As I write this, approximately 7 million people have been displaced from the country of Syria due to the bloody civil war that continues to rage on. About 50% are under the age of 18 according to some estimates and  as the world looks on with dismay and disgust, many look to the world’s eminent military and economic powers to either show restraint, or action, with respect to this ongoing crisis.

In this regard history proves to be fickle teacher. Despite our established rules of thumb, and frequently observed patterns each new conflict we witness emerges within its own unique environment, with its own history, stage, and players. As Daniel Serwer writes, “Bashar Al Assad is not Slobodon Milosevic, the Middle East is not the Balkans, Yeltsin’s Russia is not Putin’s Russia, Obama’s United States is not Clinton’s. Distinct times and places make for dicey comparisons.” (

With respect to military intervention in humanitarian/refugee  crises, history provides us a record of aborted attempts, failed experiments as well as sheer luck. Overall the use of military force in humanitarian crises is precarious at best. Not all remedies are useful in all situations and some have a success rate contingent on a narrow set of conditions.

The following table illustrates the advantages, disadvantages  and conditions affecting military interventions. This table was adapted from a paper by Barry Posen on Military responses to humanitarian/refugee crises. For the purposes of this table / blog series “Assailant” stands for the regime, and/or state entities carrying out acts deemed as a source of global insecurity, whether national or human. The “Challenger” or intervening force will be the military force / states making the intervention in response to the the aforementioned acts.

Each method below will then be assessed in terms of its relevance to the Syrian case.

Method of Intervention




Relevant Conditions affecting method of intervention

Punishment (punitive bombing) Deterrence • Limits of coercive strategy

• Practical Issues inherent in bombing

• Threshold Dilemma in determining cases of Genocide/ Politicide

• Risk of Escalating Ethnic Cleansing to Genocide.

• Repeated probing by assailant (low level tests of will and capability)

• Existence of other crises in the global village

• Ethnic / religious background of the victims

• Media coverage

• Nuclear Power status of the assailant

Safe Zones Defensive/Denial Strategy Rarely attempted,

• De Facto Succession

• Norm of Non-Intervention


• Demographic variables:

• Traditional military variables i.e. distance, weather, topography vegetation which influence size and quality of necessary military force

Safe Havens • More appropriate response for intermixed populations

• More appropriate for limited capacity rescuers

• Solution for primitive logistics

• May incur siege warfare if/when assailant pursue genocide/politicide


•  Air support (Military)

•  Political will for defence



Enforced Truce If goal is to suppress local fighting only, this form of intervention will be more manageable • Military capacity requirements will be substantial if the rescuer wants to rescue “all from all”

• Outside intervention to halt internal conflict more difficult than intervention to cause a pause in fighting to help refugees

• Implementation will depend on the size and shape of the country, number and size of the groups requiring protection and their arrangement

“Failing a local accord, rescuers will find themselves in a dilemma they can attempt to impose a political solution by force, in effect joining the local war, or they can leave, with the risk that the situation will deteriorate to the conditions that prompted the original intervention. ”  – Barry Posen


The purest example of punishment is punitive bombing, a strategy used in Iraq.  This cheap solution punishment is used frequently. The overarching rational for this method of intervention in humanitarian affairs, is for the rescuer to help the victimized population by bombing the assailants homeland and destroying  it s capability and values. This may include its own population, critical economic infrastructure or even its leadership. Ideally the punishment would continue until the refugee producing behaviour had ceased.

Advantages of Punishment as Strategy

In theory the primary advantage of punishment/punitive bombing is deterrence which bears a fourfold strategic benefit:

  • A dissuasive threat is usually used to protect an extant status quo: the willingness of the dissuading force to fight or die in military confrontation should send a message to the defender that it cares more for the status quo in the dispute at issue.
  • In order to defend its position the defending force must turn a situation of peace into one of war, ultimately exchanges the certainties of peace (relative )
  • The defender bears significant credibility stakes. If they do not meet the challenge of the dissuader, this may invite further challenges from others in the future
  • It is easy to agree on a stopping point which usually happens to be the starting point.

Disadvantages of Punishment as a Strategy

When the issue at question involves a humanitarian element strategies of punishment take turn towards compellence by default.

The disadvantages inherent in compulsion as a strategy, are inversely related to the advantages of deterrence and are as follows:

  • As a strategy compellence involves manipulating the enemy to alter some course of behaviour upon which they have developed some stake.   Overall the balance of willpower does not hold in favor for the coercer.
  • In most respects the peace to war transition is a fait accompli, fighting, civil war or an event prompting the compellence is already underway.
  • The distribution of credibility stakes happens to be equal. In deterrence the defender of the status quo has a greater stake credibility wise as failure to meet the challenger may incur more challenges from other entities in the future.  In coercion  the challenger also stands to lose credibility if viewed as an aggressor especially  if they fail to carry out the challenge, it does not invi
    te predation though as withdrawal does not impact the inclination to protect its own interest
  • Last, there is no concrete “stopping point.” Where negotiations are concerned, if a coercer urges an assailant to cease the intervention triggering behaviour  the scale of acceptable concessions is not so clear cut.

Practical problems with punitive bombing

  • The question of whether there are any appropriate targets for any of the “critical nodes” commonly targeted in bombing campaigns
  • If there are appropriate targets the rescuer may not be able to attack them (if a mission falls under UN auspices the rules of engagement will prove to be very stringent)
  • Question of capabilities: Very few countries possess the capabilities to attack the full range targets identified in the four strategic bombing theories  I.e.  Civilian population, industrial infrastructure , transportation/communication networks and electricity generating capacity. The intervening force will require a sophisticated air force for targeting and a resilient intelligence apparatus to guide discriminate targeting.
  • Also access to the theater of operations is critical. Fighter aircrafts will require bases from which to launch from and operate. The United States is the only country with  tankers in large quantities. Even  with plentiful tankers, missions going beyond a 1500km threshold requiring sustained tactical air operations will become difficult.

The Threshold Dilemma

Posen notes how the genocide convention defines many behaviours as genocide and how this makes for relative ease for partisans of action (intervention) to define a particular situation as such.  Posen makes the argument that because  of this a narrow definition of genocide is preferable and believes that for a situation to be deemed “genocide” and warranting  military intervention, it would have to look like Nazi Germany or the Khmer Rouge. This suggestion  is problematic due to the fact  that not all humanitarian situations  are created equally. As Jeremy Lemkin’s analytical method showcases, genocide emerges from a myriad of different  factors and can spin off into many different scenarios (some risking a reprisal)  either alone or in combination. A narrow focus pertaining to  genocide, may overlook a seemingly innocuous situation that may escalate considerably later on.  Further to this, a stringent focus on time scales and  death counts may threaten the subtle and progressive onset of the systemic genocidal process.

Escalation Risk

In cases where ethnic cleansing happens to be the source and triggering event of displacement, and the assailant state is organized and developed enough, a punitive bombing campaign could potentially provoke the assailant into killing their victims instead of just displacing them. This would ultimately undermine the mission of the challenging state/Intervening force.

Relevant Conditions affecting method of intervention

There is a possibility that the assailant state may strategically carry out low-level tests of political will on the part of the challenging state. This is compounded  by the fact that other crises existent in the global village may undermine  the credibility of the intervening force. Punitive bombing as a strategy for humanitarian intervention will also be affected by media coverage and the nuclear power status of the assailant. Media has a powerful influence on the domestic support for a given campaign, additionally nuclear powered states generally enjoy more diplomatic clout through deterrence. gained through possession of nuclear weapons.


Part 2 of this series will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of Safe Zones as well as factors affecting their implementation.

photo credit: