Claire Q. Smith: War won’t stop atrocities – but talking might

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I HAVE a visceral memory of the cell-phone photo of a man with his eye-lids pulled off by the Syrian secret police.

This photo was shown to me in the Za’atari refugee camp by a coffee shop owner from Dara, who had fled to the camp, but left his imprisoned brother behind. I held a newborn girl in a small hot dusty tent in Za’atari, and talked to her mother, who, heavily pregnant, had fled the worst kind of war, while her husband politely asked me – as a university lecturer – why Britain did not intervene to help them.

Despite these personal experiences, that cause the blood to boil – and despite the possibility of good clear political, moral and legal arguments for intervention – I still must pause.

As a social scientist, I have to listen to the empirical evidence – and what it tells us. And the evidence for armed intervention at this moment in global history doesn’t look good, despite the House of Commons vetoing British involvement.

Despite what we wish to believe, the evidence tells us that ending mass atrocities, such as those we are witnessing in Syria right now, does not take place via the application of limited foreign armed intervention. Mass atrocities tend to end when one of several other things happens.

In one scenario, the enemy of the perpetrating regime eliminates their enemy. This happened in Sri Lanka in 2009, following the Sri Lankan regimes’ all-out final military surge against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Mass atrocities there ended – because the rebels were destroyed. Peace – albeit a negative peace – still reigns.

In another, the perpetrating regime is exhausted by perpetual war and gives up, sometimes because important international allegiances have simultaneously also waned.

In 1999, after nearly 25 years of endless war against the rebels in East Timor, at great cost to their army, Indonesia finally gave up the fight. They scorched 70 per cent of Timor to the ground, and murdered several thousand Timorese in the process, but they did finally leave.

Political leadership at the top had become exhausted by the conflict, and decided it was no longer in their interests to maintain the war.

At an earlier point in the Syrian civil war, there was a window when the regime looked exhausted. Even its core allies, Russia and China, wobbled. That moment is now over: the regime has rallied, found new strategies, tested the mettle of the international community and found its core allies are staunchly behind Bashar al-Assad.

Another scenario is when massive amounts of foreign intervention (not limited smart bombing) overthrow a regime. But such massive interventions do not end a complex sectarian civil war: they tend to escalate it.

While regimes can be changed, dictators removed and armies dismantled by foreign powers (not that any of this is currently being proposed), mass atrocities tend to continue. Atrocities continue long after the official faces and organisations of a violent regime are removed: and no leader is even proposing that here.

Indonesia and Iraq are good comparable cases of this kind of regime change: where mass violence continues long after the dictator and his regime have been removed.

The only kind of war that ends mass atrocities outright is the kind of total war that eliminates the regime in its entirety. That’s not what anyone in the West is lobbying for, and it requires a whole different level of commitment that nobody outside Syria is prepared for.

So what other policies at our disposal end mass atrocities? The evidence shows us that aside from outright military victories, or regime exhaustion (neither happening here), another kind of action can prove very effective: deal making.

Deal-making isn’t pretty, and it certainly doesn’t sound as decisive as sending in cruise missiles to bomb Assad’s military HQ.

But it’s usually the best means to get brutal dictators to stop committing mass atrocities.

Two of the world’s leading analysts of protracted civil wars, Alex De Waal and Ken Menkhaus, have demonstrated repeatedly that deal-making is the
way fractious states are held together, and mass violence is brought to an

How much would it cost to get Assad to stop the massacres and talk to the rebels? Have we asked? Have we asked our enemy’s enemy to ask, if we can’t?

These kinds of ending to mass atrocities do not appeal to the human rights lobby, or to the fired-up advocates for armed change – whether liberal or conservative.

But the evidence tells us that this is what might work if we are serious about ending mass atrocities in Syria. But have we got what it takes to support the messy, illiberal, low-publicity, under-the-table – but essentially peaceful – deal-making that could end the Syrian violence?

*Dr Claire Q. Smith is a lecturer in post-war recovery at the University of York.