The people of Kobane, Syria, must be wondering if President Obama has a short memory. The Obama administration consistently used humanitarian justifications for its decision to go to war against the terrorist group ISIS, but now that the war is underway, those humanitarian arguments seem to have been forgotten. As of this week, ISIS appears poised to capture Kobane, a small city on the Syria-Turkey border. It may commit horrible atrocities there, as it has after seizing other territories. But the US is neither committing the military resources necessary to save the town (it has stepped up airstrikes, but that is unlikely to be enough to keep ISIS out) nor funding protection efforts for the massive numbers of civilians who have fled across the border into Turkey.
Obama has relied heavily on humanitarian arguments to justify the war against ISIS. In his August 7th speech, he spoke of the need to avert ISIS's "potential genocide" of Yazidi civilians. On September 10th, he decried the group's atrocities, including rape, enslavement, murder, and threatened genocide, in a speech announcing that air strikes would be expanded to Syria. And in his September 24 address to the UN General Assembly, he asked the international community to join with the US to "dismantle [ISIS's] network of death," because "mothers, sisters and daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war. Innocent children have been gunned down. Bodies have been dumped in mass graves. Religious minorities have been starved to death."
In practice, though, US strategy appears to prioritize a long-run objective of destroying ISIS over protecting civilians in the short term. And there is a very real chance that if action isn't taken to protect civilians soon, the long term will be irrelevant to them: they will be too dead to enjoy it.
Ignoring the forest of humanitarian need for the trees of military action?
When ISIS trapped Yazidi civilians on a mountain without food or water, President Obama gave a speech warning that the specter of mass death from starvation and exposure constituted an "imminent genocide." He authorized air drops of supplies to save the Yazidis. And yet lack of funding for food and other aid means that starvation may be looming for millions of Syrian refugees and IDPs throughout the region — and no help appears to be coming for them.
According to the UN, there are approximately 4.25 million internally displaced people inside Syria, and a further 3.17 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. To meet their basic needs, those displaced people rely on international assistance, including food aid and funding for refugee camps. That assistance is now in jeopardy because of a critical lack of resources.
The World Food Program has been forced to make drastic cuts to the food rations it distributes to displaced Syrians because of a $352 million budget shortfall. As of October 2014, 4 million people inside Syria who rely on WFP food aid will only receive 1500 calories per day, 60 percent of the recommended nutritional distribution for emergencies. If the problem is not remedied, there will be worse cuts in November, and potentially a complete cutoff of all aid in December — which will, of course, be the dead of winter. Food aid to Syrian refugees in neighboring countries has also been dramatically reduced. In Turkey, for instance, a voucher program that provides food to hundreds of thousands of people is only 12 percent funded and may leave 170,000 people without assistance if more money is not found soon.
UNHCR, the UN agency that handles refugee protection, is suffering from similar difficulties. As of September 2014, its Syria regional refugee response program had only received approximately half of the funds it needs, leading to a budget shortfall of approximately $1.85 billion.
This is a problem that can be solved with money. The UN has the structures and staff in place to distribute aid, they just don't have the money to buy the goods that people desperately need. And yet the US and its allies have not funded the humanitarian operations that those civilians rely on to survive, even though the total cost would be only a fraction of what is being spent on the US air strikes. It would take approximately $2.2 billion to completely fund the WFP and UNHCR budget shortfalls described above, and while that is a lot of money, it is less than the amount the US is spending on about 6 weeks of airstrikes against ISIS. American University professor Gordon Adams estimates that the US is probably spending $1.5 billion per month on airstrikes — and that does not even include the considerable costs of arming and training the Syrian rebels who will serve as our allies on the ground.
Destroying Syrian villages in order to save them?
The US strategy of conducting airstrikes without putting any "boots on the ground" is a good way to protect the lives of US soldiers, but that comes at the expense of protection for civilians. Though a full-scale US ground offensive would hardly guarantee civilians are protected, the current model definitely guarantees civilians are put at great risk.
As proxy war expert Erica Borghard explained to Vox, the US appears to be following the "Afghan model" in Syria: training and arming moderate rebel groups to conduct ground operations, and supporting them with air strikes by the US and its allies. That strategy has the benefit of "outsourcing" the human costs of war to rebel proxies, but it also comes with some significant drawbacks.
For one thing, air strikes are a relatively blunt instrument. It is difficult to run an air war without causing civilian casualties. The Obama administration seems to have accepted that outcome in Syria: although the US usually requires that military operations meet strict standards for avoiding civilian casualties, the Obama administration has relaxed those rules for the airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.
As the war goes on, it's likely that that problem will only get worse. According to Borghard, the US should expect its adversaries to adapt in order to make US air strikes less effective. Right now, she said, the US is able to bomb "command and control" targets, specific buildings and facilities that ISIS uses for storage or logistics, but soon we can expect ISIS to take evasive action to blend in with the rest of the population — and that will make it much harder for US airstrikes to hit members of ISIS without killing civilians.
The US also has relatively little control over the rebel proxies. That makes it difficult to ensure that they will comply with the laws of war. This was an issue in Libya, where US-backed militias were accused of widespread torture, forced displacement, and other serious human rights abuses.
While it is not surprising that the US would prioritize the safety of its soldiers, that doesn't mean we should ignore the fact that civilians are the ones paying the price for that decision.
What comes next?
Even if the US manages to defeat ISIS, there is a risk that it could be succeeded by a different group that is as or more dangerous — and the US does not appear to have a plan in place to prevent that from happening.
Libya is an instructive example on that point. The US used similar tactics in that conflict — coupling US air power with support for friendly rebel groups on the ground — to achieve similar objectives. That operation was successful in the short term: civilians weren't massacred in Benghazi, and Muammar Qaddafi, a dictator who had long been hostile to the US, was overthrown.
But since then, Libya has fallen apart. The country has been carved up by warring rebel groups and has been designated a "terrorist haven" by the US State Department. Nor is there any improvement on the horizon: the central government won't be able get the violence under control until it builds a military and other institutions strong enough to do so — but it can't build stable institutions while the situation there is so violent.
So a win for the US-led coalition is hardly a guarantee that the moderate rebels the US is backing would be able to take power in Damascus, much less actually create a stable state with the ability to govern the entire country. Instead, it may strengthen the murderous Assad regime, which is itself responsible for chemical weapons attacks against the civilian population and other horrifying atrocities. And even if it does not, the result would probably look a lot like Libya, with different rebel groups fighting each other for control over the country's territory, resources, and people.
That is not entirely the US' fault. Assad was a murderous dictator long before the civil war began, and it has always seemed likely that he would either cling to power by treating the catalogue of crimes against humanity as a "to-do" list, or be defeated in a rebellion that would then collapse into sectarian infighting. (He has done his best to ensure that those were the only two options available.)
But if civilian protection is even a secondary goal of the US's anti-ISIS campaign, then then it's reasonable to ask why the vision of the future isn't more sophisticated than "degrade and destroy ISIS, and then civilians will live happily ever after."