Pentagon Releases New Military Doctrine For Responding To Mass Killings

Syrians gather at a mass burial for victims of an artillery barrage (Credit: Reuters)

As the international community continues to struggle with how to respond to the ongoing violence in Syria, the Pentagon has developed a new doctrine on how to use military force in preventing and ending mass atrocities.

In August 2012, the Department of Defense updated its doctrine on “Peace Operations,” dictating the recommended procedures for participating in multilateral peacekeeping or peace-enforcing efforts. While the doctrine’s update was completed last year, it remained completely hidden from the public, until the Federation of American Scientists obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request. In revising Joint Publication 3-07.3, the Pentagon opted to create a new appendix on what they refer to as “Mass Atrocity Response Operations” (MARO).

Going beyond the normal scale of fighting seen in civil wars and other conflicts, mass atrocities according to DOD consist of “widespread and often systematic acts of violence against civilians by state or non-state armed groups, including killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, or deliberately inflicting conditions of life that cause serious bodily or mental harm.”

The document stresses that the military can and should incorporate MARO considerations into its planning and operations whenever appropriate. To facilitate this, the doctrine lists a variety of considerations military planners and strategists should keep in mind when developing operations, including the requirement for a high degree of situational understanding — knowing precisely who the actors are in the conflict, how they interact, and what other forces are at play — and designing a strategic communications plan to both explain the situation and influence the perpetrators.

It also determines five phases that MARO goes through and provides planners with seven approaches that can be mixed and matched in ending atrocities:

1. Area Security — secure a large area with sufficient force deployed in unit sectors.

2. Shape-Clear-Hold-Build — systematically secure limited areas and expand when able.

3. Separation — establish a DMZ or similar buffer zone between perpetrators and victims.

4. Safe Areas — secure concentrations of vulnerable populations such as IDP camps.

5. Partner Enabling — provide advisors, equipment, or specialized support such as deployment or airpower to coalition partners, host nation, or victim groups.

6. Containment — influence perpetrator behavior with strikes, blockades, or no-fly zones.

7. Defeat Perpetrators — attack and defeat perpetrator leadership and/or capabilities.

Joint Publication 3-07.3 makes clear that the decision on whether a situation should be categorized as “an actual or potential” mass atrocity is one that should be left up to national level leadership. It also includes several warnings about the ways in which any military intervention, even when conducted for the best of reasons, can have unpredictable second- and third-order effects.

“MARO may create moral dilemmas for the PO [Peace Operations] force, including whether potential courses of action to halt a mass atrocity that might assist a perpetrator’s long-term aims,” it warns. Even something as basic as protecting civilians could prove to be detrimental, as if “seen to be defending civilians who are linked to only one of the parties, without adjusting to ensure protection for all civilians, both victims and perpetrators will perceive the PO force as anything but impartial.”

The timing of the release means it comes just as the international community prepares to meet once again in Geneva to determine a course of action in ending the civil war in Syria. So far, the conflict has cost the lives of at least 80,000 Syrians, with the vast majority dead at the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces.

Advocates within the United States for military involvement in Syria — including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) — have called for several of the steps the doctrine lays out as possible ways to end the violence. Of particular interest is the use of approaches labeled as “Containment” in the publication including imposing a No-Fly Zone, an action advocates say would prevent Assad from using air power to kill more civilians. While the Obama administration has not made any decision to utilize force in Syria, President Obama has ordered the Pentagon to up its planning efforts in recent weeks.

The document’s release also comes as two of the Obama administration’s strongest advocates for preventing mass atrocities, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, find themselves back in the news. Rice has been tapped to become Obama’s new National Security Advisor beginning in July, while Power has been nominated to replace her as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Rice was one of the leading voices in pushing for the 2011 intervention in Libya to prevent Col. Moamar Qaddafi from committing mass killings of civilians in Benghazi. Power literally wrote the book on genocide prevention, laying out a number of cases in which the United States refused to respond to atrocities. Power also currently sits on the administration’s Atrocities Prevention Board, designed to coordinate the government’s response to such heinous acts.