For more than two decades, Kenneth Roth has led the outstanding global team of advocates and monitors at Human Rights Watch. Under his leadership as executive director, HRW has expanded enormously both in reach – now operating in more than 80 countries – and influence. Government officials, journalists, and citizens around the world pay close attention to its reports and statements, documenting war crimes and sometimes even helping to bring war criminals to justice. No doubt that is a source of personal as well as professional satisfaction to Roth, whose father fled Nazi Germany to escape the Holocaust.
The Syria dossier compiled by Roth’s colleagues bulges with evidence against Bashar al-Assad and his regime – historically among the Mideast’s habitual and gross violators of human rights. As Congress considers President Obama’s plan to punish Assad with missile strikes for allegedly using chemical weapons against civilians, our editor-in-chief Joe Conason spoke with Ken Roth about the Syrian crisis.
Joe Conason: What is your view of the debate over the president’s request for authorization to use military force in Syria?
Kenneth Roth: Human Rights Watch has not taken a position for or against a military response to the Syrian chemical attack. Our principal concern is ensuring that whatever response takes place, including a very possible military response, be done in a way that maximizes the capacity to protect civilians, not just from chemical weapons, but also from the conventional weapons that have been responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths to date.
Conason: How would the United States best achieve that end if it does go forward with a military campaign?
Roth: If there is a military attack, our concern is that it be done in a way that both deters further use of chemical weapons and also somehow degrades Assad’s capacity to continue to commit mass atrocities against the civilian population, particularly those living in rebel-held areas. So what that would mean is targeting military assets that are of significance to Assad, [which] would have a deterrent value to him to see them destroyed, but ideally, also, some of the tools that are being used to target civilians and indiscriminately fire upon civilians. Something like targeting the airplanes, the helicopters, the Scud missiles of the Assad regime would serve both of those purposes. These are among the tools that he uses to indiscriminately kill civilians. They also are significant military assets, and, therefore, would be felt as a deterrent if they were destroyed — you know, unlike various Bill Clinton-like pinprick attacks that you could see Assad sloughing off, and he’d be dancing in the streets saying he survived this attack without any significant damage to his military capacity.
Conason: Some people have suggested a no-fly zone as an alternative U.S. policy in Syria. What’s your view of that?
Roth: Well, first of all, as a factual matter, it’s actually not true that the majority of the civilian casualties are due to air attacks. Most civilian casualties are due to much more intimate forms of warfare, whether it’s just machine gun fire, or heavy weaponry, the sort of shelling or rocket attacks that don’t involve aircraft. So I think we have to recognize that even if Assad’s air capacity were degraded, there’s still lots of ways that he can kill people, and there’s still lots of concern about his killing machine.
As for a no-fly zone, I don’t see that as even being in the cards as a serious option for the Obama administration, for two reasons. It would require a long-term military commitment, and he seems to have no stomach for that. And second, it would require most likely taking out a significant portion of the Syrian air defenses, which, again, would require a larger military campaign than Obama seems to be contemplating. So I think that as people think through military options, they’re assuming the use of cruise missiles, which Obama has talked about, and more recently there’s discussion of possibly some attack aircraft, but still a relatively limited campaign.
Conason: If the United States and other states possibly conduct a military strike against Syria, Ken, how should they prepare for the aftermath of that attack?