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Misery as Strategy: The Human Cost of Conflict
Misery as Strategy: The Human Cost of Conflict

Voices of Idlib

The Syrian war grinds lethally on, as regime forces move to recapture rebel-held areas. In our first-ever illustrated commentary, Crisis Group explores one holdout, Idlib, where three million Syrians – many already displaced – chafe at jihadist rule but dread the coming onslaught.

People walk with their belongings as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria 15 March, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
Commentary / Global

Misery as Strategy: The Human Cost of Conflict

In conflicts across the world, levels of displacement and hunger are increasing. The tactics used by leaders, governments and non-state armed groups have much to do with that misery.

From Syria to Yemen, from South Sudan to Venezuela, war and political crisis are causing human anguish on a scale unseen in a generation.

That conflict and crisis take a high human toll is hardly new, of course. Yet the scope of suffering today is striking. The number of people displaced globally by conflict and persecution stood at 65.6 million at the end of 2016, the greatest number since World War II. Figures released earlier this month show that there were 11.8 million new internal displacements in 2017, nearly double the 6.9 million in 2016. The number of people facing acute hunger globally due largely to conflict and instability reached almost 74 million across eighteen countries in 2017. The trend is clear: war and crisis are destroying more lives and livelihoods, pushing more people toward starvation and driving more people from their homes.

So, what is happening?

From Syria to Yemen, from South Sudan to Venezuela, war and political crisis are causing human anguish on a scale unseen in a generation.

First is simply that the last decade has seen an increase in conflict and political violence. While data and definitions vary, and data deficiencies and gaps exist, studies generally point to upward trends.

But deepening human misery comes not only from more war and violence. It also comes from the manner in which many actors – whether leaders, governments or non-state armed groups – are pursuing military and political objectives. Too often these actors gain from human deprivation. Sometimes they deliberately inflict pain on civilians, attacking, forcibly displacing or otherwise controlling populations, including by determining whether, where and how they get access to aid. At other times, they use heavy-handed military or political tactics without attention to the enormous suffering they are causing.

In wars, these patterns track broadly with violations of the fundamental principles, under international humanitarian law (IHL), of distinction between civilians and combatants, and of proportionality in carrying out attacks. Whether observance of IHL has in fact declined in recent years is difficult to measure and subject to debate. What is clear is that many of today’s conflicts – certainly major wars but also lower-intensity armed conflicts – have seen shocking and repeated violations of the rules that are meant to protect civilians in war.

Deepening human misery comes not only from more war and violence. It also comes from the manner in which many actors [...] are pursuing military and political objectives.

This instrumentalisation or disregard of civilian harm is clearly in evidence in some of today’s worst conflicts, from Yemen to Syria to South Sudan. Such disregard is also a worrying feature of many political and socio-economic crises that fall short of armed conflict yet still produce large-scale humanitarian crises, like that of Venezuela.

Yemen and Syria

Yemen is in the throes of a regionalised civil war that pits Huthi rebels against a Saudi-led coalition, allied with the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and a variety of anti-Huthi fighters, who at times fight each other. The U.S., with other Western powers, backs the internationally recognised Hadi government and provides military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition. The main protagonists all have used tactics that exact a terrible human cost. All sides have exacerbated a humanitarian crisis on an astounding scale: over 22 million Yemenis, 75 per cent of the population, need humanitarian assistance; some 8.4 million are on the brink of famine. But the Saudi-led coalition – because of its superior firepower and ability to control the land and sea approaches to Yemen, which has long depended on imports for food, medicine and fuel – bears particular responsibility.

The Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign has destroyed hospitals, schools and homes and resulted in untold civilian casualties. By hindering access to Yemen’s most important port, Hodeida, and closing Sanaa’s international airport (both in Huthi-controlled areas) – arguing that these restrictions are necessary to stem the flow of arms from Iran to Huthi fighters – it has prevented millions from receiving the food and other supplies they need to survive.

After completely closing Hodeida port in response to a Huthi missile fired at Riyadh in November 2017, the coalition partially lifted the blockade the following month. That move has alleviated Yemen’s plight to some extent. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also announced a $1.5 billion contribution to UN humanitarian efforts. Yet aid is a stopgap measure that cannot be a substitute for commercial imports. Both humanitarian and commercial imports into Hodeida remain well below the needed levels, due to the coalition’s continued restrictions and related bureaucratic hurdles. As it presses on with its military campaign along the Red Sea coast, the coalition threatens to worsen matters greatly with an invasion of Hodeida, as Crisis Group recently warned.

