The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Understanding Early Warning for Mass Atrocities Prevention

The September 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya is many things, the least of which is a clear course of events. As the last month of administrative disclosures has demonstrated, the bureaucratic breakdowns, insurgent directives, and diplomatic kerfuffles that preceded the deaths of four U.S. diplomatic officials remain opaque, at best. While critiques of the administration’s bureaucratic security procedures may be well-placed, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s recent statement demonstrates that the intelligence community’s ability to predict political events in Libya, as elsewhere, is an inherently contingent process.

While the particular outcome of the Benghazi attacks is tangential to human rights advocacy, the administration’s embattled warning analysis offers an instructive question for mass atrocities prevention: how can we know when atrocities will occur, and how can we improve the tools we use to predict them?

Over the past decade, “early warning” has become a prominent priority for the atrocities prevention community’s tool-strengthening efforts. Early warning is both a noun and an adjective: under the former definition, warning represents a particular process, conducted by members of the intelligence community, diplomatic officials, defense institutions, and various non-state actors; under the latter, warning describes a spectrum of policy tools, which identify plausible indicators and drivers of mass atrocities.

Early warning relies on a myriad of analytic frameworks, which identify key factors in a state’s ability to prevent, mitigate, and respond to mass atrocities, including dangerous speech, mediation capacity, impunity and accountability within state security forces, and the persistence of ethnic, social, political, and economic divisions. That the historical, situational origins of mass atrocities are unique is self-evident; with tens of atrocity events to monitor, however, a common, unified early warning framework eases the institutional burden of monitoring and analysis.

In spite of mounting concern for the strength, utility, and policy relevance of early warning tools, key gaps restrict early warning tools’ continued effectiveness. While existing early warning frameworks have identified, categorized, and applied country-level indicators to atrocities-monitoring operations, localized analysis and assessment efforts remain elusive. Unfortunately, the human cost of localized, inter-communal violence has become increasingly apparent: in South Sudan’s Jonglei State, Kenya’s Tana River Delta, and Nigeria’s central Middle Belt region, for example, national-level “violent entrepreneurs” often exploit localized tensions, increasing the possibility of atrocities escalation.

New research on localized conflict drivers, causes, and indicators, however, may offer opportunities for improvement. According to Chris Blattman’s field studies on conflict mediation in Liberia, localized conflict prediction is possible and, perhaps more surprisingly, effective. Existing technological resources–take Ushahidi’s crowd-sourcing platform, for example–effectively monitor atrocities events as they unfold, but do little to probe pre-event, structural indicators. Such resources, however, could function as valuable platforms for pre-atrocities analysis, given their proven capacity to process dynamic economic, political, and social data. As the interaction between localized violence and national atrocities events persists, predictive analysis on a local level may be a crucial entry point for strengthening early warning, and making the most of limited institutional resources. In this context, the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s nascent public early warning efforts may be a valuable model for further collaboration between public, private, and non-governmental data collection efforts for atrocities early warning. While imperfect information ensures that early warning will remain an inconsistent tool, complex technologies and new approaches to atrocities data may strengthen predictive efforts. 

Mexico’s Cartel Violence: A Case Study in the Logic of Mass Atrocities

Last week, a caravan arrived in Washington, DC. The nation’s capital was the last stop of the caravan, which has visited more than 25 cities over the past month. The caravan carried a corps of Mexican atrocities survivors, who, following the death of Juanelo Sicilia, the 24-year old son of one of Mexico’s most celebrated poets, last year, have drawn popular attention to the country’s cartel conflict. The third of its kind, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD)’s Caravan for Peace has united Mexican survivors with American communities, in order to call for the rapid demilitarization of persistent political violence between Mexico’s U.S.-supported security forces and transnational drug cartels.

