Students Negotiate U.S. Policy Aimed At Preventing Further Atrocities in Syria
Beth Van Schaack, Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights
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.
This was the scenario presented to a group of Stanford students by Col. (Ret.) Dwight Raymond of the Peacekeeping and Stabilization Operations Institute of the Army War College at a day-long tabletop exercise (TTX) convened winter quarter at Stanford Law School. The simulation was part of a new Stanford Law School Policy Lab on “Legal & Policy Tools for Preventing Atrocities,” which is led by Beth Van Schaack, the Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of International Law, and was co-sponsored by the Handa Center for Human Rights & International Justice at Stanford. Participants, hailing from a range of Stanford Departments and Programs, were assigned Deputy Assistant Secretary-level roles within the Executive Branch representing offices and bureaus within the Agency for International Development; the Departments of State, Justice, Treasury, Homeland Security, and Defense; and the White House itself. Each participant received a short dossier setting forth key agency equities that were to be preserved and promoted during the exercise as well as some insights into their character’s background and personal views.
|National Security Strategy, 2015“The mass killing of civilians is an affront to our common humanity and a threat to our common security. It destabilizes countries and regions, pushes refugees across borders, and creates grievances that extremists exploit. We have a strong interest in leading an international response to genocide and mass atrocities when they arise, recognizing options are more extensive and less costly when we act preventively before situations reach crisis proportions. We know the risk of mass atrocities escalates when citizens are denied basic rights and freedoms, are unable to hold accountable the institutions of government, or face unrelenting poverty and conflict. We affirm our support for the international consensus that governments have the responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities and that this responsibility passes to the broader international community when those governments manifestly fail to protect their populations. We will work with the international community to prevent and call to account those responsible for the worst human rights abuses, including through support to the International Criminal Court, consistent with U.S. law and our commitment to protecting our personnel. Moreover, we will continue to mobilize allies and partners to strengthen our collective efforts to prevent and respond to mass atrocities using all our instruments of national power.”
The task at hand was to prepare the building blocks for a major policy speech by President Obama (although this exercise did not knowingly reflect any actual U.S. policy planning). Interestingly, the TTX took place just as the President himself was giving a major speech on cybersecurity across campus.
Participants prepared for the simulation by reviewing the Mass Atrocity and Prevention Handbook (MAPRO), co-authored by Col. Raymond, which discusses the Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic (DIME) tools at policy-makers’ disposal. The DIME rubric emphasizes that there is a whole spectrum of potential actions available to policymakers between doing nothing and putting full battalions on the ground. Participants were also guided by several pre-existing frameworks, the most recent of which is contained in the President’s 2015 National Security Strategy identifying mass atrocities as “an affront to our common humanity and a threat to our common security.” This Strategy also reaffirmed the Responsibility to Protect, a major United-Nations initiative that places the primary responsibility upon the state to protect civilians within its midst, but obliges the international community to step in when a state is unable, or unwilling, to do so. Together, these new priorities inform the classic Weinberger Doctrine—which asserts, in essence, that the United States should not commit combat forces unless vital national interests of the United States or its allies are at stake and then only with clearly defined political and military objectives and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives.
Undergraduate Nicolle Richards ’16, who interned with the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Office with Stanford-in Government this year, discusses U.S. refugee policy.
During the exercise, State Department representatives emphasized that the United States should look for willing partners within the region and the United Nations to ensure legitimacy of action and to share costs. At the same time, they noted that multilateral collaboration could complicate ongoing negotiations with Russian (over Ukraine) and Iran (over its nuclear program). Participants operated under the foundational assumption that the United States would be able to secure significant contributions from the European, Gulf, and other states, but should not expect any endorsement from the U.N. Security Council for robust coercive action because of Russia’s presumed veto. Participants also noted that the military acumen of the Kurdish Peshmerga will put stress on the United States’ “One Iraq” policy. As the United States increases its engagement with the Kurds, it must remain cognizant of how this will be perceived by other regional partners, such as Turkey, who are wary of bolstering claims for greater Kurdish autonomy.Participants began by identifying the various U.S. interests in Syria that exist alongside, and sometimes compete with, the atrocities prevention imperative. These include counter-terrorism and the containment of weapons of mass destruction, the provision of timely and effective humanitarian aid to save lives and ease suffering, and the protection of U.S. persons and property, particularly since the kidnapping and killing of journalist Jim Foley and aid worker Kayla Mueller. In addition, participants noted that the conflict is situated within a larger geo-political context that implicates the United States’ bilateral relationships with a number of states as well as stability in the Middle East more generally.
Next, the agencies mapped the relevant actors in the conflict, including the architects, facilitators, and perpetrators of atrocities; victims (of the conflict itself and its attendant consequences); potential interveners (both constructive and destructive); and bystanders. As they explored various options, agencies were reminded of the many policy risks: sheer ineffectiveness, unintended consequences, collateral damage, fomenting anti-American sentiment, quagmire/mission creep, human losses and financial costs, fissures within the international community, and politicization of efforts (in both the international and domestic spheres). Brendan Ballou, SLS ’16, as Special Assistant to the National Security Advisor, reminded his colleagues to consider the impact of any policy choice on U.S. credibility, particularly after the Administration drew a red line at the use of chemical weapons, but then appeared to allow the Syrian regime to cross it.
Mustafa Abdul-Hamid, a master’s student in International Policy Studies, and Megan Karsh, Executive Director of the Stanford Law School Rule of Law Program, discuss options for Syria. They are joined by Stanford Law students representing other U.S. diplomatic interests negotiating possible interventions.
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.
The TTX hit home a number of key lessons. First, available policy choices are inevitably embedded within a domestic and international legal framework, as ably outlined by the Department of Justice representative, Richard Freeman SLS ’16, playing a Special Advisor to the Attorney General. Because the simulation brought together law students with students from the International Policy Studies Program and other substantive Departments, it offered law students the chance to gain a better understanding of how their policy clients operate and conceptualize foreign policy problems. Government lawyers must be prepared for the fact that policymakers may decide to push the legal envelope or even breach legal rules. The lawyers must ensure that their clients do so self-consciously, with a full awareness of the consequences—both short- and long-term—of doing so.
Second, the simulation exemplified the value, but also the challenges, of working through others—including regional bodies, allies, NGOs, and even former adversaries. Although multilateral engagement adds legitimacy to U.S. actions, it also requires careful consideration of the motives of potential partners, who may demand significant concessions for their participation, as well as the risks associated with information sharing and capacitating others. Devising a path forward in foreign policy often requires a search for interest convergence, both within the interagency and with former adversaries. Indeed, a shared challenge can create fruitful openings in previously stalemated relationships.
Third, the TTX showed how easy it is to get trapped in short-term crisis response mode and neglect long-term planning for transitions and end-states. Although the United States has evinced a willingness to take a leading role in trying to manage this conflict, and will ultimately play a supportive role in maintaining stability in the region, it does not want a protracted occupation or an enduring commitment to reconstruct Syria. Invoking Libya, participants showed little appetite for regime change absent a viable opposition, but acknowledged that of the thousands of militants on the ground, very few are prepared to govern.
Finally, the National Security Staff Assistant Director of the Office of Communications—played by Megan Karsh, SLS ’09 and the current Executive Director of Stanford Law School’s Rule of Law Program—reminded negotiators that while they have an obligation to gauge the preferences of the U.S. public, they can also affirmatively shape public opinion through strategic messaging. She surmised that following recent attacks on U.S. citizens in the region, public opinion has shifted such that the U.S. populace would support stronger action in Syria.
When asked what he hoped participants would take away from the exercise, Col. Raymond emphasized that they should leave with a firm appreciation of the complexity of the conflict itself but also of the interagency policy-making process. Government actors suffer from acute tunnel vision and are beholden to four- to six-year election and budgetary cycles that hinder long-term planning. He also noted how difficult preventative work is; five years ago, none of the mass atrocity watch lists included Syria at high risk. Today, it is one of the globe’s most intractable foreign policy challenges. It is difficult to mobilize early-stage preventative efforts when it is often impossible—in the absence of a true counter-factual—to know whether our efforts have been successful. And yet, mass atrocities committed against civilian populations remain a fundamental threat to international peace and security that must be dealt with through sustainable institutional processes at the national and multilateral levels. With hands-on educational opportunities such as the TTX, Stanford students will be well-placed to take on these challenges.
Beth Van Schaack, ’91, is the Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor at Stanford Law School. From 2012-3 she served as Deputy to the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the Office of Global Criminal Justice in the U.S. State Department.