America’s war on Syrian civilians

America’s war on Syrian civilians

Anand Gopal writes:

For four months in 2017, an American-led coalition in Syria dropped some ten thousand bombs on Raqqa, the densely populated capital of the Islamic State. Nearly eighty per cent of the city, which has a population of three hundred thousand, was destroyed. I visited shortly after ISIS relinquished control, and found the scale of the devastation difficult to comprehend: the skeletal silhouettes of collapsed apartment buildings, the charred schools, the gaping craters. Clotheslines were webbed between stray standing pillars, evidence that survivors were somehow living among the ruins. Nobody knows how many thousands of residents died, or how many are now homeless or confined to a wheelchair. What is certain is that the decimation of Raqqa is unlike anything seen in an American conflict since the Second World War.

As then, this battle was waged against an enemy bent on overthrowing an entire order, in an apparently nihilistic putsch against reason itself. But Raqqa was no Normandy. Although many Syrians fought valiantly against isis and lost their lives, the U.S., apart from a few hundred Special Forces on the ground, relied on overwhelming airpower, prosecuting the entire war from a safe distance. Not a single American died. The U.S. still occasionally conducts conventional ground battles, as in Falluja, Iraq, where, in 2004, troops engaged in fierce firefights with insurgents. But the battle for Raqqa—a war fought from cavernous control rooms thousands of miles away, or from aircraft thousands of feet in the sky—is the true face of modern American combat.

We have been conditioned to judge the merit of today’s wars by their conduct. The United Nations upholds norms of warfare that, among other things, prohibit such acts as torture, rape, and hostage-taking. Human-rights groups and international lawyers tend to designate a war “humane” when belligerents have avoided harming civilians as much as possible. However, in “Asymmetric Killing: Risk Avoidance, Just War, and the Warrior Ethos” (Oxford), Neil Renic, a scholar of international relations, challenges this standard. He argues that, when assessing the humanity of a war, we should look not only to the fate of civilians but also to whether combatants have exposed themselves to risk on the battlefield. Renic suggests that when one side fully removes itself from danger—even if it goes to considerable lengths to protect civilians—it violates the ethos of humane warfare.

The core principle of humane warfare is that fighters may kill one another at any time, excepting those who are rendered hors de combat, and must avoid targeting civilians. It’s tempting to say that civilians enjoy this protected status because they are innocent, but, as Renic points out, civilians “feed hungry armies, elect bellicose leaders, and educate future combatants.” In Syria, home to a popular revolution, entire towns were mobilized for the war effort. Civilians—even children—acted as lookouts, arms smugglers, and spies. What really matters, then, is the type of danger that someone in a battle zone presents. The moment that a person picks up a weapon, whether donning a uniform or not, he or she poses a direct and immediate danger. This is the crucial distinction between armed personnel and civilians.

But what if the belligerents themselves don’t pose a direct and immediate danger? Renic argues that in such theatres as Pakistan, where Americans deploy remote-controlled drones to kill their enemies while rarely stepping foot on the battlefield, insurgents on the ground cannot fight back—meaning that, in terms of the threat that they constitute, they are no different from civilians. It would then be just as wrong, Renic suggests, to unleash a Hellfire missile on a group of pickup-riding insurgents as it would be to annihilate a pickup-riding family en route to a picnic.

One might respond that, say, the Pakistani Taliban does pose an immediate threat to Pakistani civilians, if not to U.S. soldiers. But Renic contends that the U.S., by avoiding the battlefield, has turned civilians into attractive targets for insurgents eager for a fight. Whether this claim is correct or not, it’s clear that risk-free combat has brought warfare into new moral territory, requiring us to interrogate our old notions of battlefield right and wrong. If we can distinguish combatants from civilians only by the danger that they pose to other combatants, then the long-distance violence of modern warfare is inhumane. Renic concludes that the “increasingly sterile, bureaucratized, and detached mode of American killing” has the flavor of punishment rather than of war in any traditional sense. In Barack Obama’s recent memoir, he writes that, as President, he wanted to save “the millions of young men” in the Muslim world who were “warped and stunted by desperation, ignorance, dreams of religious glory, the violence of their surroundings.” Yet he claims that, owing to where they lived, and the machinery at his disposal, he ended up “killing them instead.” Leaving aside Obama’s crude generalizations, Renic argues that he could indeed have saved them—by “severely restricting” remote warfare. [Continue reading…]

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