Amidst the remarkable human cost of Mexico’s conflict–between 2006 and early 2012, security forces and cartel organizations have killed approximately 50,000 civilians–it’s difficult to untangle the political context in which mass atrocities occur. Mexico’s transnational cartels have emerged as complex networks of political coercion, whose corrupt influence have eroded weakened political institutions in Mexico and abroad. Meanwhile, former President Felipe Calderon’s security forces, in attempting to consolidate control over cartel-occupied areas, have conducted extrajudicial killings and torture with impunity. Successive Mexican administrations have chipped away at the institutional strength, influence, and impact of accountability initiatives, including the National Human Rights Commission, leaving few opportunities for legal redress.

In spite of increased popular attention surrounding Mexico’s mass atrocities, the civil conflict has remained largely intractable. As in many complex conflicts, various strategic, operational, and tactical logics drive atrocities’ continued occurrence. In order to identify entry points for conflict resolution, it may be useful to probe the ways in which atrocities manifest these political logics:

Mass atrocities as performative signaling: Mexico’s cartel organizations are an amalgam of inconsistent, evolving alliances between local gangs, trafficking supply chains, and national organizations. Cartel cells may emerge as community-based operations, business relationships, or collective security initiatives; however, more likely than not, localized organizations will rub up against national-level illicit activity. For example, Los Zetas, the border-based, elite cartel whose criminal violence has become infamously intertwined with international perceptions of Mexico’s cartel conflict, emerged as an enforcer network for the well-established Gulf Cartel. Los Zetas has perpetrated spectacular atrocities, which competitor cartels have countered with equally horrific violence against cartel members and civilian populations. We can think of these actions as “political performances”: with full knowledge that Los Zetas’ leadership will be “watching,” Sinaloa cartel leaders seeking to restrict Zetas activity, for example, may ratchet up the scale and spectacle of mass atrocities.

Mass atrocities as counterinsurgency: While Mexican security forces have countered smaller, localized gang networks, much of the country’s criminal and political violence occurs as a result of large, transnational cartel organizations. As Mexico’s cartel conflict has escalated, cartel organizations have developed consolidated bureaucracies, which allow for the successful trafficking of illicit goods–consumer narcotics, especially–and the management of disaggregated networks of local, national, and, in some circumstances, cross-border corruption. Cartel influence over civilian governance, the mounting intensity of political violence, and cartel trafficking efforts have prompted policymakers and military analysts to view Mexico’s larger cartels as emergent “commercial insurgencies.” While the scale of security-force atrocities has differed from the cartels’ massacres, Mexican security forces have increasingly used a “drain the sea” approach to countering cartel operations in civilian environments; that is, conducting broad-based, indiscriminate, and extrajudicial killings in hopes of “catching” cartel leadership. From an operational perspective, Mexico’s security-force atrocities mirror similar approaches in Nigeria, Colombia, and Sri Lanka, among many others.

Given the diversity of U.S. institutions engaged in Mexico, particularly in the context of multinational counter-narcotic operations, it’s difficult to identify opportunities for conflict resolution. Beyond “ending the drug war,” how would you go about addressing Mexico’s mass atrocities?

Can Military Intervention Halt Mass Atrocities in Syria?

That the human cost of Syria’s political violence has escalated during the past several weeks is a harrowing, if under-discussed characteristic of the 17-month conflict. The conflict’s toll on Syrian civilians has expanded exponentially, with more than 5,000 conflict-related deaths during the month of August, according to Syrian human rights activists. If a cursory Google Trends search is any indication, popular attention has not kept pace with Syria’s escalating crisis; Syria-related media consumption has dipped since the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) July bombing in Damascus, which expanded and intensified the Syrian opposition’s insurgency against Bashar al-Assad’s security forces.

Despite the gradual decline in popular attention, the Syrian opposition’s Washington diplomats continue to broaden calls for various forms of U.S. and international political, economic, and military assistance. Late last month, the Syrian Support Group (SSG), an FSA-affiliated diaspora network, submitted to the Obama administration a formal request to implement a no-fly zone against the Syrian government’s security forces. In justifying the no-fly zone, the SSG cited the Syrian government’s heightened use of fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft in urban fighting, which poses a significant threat to both opposition forces and civilian bystanders. In addition to a no-fly zone, the SSG has encouraged the administration to provide lethal and non-lethal assistance to opposition forces on the ground in Syria.

