One of the main arguments against US missile strikes to punish Syria's regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons is that such attacks will be of little immediate use in protecting civilians. This is only one aspect of the debate: others center around whether strikes are likely to lead to a stable negotiated ceasefire , or whether they will deter use of chemical weapons in future conflicts, or whether they fit American strategic interests. But it is an important one: the question of whether strikes will have a direct impact on civilian deaths in Syria is a key component of their legality under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.
A study published by the Journal of Peace Research currently making the rounds suggests that external intervention in civil wars is actually likely to increase civilian casualties. War is unpredictable, which makes comparative studies of this sort that show general patterns extremely valuable. But any set of comparisons will have outliers. Syria’s differences from most civil wars, and the unusual nature of the proposed intervention, show how strikes -- if they can deter future chemical weapons use -- might not fit this pattern.
The differences are:
1) Chemical weapons are used extremely rarely in war. When they are used in populated areas, they are disproportionately deadly to civilians
2) In Syria, unlike many civil wars, the rebels control large swathes of territory and government forces are extremely circumscribed in their movements
3) Syria is already seeing large-scale external intervention by President Bashar al-Assad’s allies
Firstly, chemical weapons are a devastating but haphazard way of making war. Civilians can often take cover from conventional artillery, even if fighters actively defending an area cannot. Chemical weapons on the other hand are silent, disperse over a large area, seep into places like basements which provide shelter against other sorts of attacks, and linger, killing rescue workers and others who enter contaminated zones, either by accident or necessity. (Reportedly, all but one of the activists who rushed to document the Ghouta attack died doing so.) The deadliest conventional artillery bombardments in Syria’s war, such as those that struck Homs in February 2012, usually killed 50-100 people in a day. The low-end estimates of the Aug. 21 strikes in Ghouta outside Damascus are around 400-500 dead, and the US estimate runs over over 1,400. Many writers have pointed out that, even if strikes deter chemical weapons use, artillery and airstrikes will continue to kill civilians. They will, but about five to ten times less efficiently.Read More