To defeat extremism, protect civilians

For the past six years, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has reported comprehensively and eloquently on the systematic, deliberate, and criminal targeting of civilian populations throughout the course of the Syrian revolution. The overwhelming preponderance of the Commission’s evidence-rich indictment has fallen on the regime of Bashar al-Assad: a family, entourage, and a cast of enablers holding governmental titles and military ranks; people who will, justice permitting, ultimately face legal accountability. But a Commission that has focused nearly all of its attention on the regime, on ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State), and on the multi-named Al Qaeda element operating in Syria, now has an additional player to consider: the United States of America.

In his June 14, 2017 remarks to United Nations Human Rights Council, Paulo Pinheiro (Chair of the Commission) said the following: “In areas controlled by extremist factions, we are gravely concerned with the mounting number of civilians who perish during airstrikes . . . We note in particular that the intensification of airstrikes, which have paved the ground for an SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] advance in Raqqa, has resulted not only in a staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced.”

The airstrikes referred to are those of the United States and its anti-ISIS coalition partners supporting the ground operations of the Kurdish-dominated SDF. Those operations currently focus on taking the city of Raqqa, ISIS’ Syrian “capital.” In a June 14 conversation with Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the Commanding General, Combined Joint Task Force—Operation Inherent Resolve, US Central Command, noted “Our Syrian partners have pretty much encircled the city.” Commenting on the difficulty of providing air support to urban ground operations, Townsend said, “Imagine that the cities’ streets and the buildings, they form urban canyons, so imagine trying to support a partner that is on the ground down in the bottom of these urban canyons. It becomes very difficult.”

One may factually stipulate that American and allied pilots, unlike their Syrian and Russian counterparts, do not employ aerial terrorism and mass murder. In the battle against ISIS in eastern Syria there is no analog to the strategy of collective civilian punishment being inflicted by the regime, Russia, and Iran in the west. There is nothing about the aerial-induced death and displacement of Syrian civilians by American military aircraft that is deliberate or premeditated. When Paulo Pinheiro notes that “Civilians, who take no part in the fighting, are in the unenviable role of being the target of most warring parties,” he is not—his deep concerns about the anti-ISIS air-ground campaign notwithstanding—referring to the United States.

Still, the United States has a special responsibility to go the extra mile to protect civilians in Syria. Speaking in Baghdad in a strictly Iraqi context, Major General Joseph Martin (General Townsend’s ground force component commander) said, in response to a question, “We’re a partner force. And so with—as being a partner force, the first thing you’ve got to do to really succeed is you’ve got to subordinate yourself, your time and your agenda to your partner’s agenda.” One prays this mindset does not spill over into Syria.

It is one thing to “subordinate” oneself, at least notionally, to a recognized Iraqi government being supported. In Syria, however, the Obama administration refused to go after ISIS with a professional ground force coalition of the willing, opting instead for partnership with the Syrian branch (YPG) of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party): a terrorist organization.

One is free to argue that the YPG does not have the terrorist qualities of its PKK big brother. One is free to point out that Syrian Arabs and other non-Kurdish Syrians have diluted somewhat the Kurdish content of the anti-ISIS ground force in the form of the Syrian Democratic Forces. What one is not free to do, however, is subcontract the moral, legal, and operational imperative for civilian protection to militiamen whose military skills, whose training in the laws of land warfare, and whose general attitudes concerning civilian protection may not measure up to minimal acceptability.

The Obama administration left Syrian civilians in the western part of the country defenseless. It did this to avoid complicating its quest for a nuclear agreement with Iran, a country whose “moderates” and “extremists” agree on two things: Hezbollah’s terror apparatus is a critically important aspect of Iranian power projection; and Bashar al-Assad alone, out of twenty million-plus Syrians, is willing to subordinate Syria to Iran on all matters connected to Hezbollah. Indifference to civilian protection may well have appeased Tehran. But the costs to Syrian civilians, their neighbors, European allies, and American credibility were prohibitive. And Islamist extremists could not believe their good fortune: they had Assad to recruit for them via collective punishment, Russia and Iran supporting Assad actively, and Washington facilitating the worst of his excesses passively.

To its credit, the Trump administration did not hide its eyes from an Assad chemical massacre. But it has inherited and accelerated a deeply flawed approach to the defeat of ISIS in eastern Syria. Already Iran and the regime are occupying areas abandoned by ISIS, threatening American-trained local forces and raising the prospect of reestablishing precisely the kind of governance that promoted extremist responses in the first place.

General Townsend told NPR, “Well, the first thing I would say is that the coalition presence in Syria is temporary and focused only on fighting ISIS.” So much for post-conflict stabilization. So much for trying to make Syria inhospitable for Islamist extremism. So much for parting with the failed policies of the Obama administration.

Yes, killing ISIS in Syria is important. Keeping it dead is vital. ISIS remains, by far, the greatest of all threats to civilians in eastern Syria. From Raqqa it has planned and directed terror operations in Turkey and Western Europe. Rooted in a combination of irreligious Saddam Hussein Baathists and common criminals united in appropriating the name Islam to try to justify murder, mayhem, rape, theft, and terror, this organization is succeeding in reaching out around the world to pickpockets, pimps, petty thieves, and self-hating losers seeking in death a cause and celebrity that eluded them in life.

The fight in Syria is far from easy and far from over. Yet if there is any inclination at all by coalition forces to do no harm (or as little as possible) in the pursuit of ISIS criminals, the protection of civilians must figure prominently in the anti-ISIS military campaign. Historians can debate whether the indifference of the Obama administration to Syrian civilians was depraved or merely opportunistic. For an administration wishing, however, to be seen as genuinely interested in defeating extremism, indifference or ineffectiveness of any kind toward civilian protection is the surest possible gateway to defeat.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Photo: Boys attend a war safety awareness campaign, given by Civil Defence members, inside a school in the rebel held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria May 2, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh