Guest post by Jacqueline H.R. DeMeritt
Evidence of Syria’s chemical attack on civilians is mounting, and military intervention appears increasingly inevitable. Political leaders from the United States and its allies have stopped debating the merits of (non)intervention and begun discussing how best to respond. There is an undeniable moral attraction in targeting the weapons in question themselves, but attacking chemical weapons storage depots could bring environmental catastrophe, and any remaining weapons would be vulnerable to pillage.
The limited military actions being considered may be the wiser choice. By design, strikes aimed at military units that carried out the attacks and headquarters that supervised their activities would “deter and degrade” the Syrian ability to launch future chemical assaults. And such action may yield another positive outcome — dissuading Syrian fighters from engaging in further violence against civilians.
Leaders make policy decisions, including the decision to kill noncombatants. But individual perpetrators translate policy into practice. Bashar al-Assad’s military forces, as much as al-Assad himself, killed those civilians. And those forces, as much as al-Assad, may be the key to saving lives in the future. We do not know how the Syrian president will respond to military intervention. But regardless of his reaction, intervention may limit civilian losses if the intervention threatens the security of those persons tasked with killing. Might a soldier not privilege his own survival above an order issued from on high?
It is silly, of course, to expect soldiers to broadcast intentions to place their own lives above duty. But reports from refugees seeking safety in Lebanon suggest that it is possible, perhaps even likely. “Those who are in support of the regime say that they will sacrifice themselves for Syria and Assad. But they all will run away at the first bullet. We expect the soldiers to flee with the first US rocket landing on Syrian land. We can feel that the soldiers are in a state of high alert and fear,” says Assad Ali. And Salah Abur Rahman reports, “My uncle is a senior officer. He is one of the decision-makers, and this week the only decision he’s making is where to take shelter from the American planes.”
If intervention is coming — and it certainly seems that it is — we cannot know how Bashar al-Assad will react. But perhaps his soldiers will curb the bloodshed in order to ensure their own existence.
Jacqueline H.R. DeMeritt is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas.