US Lieutenant General William C. Mayville shows before and after photos of the airstrikes in Syria during a briefing at the Pentagon.
© AFP
US Lieutenant General William C. Mayville shows before and after photos of the airstrikes in Syria during a briefing at the Pentagon.
Last updated: February 26, 2015
Unmaking violence with more violence: on military humanitarian intervention in Syria

"This illusion that airstrikes can both defeat the enemy and protect civilians is impossible in urban warfare"

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There is a contradiction in the hearts of those – such as myself – who are against military intervention in Syria. We are wary of the airstrikes against the Islamic State because they are killing civilians living under their regime of terror. But as the number of Syrians slaughtered surpasses 200,000 and the rainy streets of Douma, east of Damascus, run red with blood after Assad’s latest bombardment I cannot help but question the hypocrisy of, in the words of a Syrian activist, protecting Kobane but letting Aleppo burn, airlifting food to the starving Yazidis in Sinjar while leaving those suffocating by sarin gas in Damascus to die. As the airstrikes against the Islamic State escalate, are we not allied – or indirectly aligned – with Assad who has so much more blood on his hands? Is military intervention the only option of overthrowing his regime? And thus is it possible to unmake violence with more violence?

VOICES from inside Syria have long pointed to the problem of doing nothing while Assad massacres his own people. “Killing children and elders with barrel bombs, using poisonous gases is as ugly as the beheadings and burnings carried out by Islamic State militants,” said the head of the Syrian National Coalition after weeks of daily bombardment of Douma. It was there that an anti-government activist recently filled an iron cage with children dressed in orange and waved a burning torch, in a despairing effort to distract the world’s attention away from the viciousness of the Islamic State and towards the violence of Assad. The world warned Assad after he smothered thousands with chemical weapons, so he turned to another tactic, “That weapon is starvation,” a sarin gas survivor wrote, “Assad is slowly starving us to death.”

"I cannot help but question the hypocrisy of protecting Kobane but letting Aleppo burn"

Yet the international community’s response has been airstrikes against the Islamic State and offers of ceasefire for Assad. The United Nation’s special envoy for Syria says that Assad is a crucial part of the solution to ending the violence there. Rather than taking the fight against the Islamic State to Assad, he supports local cease-fires to deescalate the civil war. For those suspicious of using violence to tame violence this seems hopeful, until images are brought to mind of the Yarmouk Camp, where despite a cease-fire thousands of Palestinians have been brought to the brink of starvation.

If only our violence can counteract Assad’s violence is there a way to inflict a more humane violence?

In the words of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “terror never paves the way to justice but leads down the shortest path to hell.” Yet violence is justified to counteract the problems from hell, notably genocide. When once the sovereignty of the state was sacred, with the massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia there arose the idea of military humanitarian intervention. Historically, humanitarian intervention had a colonial legacy, and in the colonial present the invasion of Iraq was also defended on humanitarian grounds as it was against a dictator who killed a quarter million of his own people. Yet more than one million were killed in the occupation and its aftermath, and it was amid this violence that the Islamic State arose. 

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ALTHOUGH their ends may be humanitarian, their means never are, for relying on violence to stem violence inevitably involves taking lives, often innocent ones. The paradox of military humanitarian interventions is that they resort to violence to halt violence. In his Critique of Violence, the philosopher Walter Benjamin wondered if “violence, as a principle, could be a moral means even to just ends.” While humanitarians argue in the affirmative, skeptics doubt the very morality of violence. “The moderation of violence is part of the very logic of violence,” writes the Israeli academic and activist Eyal Weizmen, “humanitarianism (has) become the crucial means by which the economy of violence is calculated and managed.” 

But whether or not military intervention can ever be considered humane, what is certain is that the violence we are inflicting on Syria right now is senseless, whether we seek to destroy the Islamic State or even eventually overthrow Assad.

"Although their ends may be humanitarian, their means never are"

The Islamic State has installed itself in cities, most emblematically Raqaa and Mosul, where the international coalition has directed 16,000 airstrikes. The Iraqi army recently announced their plan to retake Mosul by a ground offensive in April, but according to Professor Joshua Landis, with only airstrikes we may degrade the Islamic State but not destroy it. Instead, we are engaged in “urbicide, or the deliberate wrecking or killing of the city.” We learned this lesson in Baghdad when the international community attempted to dismantle their dictator through the shock and awe of airstrikes. Yet the result was Iraq’s de-modernization and de-electrification. Some 3,000 civilians were killed by the airstrikes but the destruction of Iraq’s electrical system, and thus the shutting down of the water purification and sewage treatment plants was the real killer: 500,000 excess deaths among children under five. This illusion that airstrikes can both defeat the enemy and protect civilians is impossible in urban warfare, especially when targeting essential infrastructure kills as many if not more than the bombing, though away from the gaze of the media, outside the purview of the military and therefore beyond the conscience of those who see military intervention as more humanitarian. 

SO I END where I began, with the question of whether violence can be unmade with more violence? It is one I still cannot answer but I think needs to be asked more often, not only by those under the illusion that we can defeat terror by terrifying means, but also by those (such as myself) who point to the violence of the United States’ interventions in the Middle East. These have caused cascading destructions, an untold and impossible-to-count loss of human life. But how immoral to critique the past without putting forth a way forward. How disturbing are the Islamic State’s innovations on violence but perhaps it is even more troubling to think that by doing nothing we are subtly condoning Assad’s incarnation of evil. 

Hannah Arendt persuasively argued, “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.” And while I agree, I am still so uncertain by what we should do about the violence already unmaking our world.

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