Syrian civilian lives.

The Disproportionate Response is one that exists mostly in the war hawks’ imagination. In this scenario, the United States would flex its military might to crush and overthrow the Assad regime, liberating the Syrian people from the existential threat of Syrian and Russian barrel bombs and chemical weapons. While this may sound alluring, it would unsurprisingly throw the international community into chaos. Major unilateral intervention, possibility of a deeper war with one or more powerful states, universal international condemnation, the possibility of an increase in civilian casualties, would all be probable side effects from such a response. From a utilitarian standpoint, the benefits of a possible end to the civil war, versus the almost guaranteed existence of the negative scenarios, mean that such a response would cause more harm than good.

The Proportional Response is both difficult to pin down, and as a consequence highly flexible. In this scenario, when the Assad regime and its Russian enablers commit a particularly heinous war crime, the United States would inflict a proportional amount of damage upon the military infrastructure of the regime. The idea would be that the Assad and Russian forces would eventually learn that committing atrocities will always end with the destruction of valuable military assets. This Pavlovian concept would in theory reduce the amount of civilian casualties, while simultaneously avoiding many of the negative consequences associated with the Disproportionate Response. While none of this is a guarantee, there is actually precedent for such actions under the Trump administration. In April of 2017, the President launched fifty nine tomahawk cruise missiles at the airfield where regime forces reportedly launched a chemical attack on civilians. While loss of life was minimal from the US airstrike, there was not another corroborated report of a chemical attack again until late January of 2018. While this may be partly due to extraneous circumstances, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the United States set a powerful precedent that it would act under certain circumstances, and as such saved potentially hundreds of lives.

It is important to note that there is really no right answer to the Syrian civil war. Each action has their downsides, and none of them solve the situation completely. The important takeaway is that we are in a unique position to do something about this war, and that burden should not be taken lightly.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 481,612 people have been killed in this war between March 2011 and December 2017. That is approximately 80,269 people per year. 220 people, then, lose their lives every day, which amounts to about nine people per hour. Thus, in the time it took you to read this article, one person was killed at the hands of this never ending war. We have the chance to stop that from happening, let’s just hope that we aren’t too late.  

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