Syrian opposition representatives have proven successful at the latter, if not the former policy approach. While the extent of international covert and overt support to the Syrian opposition is unclear, most Western media accounts have conveyed an ongoing flow of humanitarian supplies, small arms, communications equipment, and training to opposition operations on the Syrian-Turkish border. The assistance, however, is not geared towards encouraging short-term civilian protection, but rather–as in Libya–towards facilitating the demise of Assad’s fragmenting regime. The persistence of international assistance to Syria’s opposition, as well as the SSG’s continued calls for a no-fly zone against Assad’s security forces, bring back to the fore a question central to international human rights policy: what, if any, is the potential value of a military solution to Syria’s mass atrocities?

Popular commentary on Syria’s crisis, seeking to construct an entry point for a military-oriented policy, has offered a full spectrum of plausible actions, from humanitarian corridors along Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey to opposition safe zones. As Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute’s Mass Atrocities Prevention and Response Operations handbook makes clear, each variation, with the potential exception of a limited, likely ineffective no-fly zone, requires an extensive ground-force commitment, in order to ensure the adequate management of human intelligence networks, the destruction of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons systems, and the physical protection of civilian areas. Comparing safe-zone recommendations to recent operations in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Iraqi Kurdistan, Dan Trombly observes that “safe zones in Syria would likely pose the greatest military undertaking of its kind.” It is unlikely that, following such an operation’s technical and fiscal burdens, Congressional officials would sustain their political support for an extended civilian mission.

From the standpoint of political feasibility, any military intervention in Syria—whether a safe zone, a no-fly zone, or a humanitarian corridor—would likely not serve as an adequate short-, medium-, or long-term solution to Syria’s present day atrocities. The political cost, strategic impact, and fiscal burden of military intervention in Syria are relevant considerations, insofar as rights-minded policy priorities continue to operate within the constraints of domestic politics. But if, as human rights advocates, we hold ourselves to a higher moral standard, political feasibility is a secondary consideration. Irrespective of an operation’s myriad costs, would a military intervention effectively, plausibly, and sustainably fulfill a civilian protection mandate?

A speculative survey of projected opportunities for military action suggests that, in contrast to statements by legislative officials, Syrian oppositionists, and public advocates, military intervention—of any form—would do little to stem the tide of Assad’s atrocities; in a worst-case scenario, an international military operation could aggravate the conflict, escalating Assad’s use of force against civilians. Operational, topographical, and strategic limits abound. From an operational perspective, neither a safe zone, nor a humanitarian corridor, nor a no-fly zone can provide sufficient protection to civilian populations to counterbalance the risk of retaliatory escalation by the Assad regime, which has used excessive force in response to perceived existential threats. The Syrian government’s chemical and biological weapons arsenal is well-established, but neither the United States nor its multilateral partners have the technical capacity, on-the-ground intelligence, or force capability to prevent their use. Topographically speaking, the FSA’s insurgency primarily operates in urban terrain, and densely-populated cities like Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs are the focal centers of the regime’s crackdown. Air strikes, despite vast improvements in targeting technology, would likely stop short of effectively combating Syrian artillery; ground operations, on the other hand, would probably do more to devastate urban, civilian population centers than protect them.

The strategic standpoint, however, remains the central moral hazard of a military approach. In spite of the SSG’s unified veneer, Syria’s opposition movement remains deeply divided, due to the ethnicized politics of the FSA’s insurgency, a mounting base of foreign fighters, and an unstable interaction between militia leaders and opposition politicians. Now, a unified opposition movement is not necessarily a prerequisite for dictatorial downfall, but a common transitional emphasis on the rule of law, civilian protection, and inclusive governance goes a long way towards ensuring adequate human rights policies under a post-Assad regime. The FSA’s periodic abuses against Alawite civilians have given the Syrian minority due cause for concern. Without an opposition emphasis on broad-based, communal security during an increasingly likely transition, international actors have little guarantee that a post-Assad government will represent a marked change from its predecessor.

