Why West, amid horrors of modern war, is struggling to set red lines

The danger democracies are confronting is that the deliberate targeting of civilians – noncombatant men, women, and children – and those who risk their lives to help them will become accepted as a kind of new normal.

White Helmets/Reuters
A girl looks on following an alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria, in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018.

A “red line” against the gassing of civilians has been drawn. Again.

Yet in the wake of the US-led missile strike on Syria, two powerful testimonies – a new documentary and a revealing email from a former British prime minister – underscore how profoundly the ways of war have changed and the challenge that poses Western democracies. Namely, to find a way, or the political will, to set limits on the systematic targeting of noncombatant men, women and children.

The film is called The New Barbarianism, and was made by former PBS NewsHour foreign editor Justin Kenny in partnership with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. It lays bare the extent to which civilians are being attacked, and how the particular horror of chemical weapons attacks is part of a broader assault on civilian populations that has received far less international attention. The film focuses on a campaign of attacks against hospitals and medical facilities, doctors and international relief workers, in violation of a seven-decade-old protection for humanitarian assistance under the Geneva Conventions.

The email comes from the office of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom I’ve covered as a London-based journalist for nearly 20 years. It was in reply to a request a month ago to discuss the siege by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers on Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus – the assault that culminated in the recent chemical strike in Douma. Mr. Blair was a leading voice in the late 1990s for a new definition of international security that would embrace a duty to respond militarily, if all else failed, to humanitarian crises like the ethnic cleansing then under way in the Balkans. The case he made eventually helped lead to the UN’s endorsement in 2005 of the principle of an international “responsibility to protect” civilians.

Yet the reply to my request, from Blair’s press aide, said: “Tony feels this doesn’t really fit in with what he is focusing on at the moment.” I doubt his belief in the principles he put forward has weakened. Yet I’m also pretty sure why he is reluctant to talk about them publicly nowadays: the Iraq War of 2003, a conflict begun in part on the basis of a “responsibility to protect” but which ended up tarnishing not only that principle but Blair’s own reputation and legacy.

When President Barack Obama’s first “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria was crossed in 2013, the effect of Iraq loomed large. Britain’s then prime minister, David Cameron, favored joining the US and France in a targeted response to Mr. Assad’s horrifying attack on his own people. But the House of Commons told Cameron no, all but ensuring that Mr. Obama, too, retreated from acting. The Commons debate ended up being far less about Assad’s use of chemical weapons than about purported parallels to the war in Iraq.

UK Parliament/Reuters
Britain's then prime minister, David Cameron, is seen addressing the House of Commons in this image taken from video in August 2013 amid debate over military action against Syria to punish and deter it from chemical weapons use.

It’s impossible to know whether a more forceful Western response to that earlier atrocity might have prevented further chemical weapons attacks. Assad’s position was far weaker then. Russia’s military intervention was a couple of years away. Yet both Assad and Russian President Putin now know that – despite the latest cruise-missile retaliation, or President Trump’s similar response to a chemical attack a year ago – the prospect of any concerted, lasting Western military response to such atrocities has become vanishingly small.

So what, then, is to be done about the broader pattern of attacking civilians and the humanitarian workers trying to protect them?

Stephen Morrison, who as head of CSIS’s Global Health produced and co-directed the new documentary, has no illusions about a return of the humanitarian assertiveness advocated in the late 1990s. This is not just due to Iraq, but because of NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011, responding to what seemed an impending massacre of civilians in the east of the country. As Mr. Morrison puts it: “We jumped in with some sort of responsibility-to-protect logic, and we created havoc, and we walked away.”

The immediate imperative now, he argues, is to refuse to let the growing assault on humanitarian standards and international law go unnoticed: the attacks by Assad and the Russians in Syria, whether with gas or deadly barrel bombs; by both sides in the ongoing war in Yemen; and in nearly two dozen other conflicts worldwide. The danger is that the deliberate targeting of civilians and those seeking to help them will become accepted as a kind of new normal.

Courtesy of CSIS GHPC
CCTV footage of Dr. Wassim Moaz, one of the last pediatricians in Aleppo, Syria, moments before he was killed in an airstrike as seen in 'The New Barbarianism.'

The film could play a part in preventing this, by focusing on what Mr. Kenny calls the “deliberate, wholesale erosion of humanitarian law” and by “giving a face and a voice to the people on the ground.” Kenny, too, is skeptical about the chances of a concerted international initiative to remedy the situation any time soon. But, he insists: “It’s not too late.” And in making the film, he says, he became convinced of the need “to start ringing the alarm bells.”

Equally important are the NGOs, diplomats, international law experts, and humanitarian workers whose work the film highlights: groups like the World Health Organization and Physicians for Human Rights, which have increasingly been documenting the attacks on medical and aid workers; Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders); or newer organizations like the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). A group of doctors of Syrian descent, they initially figured on trying to help in whatever small way they could. They’ve ended up risking their lives to provide medical care under conditions of enormous hardship, while publicizing the systematic assault by Assad’s army and Russian forces on the civilians they’ve been desperately trying to care for.

David Miliband was a top policy aide to Blair in Downing Street and later Britain’s foreign secretary. Now, he heads the International Rescue Committee in New York. Commenting on the attacks on groups like SAMS, and on his own teams in the field, he says: “If you look at the facts, you get depressed. If you look at the people, you have hope.”

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