The war in Syria also has seen horrendous human suffering as a result of actions by all sides, none more consequential than those of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The regime has repeatedly used tactics that deliberately harm civilians for political and military gain. Its core strategy in taking back opposition areas has been to drain them of resources, degrade infrastructure and target civilians and rebels alike, in order to drive those who oppose it out and leave no option other than submission to regime authority for those who remain. The aim is also to send a clear message about the price of resistance.

The war in Syria [...] has seen horrendous human suffering as a result of actions by all sides, none more consequential than those of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Tactics include controlling whether and how humanitarian aid reaches civilians in need, now numbering some 13.1 million overall – roughly two thirds of the population that remains in the country and a proportion equivalent to over 50 per cent of the pre-war population. These numbers include over six million facing acute food insecurity and over two million in UN-declared besieged and hard-to-reach areas. The regime has undercut the UN’s humanitarian agencies, placing excessive strictures on their work, and regularly denies them access to civilians in even the most desperate straits.

Backed by Russian air power, government forces have bombed civilians and civilian infrastructure – including schools and hospitals – in rebel-held areas. They have also used chemical weapons against civilians. All of these tactics were on display as the regime squeezed the rebel-controlled Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta. The regime benefits substantially from this strategy, while diplomatic support from Russia mitigates the costs and protects it from external consequences. The strikes by the U.S. and its allies in retaliation for the government’s chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta on 8 April may discourage such attacks, but are unlikely to change the regime’s broader calculations regarding the use of tactics that target civilians.

Rebel groups notably have carried out their own atrocities and sieges of civilian areas, if not on the same scale as the regime. Meanwhile, the Islamic State (ISIS) has used chemical weapons, albeit on a much smaller scale than the regime, and mass executions in areas under its control.

South Sudan and Venezuela

In South Sudan, too, parties to the civil war use tactics that either deliberately cause human suffering or show insufficient regard for their humanitarian impact.

Government troops, rebel forces and armed groups of all stripes have repeatedly attacked civilians or, through raiding and pillaging, left them without the means of sustaining themselves. As Crisis Group explained in a briefing on conflict and famine last year: “Warring parties tend to view civilians as integral elements of their enemy’s economic, political and social support system. This is particularly evident during incidents of revenge violence, when civilians are likely to be treated not as distinct and protected but as part of an armed group”.

In South Sudan [...] parties to the civil war use tactics that either deliberately cause human suffering or show insufficient regard for their humanitarian impact.

Armed groups often try to direct aid to populations they control, while seeking to withhold it as a way to punish or demand the loyalty of populations they perceive as supporting their enemies. The government itself has sought to deny aid to populations under rebel control as a means of pressuring them to accept peace on the government’s terms (though aid groups usually have been able to negotiate access eventually).

Harassment of and attacks upon aid workers are common. Such incidents are aspects of a broader “scorched earth” approach to fighting that does not spare aid operations, medical facilities, religious institutions or schools. Fighters often double as bandits and, given the economic crisis, humanitarian aid is one of the few assets available to steal. Lawlessness, in the form of attacks on aid convoys and roadblocks set up to extort agencies, also contributes to the need for expensive airdrops of food – reducing the amount available for hungry civilians.

The peak of the annual “lean season” – when families run out of food before the next harvest – is expected over the next three months. Millions already face acute food insecurity. If South Sudanese armed actors do not create a more conducive environment for aid delivery and donors do not increase their contributions for humanitarian efforts, parts of the country risk sliding into famine this year.

Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis stems not from war, but from political crisis and malfeasance, as illustrated in a recent Crisis Group report. With the economy in freefall, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing poverty, hunger and deadly disease epidemics.

Yet President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly repressive government rejects economic reform, fearing such measures would threaten its grip on power and resources. Current economic policies – including price and currency controls, state subsidy and rationing of food, and expropriation of commercial assets – directly benefit key constituencies in the regime, above all the military. Reversing those policies would threaten these interests.

Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis stems not from war, but from political crisis and malfeasance.

The regime also denies the humanitarian crisis exists, denouncing reporting of the situation as part of an “imperialist” plot. It refuses foreign humanitarian support; the delivery of aid, it argues, could presage a military intervention (that hardline elements of the opposition call for such a move under the slogan “humanitarian intervention NOW” hardly helps).

The government has failed to release reliable economic, health and other statistics. For instance, it suppressed information about an outbreak of diphtheria – a disease once eradicated in Venezuela – which has been reported in 22 of the country’s 23 states and the capital district, and taken over 140 lives since late 2016. It also links social benefits, including the distribution of food and other goods, to political loyalty, thus seeking to retain the support of a core segment of the population.

