Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 22/08/2015

Simulating mass atrocity prevention in Syria


Back in May, students at Stanford Law School took part in a day-long policy simulation that explored the challenges of mass atrocity prevention in Syria. Beth Van Schaack offers an account of the exercise at the school’s Law and Policy Lab blog.

The scenario was as follows:

It is February 2015, and the conflict in Syria is at a violent stalemate, with civilians comprising approximately a third of the over 200,000 casualties to date. Half of Syria’s civilian population is living in refugee camps around the region or is internally displaced.  Many of the latter are trapped in pockets of contested territory where they face starvation and other damaging consequences of combat. The third U.N. Special Envoy for Syria has determined that a political solution in Syria is unlikely, as prior efforts to mediate between warring parties have been fruitless. Although the U.S. Government has engaged in limited air strikes against ISIL targets in the region, there are few prospects for more extensive military engagement.

President Obama has directed his National Security Staff to reassess the situation and provide options to prevent further atrocities in Syria. He intends to announce a new U.S. policy in this regard during a major speech in the next two weeks.  Individuals from across the inter-agency have convened a subordinate Interagency Policy Committee (sub-IPC) to assist in the policy formulation process, beginning with the review of preliminary ideas generated by lower-level working groups.

The participants soon encountered some of the many challenges presented by crisis:

Although the simulation began as a collective discussion, agencies broke into small groups to devise concrete policy suggestions around three broad categories of tools: suasion, compellence, and intervention.  A fourth group was invited to think outside the proverbial box for cross-cutting options.  Participants then presented and defended their ideas before the full sub-IPC.  While several agencies called for more robust sanctions against Assad and his inner circle, Tres Thompson, SLS ’16 representing the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department, insisted that the sanctions programs were already at maximum capacity. The counter-terrorism specialists insisted that more could be done to delegitimize ISIL in order to stave off new recruits and emphasized that U.S. refugee policy cannot be divorced from its counter-terrorism efforts given that refugee camps offer prime recruitment opportunities.  It was suggested that Turkey should be provided technical assistance aimed at securing its borders, perhaps from the Department of Homeland Security, against the reverse flow of radicals. Swain Uber, SLS and IPS ’17, assigned the role of Deputy in the Office of Global Criminal Justice within the U.S. Department of State—my former position—emphasized that whatever the United States does on the diplomatic, military, or humanitarian front should not jeopardize the ability to continue to collect evidence of the commission of international crimes and eventually hold perpetrators accountable, either within a domestic judicial system or an international tribunal with jurisdiction over the events in question.

A major dilemma that emerged in the discussions concerned whether or not the United States should engage with President Assad to counter the ISIL threat. Participants were split. Some argued that the Syrian regime is beyond redemption and that appeasing Assad now would threaten the West’s relationship with moderate rebel groups, be inconsistent with persistent calls for accountability, and undermine President Obama’s demands that “Assad must go.”  Others insisted that the emergence of ISIL meant that the United States must identify willing partners of all stripes. They acknowledged that there is value to consistency in foreign policy, lest an administration open itself up to criticism that it is feckless, but insisted that consistency should not be valued over efficacy. Participants explored how the United States might work through back channels and Syrian allies, including Russia, to enlist Assad’s assistance in countering ISIL as a common foe. Participants questioned the role that Iran might play in this effort; again, opinions were divided. Some saw the situation as an opportunity to further normalize relations with Iran whereas others insisted that Iran would condition any cooperation on unacceptable concessions on the nuclear front or a relaxing of sanctions.

You’ll find a much fuller write-up, including a discussion of learning outcomes and of the general challenges of atrocity prevention, at the link above.

h/t Corinne Goldberger 

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