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Handa Center Affiliates Lead Brainstorming on Options for Protecting Civilians in Syria

five young adults gather around a notepad
Mar 17 2016

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Teaching & Students

Click here to see photos from the exercise. 

The war in Syria has been underway since 2011. From the beginning, the Syrian people have experienced a range of human rights violations, from unrelenting siege warfare to industrial-grade custodial torture to the denial of humanitarian aid and what appears to be the deliberate use of starvation as a weapon of war. The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on the scene in early 2014 introduced a new set of ruthless perpetrators who have brought the violence to an even more disquieting level of brutality. These extreme levels of violence, coupled with the lack of any apparent progress until very recently toward finding a political resolution to the various disputes in Syria, have generated a massive refugee crisis in the region and beyond. More than 4.5 million people (out of a population of 22 million) have fled across Syria’s borders, more than 7 million are internally displaced, and half the population needs humanitarian assistance in the form of food and/or shelter. The situation—described last year by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as an “apocalyptic disaster”—remains grave and continues to deteriorate, without an endpoint in sight.  Despite high-level engagement, the current U.S. administration has been accused—in the press, by our allies, and within the presidential campaign—of having no coherent policy in Syria and of failing to adequately protect civilians.  

To engage these issues, Handa Center Faculty Fellow Professor Beth Van Schaack, Stanford SJD student Doron Dorfman, and Handa Center Program Associate Jessie Brunner recently designed and implemented a table-top exercise using design thinking methodologies in connection with Professor Van Schaack’s course on International Justice with Stanford’s Ford Dorsey Program in International Policy Studies.  The course considers the causes and consequences of mass atrocities stemming from armed conflict, governmental repression, and violence in the wake of state failure as well as the myriad ways in which actors within the international community can respond to such situations in order to prevent atrocities, mitigate conflict, protect victims, and promote accountability. Over the course of the quarter, students grapple with a number of conceptual, empirical, and ethical questions about how best to deploy these various responses in order to bring about stability, the rule of law, and—ultimately—a just society.

As a capstone to the course, a group of undergraduate, masters, and law students simulated U.S. national security staffers who had been tasked with brainstorming new approaches to protecting civilians within the borders of Syria in light of the multiple threats civilians face from the Assad regime, fractured opposition groups, ISIL/Daesh, and the hardships of war.  The goal was to reach an interagency consensus on several proposals that could serve as the foundation for building a broad multilateral coalition around this new policy, particularly in light of the fragile ceasefire on the ground.  Although students were not tasked with coming up with solutions to bring about the military defeat of ISIL, they were instructed to keep that campaign in mind in their deliberations since any protection-of-civilians (POC) strategy would need to be implemented in conjunction with contemporaneous kinetic operations.   

The exercise employed design thinking methods, such as those employed at the Stanford d.School, to stimulate creative thinking. Working in small groups with white boards and multicolored sticky pads, students were first asked to identify the various actors—states, sub-state groups, organizations, and individuals—on the scene, including perpetrators, enablers, victims, humanitarians, armed forces and groups, and war profiteers. For each actor, students were then asked to consider what levers might be effective, what points of weakness they may have, what they might contribute to the challenge of protecting civilians, and how they might disrupt our efforts.  Following this stakeholder mapping, students were asked to work individually and in small groups to come up with several POC ideas.  Following small-group deliberations, each team wrote up their favorite three ideas on a notepad. These ideas were then passed to the next group, whose members were tasked with critiquing the ideas advanced. The analyses were then circulated to a third group, whose members responded to the appraisals and looked for ways to rehabilitate or enhance the original proposals.  The pads were then returned to their original group for revisions.  Each group then chose one POC idea to present to the entire class.

During the plenary session, students advanced several cogent proposals, friendly amendments, and outright critiques.  One group advocated de-escalating the anti-Assad rhetoric and looking for opportunities—either directly or through proxies—to reengage with President Bashar al-Assad and quietly bolster his regime as a counterforce against ISIL. The goals were to bring about greater structural stability throughout the country, put pressure on Russia to play a more constructive role vis-à-vis the Assad regime, and open up a space for genuine negotiations toward a credible political transition. A second group argued for a slightly less friendly approach, one that would essentially leave Assad alone but step up the anti-ISIL military campaign in order to take back more ISIL territory, in part to support new safe zones, humanitarian corridors, and the distribution of aid. This proposal was premised on the theory that Assad would not be entirely opposed to an anti-ISIL operation, although it was noted that Assad’s relationship with ISIL remains equivocal given that ISIL is embattled with the opposition as well.

The difficulties of the United States undergoing such a volte face were acknowledged, particularly in light of strident demands that “Assad must go.” However, students emphasized that this approach (described by one participant as the “swallow-the-bile plan”) could be implemented subtly in a way that would not require overt face-saving measures or amplify the conclusion that Assad would enjoy impunity. Nonetheless, students expressed concerns about the message such an approach would send to “strongmen” the world over.  Although the United States has, in the past, supported dictators and repressive regimes in the interests of stability, the advancement of human rights norms and international criminal law, coupled with the United States’ embrace of the atrocities prevention imperative, make this approach increasingly untenable, if not unlawful. At the same time, it was noted that short-term engagement would not necessarily be incompatible with future accountability. Students then debated the viability and durability of any “bait-and-switch” strategy and ways to preserve evidence for future accountability.

A second student group advocated the establishment of safe areas along several key border points (both internal and external), using the current ceasefire as a stepping stone to more robust POC efforts and humanitarian assistance. It was recognized that having Russian involvement will be crucial, and students proposed allowing Russia to take the lead on, or at least to appear to be taking the lead on, this proposal—a dynamic reminiscent of the chemical weapons compromise. Students questioned, however, how much control Russia actually could exert over Syria, particularly if no-fly zones needed enforcement. If Russia could not persuade Syria to consent to such an intervention, Security Council action would be necessary. The Council has already ordered certain humanitarian corridors, however, so there may be potential to build on this precedent. Students debated how to get Russia on board, including through the easing of sanctions in connection with events in Ukraine.

Needless-to-say, any safe haven would need to be adequately policed so as to avoid the debacle of Srebrenica. Proponents of safe havens argued that multilateral troops should be tasked with this responsibility, drawn from contributors to the anti-ISIL coalition, the European Union (EU), and the Arab League. Although the League of Arab States has never convened a full-scale peacekeeping mission, it did propose a joint mission earlier in the conflict. That proposal could be revived in connection with the proposed safe havens. It was pointed out, however, that there is no such thing as a “neutral” intervention; Syria might object to certain opponents within the Arab League putting boots on its sovereign territory. Students also raised concerns about secondary consequences, such as creating an enormous civilian target for ISIL, laying the groundwork for armed actors to negotiate with civilian protection to seek other concessions, and creating an opportunity for ISIL to “score points” with foreign military casualties. 

Although students did not have enough geographic and demographic data to generate firm proposals about where such safe zones should be located, students debated the merits of either using areas that have been relatively untouched by war in order to capitalize on existing infrastructure versus creating new internally-displaced communities. The logistics of establishing and patrolling the latter emerged as an impediment to the idea.  It was hoped that the EU would be motivated to fund such an exercise in an effort to stem the tide of refugees trying to reach Europe. The safe zone idea would also appease Turkey, which is overwhelmed by Syrian refugees and has long advocated such an option.

Over the course of the exercise, students became acutely aware of the fact that the conflict has progressed to such a point that there are no great, or non-risky, ideas.  Policy-making often involves having the courage to act in the face of uncertainty and it is easier to say "no” to everything than to say “yes” to something. At the same time, it was conceded that there may be little affirmative that the international community can do to resolve the conflict, although all agreed that untried options for civilian protection do exist. The fact that the United States is in an election year also undergirded our deliberations; participants recognized that they were “short-timers” putting a policy in place that would play out under a new, yet to be determined, administration. That said, it was also recognized that the demise of one administration offers opportunities for bold action and the launch of a new administration offers opportunities for “reset”.    

This is the second such exercise hosted at Stanford.  Last year, Professor Van Schaack and Col. (Ret.) Dwight Raymond of the U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute organized an interdisciplinary tabletop exercise on Syria at the Law School. The latter exercise was more in the nature of a classic role play (details here), mimicking a subordinate Inter-Agency Policy Committee (sub-IPC) meeting with the goal of feeding ideas into a major speech to be given by President Obama on Syria.