A group of Venezuelan NGOs has proposed a mechanism for the government to work with them and UN officials in overseeing the distribution of aid, to help guarantee that it is not politicised. But the government has not responded. And last month it said it will distribute eleven million doses of vaccines for children only to holders of the carnet de la patria, an identification card that individuals must obtain to receive subsidised food handouts and other social benefits. The government also has linked the card to the voting process, causing many to fear that their benefits are contingent on support for the ruling party, including in this month’s elections for the presidency and regional legislatures, which saw Maduro win by a wide margin amid condemnation by the U.S. and regional powers.

Venezuela’s neighbours are left to cope with the consequences. Colombia now hosts an estimated 800,000 Venezuelans, 450,000 of whom are believed to be staying in the country without residency papers. Many, especially those with limited funds, are concentrated in the border city of Cúcuta, compounding the poverty, urban sprawl and unemployment that already existed there. With Colombian armed groups competing for control of lucrative smuggling routes along the border, the spillover could endanger the country’s fragile peace process.

A Higher Tolerance for Violence?

As these cases illustrate, the deliberate harm of civilians or the use of tactics with scant regard for human suffering are all too common across today’s landscape of war and crisis.

All the more disconcerting is that state parties and their allies almost certainly shoulder the lion’s share of blame.

It is difficult to generalise about reasons for this trend – in other words, to identify the geopolitical currents that underpin the widespread use of tactics that target or otherwise harm civilians. The conflicts are diverse as are the states involved. Indeed, it is debatable whether parties are more likely to resort to the use of such tactics today or whether their use is simply more prevalent because conflict has increased. Greater visibility of such tactics, given expanded media coverage, may also contribute. But a handful of factors appear to have helped create an international environment permissive of such abuse.

The first follows from the protracted nature of many conflicts. While today more wars tend to be intrastate, most involve outside powers and an array of non-state armed groups. It is hard to find a settlement that meets the interests of the warring parties – from the major or regional powers involved, to national actors, to local commanders that may have direct access to revenue streams and thus considerable autonomy. Violence often spreads across wide swathes of the country, leaving few areas unaffected and few safe havens for civilians. Warfare is increasingly urbanised, with non-state armed groups embedded in the general population, which also means fighting exacts a higher civilian cost.

In some cases, as wars drag on, growing hatred and resentment, the desire to avenge abuses and, in many instances, the wish to protect financial interests that instability sustains tend to increase incentives on all sides for more brutal forms of violence, or tactics that result in greater civilian harm. In wars characterised by mass atrocities from the beginning, the behaviour of belligerents rarely improves during the course of the conflict. Indeed, parties often point to excesses by their opponents to justify their own.

Second, mounting geopolitical tension, including among major powers, is likely to have contributed. Major powers tend to pull their punches on abuses by allies, while reserving the harshest criticisms for their enemies. Witness, for example, the disconnect in the UN Security Council on Syria and Yemen. Western powers regularly – and rightly – condemn mass violence by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers. But their voices are considerably quieter on the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign in Yemen. Russia, meanwhile, has tried to shift the blame for chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime to rebels, exploiting the fact that ISIS has also used poison gas, and has protected Damascus from consequences – including by pulling the plug on the UN/Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Joint Investigative Mechanism, mandated to determine responsibility for chemical weapons attacks, after that body found the regime responsible for the April 2017 Khan Sheikhoun attack.

The pervasive use of tactics that cause such civilian suffering – whether deliberately or through calculated disregard – should be a cause for alarm. It is not just a moral concern.

Last, it is difficult to escape the fact that a decade and a half of post-9/11 Western counter-terrorism operations have played some role, albeit difficult to define precisely. Fairly or not – and undoubtedly in the service of self-interest in many cases – leaders across the world have interpreted these operations, and the militarisation of what tends to be a political problem, as a signal that draconian tactics are more permissible against their own enemies. Russian diplomats frequently cite the destruction of Mosul or Raqqa, for example, to deflect criticism of the Syrian regime’s brutal operations in eastern Aleppo or Eastern Ghouta.

Whatever the precise causes, the pervasive use of tactics that cause such civilian suffering – whether deliberately or through calculated disregard – should be a cause for alarm. It is not just a moral concern. While such tactics might serve the immediate interests of some leaders, governments or militias, the massive humanitarian crises they provoke can themselves be sources of instability and recurrent conflict. At a minimum, they inject further uncertainty into wars and crises that are already difficult to resolve. Without redoubled efforts to forge political solutions, today’s overwhelming levels of displacement, the destruction of cities, homes and infrastructure, and the hunger, destitution and trauma, likely will only grow.