Instead of stopping barrel bombs, how about finding a way to end the war?

Foreign Policy has a new entry in the canon of “We Must Do Something about Barrel Bombs, so here are some ideas that won’t do anything to stop Barrel Bombs” literature, this time by Lama Fakih of Human Rights Watch. All sorts of caveats apply here, as they did the last time I wrote about them: barrel bombs are horrible weapons, Human Rights Watch is a great organization, I’m not trying to single out Ms. Fakih who I’m sure is trying to do the best she can in a terrible situation. But for all the hand-wringing about barrel bombs, I’m still waiting for the piece that convincingly argues that:

  1. There’s something the West can do to stop their use short of a full scale military action (which isn’t happening, like it or not)
  2. If somehow we manage to stop Assad from using them, he won’t find another way to continue killing just as many civilians as he’s killing now, with them
  3. There’s something unique about these barrel bombs that stopping their use, even if it doesn’t save a single civilian life (see #2), is worth whatever effort it would require

Lama Fakih has been to the Syria-Turkey border and seen firsthand what barrel bombs do to people when they’re used, so I get why preventing their use means so much to her. But we can’t even get the warring parties to sit at a table and negotiate with each other, so how on Earth are we going to manage to control the conduct of the war at an intricate, detailed, micro-level like deciding which weapons are allowed and which are not?

The stories Ms. Fakih tells of the refugees and their experiences with barrel bombs are gut-wrenching:

I visited one home where nearly 100 people lived, having smuggled themselves into Turkey to escape barrel bombs. They paid approximately $20 apiece to a smuggler to escape, and they had little else. With Turkey’s refugee camps stuffed to their limit, the refugees were sleeping 20 people to a room in residential areas of Kilis and were receiving no humanitarian assistance. They were only eating, they told me, because of the kindness of strangers.

The parents clung closely to their children and cried over the ones they had lost. One mother had lost contact with her son who was forcibly conscripted in the army — “I don’t know anything about him” — while her other son was fighting with the rebels. Mothers asked for help in finding replacements for their children’s missing limbs, treatment for paralyzed arms and legs.

The children spoke to me too. “They are using the barrel bombs to kill people,” a 9-year-old who had lost both her legs told me. “I am learning how to walk through physical therapy. I want to go to school again.”

Their words, words we’ve been echoing for over three years now, haunt me: If the barrel bombs stopped, we would all go home. No one is helping us. How can you help me?

In point of fact, if the barrel bombs stopped, and that was the only thing that changed about the state of affairs in Syria, then those people would not “all go home,” nor should they, because Assad will just switch weapons and continue brutalizing the same civilian populations he’s been brutalizing with the barrel bombs. The fact that these weapons, which have minimal utility as battlefield munitions but are unfortunately very efficient at killing massed groups of civilians, are such a big part of Assad’s arsenal indicates that he’s decided to win the war by killing as many civilians as he possibly can. He’s not going to change tactics just because you take his favorite weapon away from him.

What’s the solution? How do you stop Assad from using barrel bombs? Ms. Fakih mentions UN Security Council Resolution 2139, adopted on February 22, that calls for an end to attacks on civilian populations and for both sides to allow corridors for humanitarian aid to reach those populations. This is nice, but as with most things the UN does, it basically says “we condemn this thing we don’t like, and we promise you that if it happens again, we will condemn it even more strenuously.” We’re not exactly talking about Liam Neeson on the phone with his daughter’s kidnappers here.

Ms. Fakih also suggests that the UNSC “impos[e] an international arms embargo against the Syrian government and all groups responsible for systematic crimes” and “refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.” Both of which are fine ideas, but won’t do anything to stop the barrel bomb attacks. Barrel bombs are crude, homemade weapons, put in the field by Assad precisely because they can keep being manufactured even if his international arms suppliers cut him off. As far as the ICC is concerned, Assad might start worrying about them just as soon as he’s certain he won’t wind up like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, which is to say “never.” If he doesn’t win the war, which for him means barrel bombs, he and his top commanders probably aren’t going to make it out of Syria alive, so what threat does the ICC hold for them?

You know what would actually help the terrorized Syrian populace and end these terrible barrel bomb attacks? If we stopped worrying so much about the barrel bombs and instead found a way to end the damn war as soon as possible regardless of the actual terms of the settlement. That’s what the Syrians themselves want, at least according to this admittedly compromised poll, and it is the only thing that’s going to help them. That’s a tall order, admittedly, but for starters we might try dropping our increasingly absurd demand that Assad voluntarily step down when he’s actually winning the civil war, and we might lean on our SNC pals, to the extent that they still control any of the actual rebel fighters, to do the same. Assad isn’t going anywhere unless he’s forced, and the rebels don’t appear to have the muscle to do anything but fight him to a protracted stalemate, which is the worst possible outcome for the Syrian people. Protest movements tend to fail when they turn violent, and I think we can safely say that this one turned violent a while back, so it’s not a surprise that we find ourselves at this point.

This is not to argue that Assad is a good guy, or that having him remain in power would be right or good for Syria, or that he shouldn’t be hauled before the ICC and made to answer for his many crimes, it’s simply an assessment of the situation as it is. The most important thing for the Syrians right now is to find a way to stop the fighting; everything else can be compromised in the name of that goal. In the long-run, Assad has so compromised his authority to govern Syria that it’s unlikely he’d be in power for much longer, and even if he were to hang on to power until he died (naturally), it’s exceedingly unlikely that the Syrian people would acquiesce to his successor. That might mean that Syria will find itself right back in the same situation in five or ten years, or it might mean that Syria can have a peaceful, or more peaceful, transition away from the Assads to something else. Whatever else, it would mean a few years of peace and recovery for a country that desperately needs any bit of relief it can get right now.


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