In Syria, all the other “Turning Points” were just imitating

“Turning point” has been used frequently to describe the evolution of Syria’s sixteen-month conflict. The term has come to refer to little more than a large-scale atrocity event, which, in spite of widespread moral outrage, fails to mobilize international action. Earlier this morning, however, the Syrian opposition may have found its turning point and, in doing so, paved a rocky, uncertain path towards the decline of Bashar al-Assad’s twelve-year-old regime.

Earlier today, an opposition bomb attack struck Syria’s national security building in Damascus, killing four top security officials, including Assad’s closest advisers on intelligence, military, and interior affairs. Fighting between Syrian security forces and various opposition factions, including the Free Syrian Army, has emerged in Damascus over the past week, striking at the foundation of Syrian regime stability. Damascus and Aleppo, in northwestern Syria, are generally described as strongholds of the Assad regime, due to the pervasive influence of the two cities’ commercially successful, elite patronage network of Alawite communities, a Shi’ite minority in Syria. As opposition forces have made inroads into Damascus, encouraging defections by prominent political, security, and military officials, Assad’s elite network has begun to retreat into traditional enclaves, attempting to insulate themselves from the regime’s slow, unstable demise.

In past years, particularly during Assad’s father’s brutal, extended 1982 crackdown on opposition forces and civilian populations in Hama, the Syrian regime has confronted existential threats to internal security with significant and indiscriminate force. While there are early indications of a counteroffensive, Syria’s security infrastructure following the Damascus attack is likely in disarray. Last week, before the emergence of an opposition insurgency in Damascus, the conflict appeared to have reached a stalemate; now, the opposition has the momentum, the fear factor, and, therefore, the operational upper-hand. Over the medium-term, the Syrian regime will probably encounter a wave of higher-level defections, which, as events in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia indicated, are the key indicators of regime fractionalization. Over the short-term, though, we will likely see an intensification of the conflict–and, therefore, of mass atrocities–as Christian Alawites attempt to consolidate security amidst chaos.

Many, including the Obama administration, have presented regime change as a necessary precondition for the mitigation of mass atrocities in Syria. Before the recent wave of mid-level defections, there was some indication that, in contrast to popular belief, a negotiated political transition would do the trick. After today’s attack, the regime change/mass atrocities dynamic looks less clear. Given their present momentum, a still-divided opposition movement is unlikely to negotiate a credible resolution to Syria’s crisis, and, in the absence of security guarantees for Assad, his inner circle, and Alawite elites, the regime has few incentives to negotiate. It’s not clear that, at any point in the crisis, military intervention would have prevented the international community from reaching this point; in all likelihood, third-party, external intervention would likely have hastened the militarization of Syria’s conflict. Both the Assad regime and opposition forces have proven capable of waging indiscriminate violence in urban, dense environments, and further militarization would only expand opportunities for mass atrocities.

Speaking frankly, there aren’t very many options left for international influence. If sanctions were effective in driving previous defections, any existing mechanisms for financial, commercial, and economic pressure have probably run their course. The UN Security Council has two days to decide on the future of Kofi Annan’s observer mission, and there are credible indications that the U.S. government is ready to cast it aside. While an extension of the observer mission would not have a direct impact on the evolution of the conflict, the space for international political action would maintain a weak link between the international community and the Assad regime, facilitating continued opportunities for multilateral engagement with the Syrian regime, however small. Asylum may encourage Assad to step aside, but, at this point, his elite network is sufficiently entrenched to undermine the potential effectiveness of the policy approach, its persistent moral dilemmas aside. The International Criminal Court’s crimes-against-humanity indictments may have a limited role to play, however, as an uncomfortably blunt and explicitly political alternative to higher-level defections.

For the time being, the nucleus of mass atrocities in Syria has shifted toward Damascus. Syria’s remaining security forces will do their utmost to ensure the continued stability of the regime’s shrinking enclave, at the extensive cost of human security.

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