Save Homs with Humanitarian Airdrops by Drones

The Baath regime in Syria killed another 60 persons on Tuesday. About 30 were killed by troops in restive Idlib province. The Syrian military also continued to pound Homs on Tuesday, using heavy artillery against the civilian district of Baba Amr and and killing another 30 there. The assault also set the stage for a humanitarian catastrophe as residents run out of water, food and medicine.

The Red Cross is calling for a daily brief ceasefire so that it can deliver humanitarian aid. The Baath regime is highly unlikely to grant the request. The Red Cross cannot send a convoy in without government permission because of the danger that it will be targeted.

The Baath army has had difficulty advancing into Baba Amr because it is being defended by well armed defectors from the Syrian army who are putting up the kind of fight in Homs that the Libyan youth revolutionaries put up in Misrata when that was besieged by the forces of Col. Muammar Qaddafi last spring and summer.

For regime military forces to call a ceasefire would, while in accordance with the laws of war when substantial civilian deaths are imminent, nevertheless allow the Syrian defectors to regroup. That development would make it even harder for government forces to advance after the ceasefire had ended. One suspects, as well, that the Baath military officers would shed no tears over civilians starving in the rebellious city of Homs.

The heartbreaking images that came out of Homs via the intrepid Arwa Damon of CNN and today via Marie Colvin have spurred calls for the Syrian resistance to be armed.

[Oh no! Marie Colvin has been kiilled in the shelling of Homs! She was one of the greats.]

Senator John McCain has urged that some third party, not the US, send arms. The Obama administration was initially cool to this idea, especially since US and Iraqi intelligence says that foreign Sunni radicals (“al-Qaeda”) based in Mosul in Iraq have now departed in some numbers for Syria. These guerrillas are likely responsible for the suicide bombing in Aleppo and the assassination there today of a government official.

But on Tuesday administration officials changed their tune and began allowing for the possibility of arming the Syrian Free Army defectors.

Regular readers know that I think sending a lot of arms into Syria is a very bad idea.

But given the humanitarian crisis in the besieged cities and towns, the international community’s responsibility to protect does require some action. I’d like to see airdrops of water, food and medicine on Homs and other encircled urban areas if the government won’t pause the fighting or allow a humanitarian corridor. The problem is that the Syrian regime has a lot of anti-aircraft batteries, and might well shoot down the planes being used for the drop. That development in turn might lead to hostilities, which would be very undesirable, and which Russia and China are pledged to block.

Well, I hate those US drones when used for purposes of warfare. But here is a Gandhian use for them. Let us defy the Syrian regime’s misuse of its sovereignty to murder its own citizens by using drones for supply airdrops. The US military was thinking already in 2009 of using drones to resupply troops in Afghanistan, and surely they have made progress since then. They could be launched from Incirlik Air Force base in Turkey, and I think Turkey might agree to this limited form of intervention. If the Syrian military shot down any humanitarian drones, no one would interpret that as an act of war requiring retaliation. So the tactic does not carry with it any danger of escalation into hostilities.

Readers in the military would know better how plausible this plan might be.

The USG Open Source Center translated the following interview in al-Sharq al-Awsat with a member of the Homs resistance (many Syrians pronounce it Hims):

“Report on Syrian Regime Forces Continued Bombardment, Siege of Hims
Report by Yusuf Diyab in Beirut: Hims Is Shelled by Rocket Launchers, and Its People Were Fasting Yesterday To Pray for Victory. An Activist to Al-Sharq al-Awsat: The Number of Victims Among the Free Army Is slight Compared With the Civilian Victims
Al-Sharq al-Awsat Online
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Document Type: OSC Translated Text…

The city of Hims Continues to be on top of the scene of the

Syrian events due to the tightening of the military siege on it from all directions, the targeting of its suburbs and areas with violent bombardment by rocket launchers and mortar shells and the rising number of victims.

Abu-Ali Hasan, an activist in the Hims Coordination Committee, said that “the humanitarian situation in the city is very tragic but the morale of the people is high in spite of the difficult circumstances in which they are living at this stage.” He told Al-Sharq al-Awsat: “In spite of the siege, destruction, and tragedies, the people refuse describing their city as a stricken one because it is a city of dignity, sacrifice, and pride and the people are no longer wagering on the Syrian National Council, the Arab League, or the whole world but they are wagering on their sons, the revolutionaries who are the members of the Free Army, and all the people of Hims are fasting today (yesterday) to pray for victory for Almighty God.”

He said that “all the areas of Hims today (yesterday) are facing violent bombardment by rockets and mortar fire from the Air Defense College south of Hims and from the Military Academy in the area of Al-Wa’ar, west of the city,” pointing out that “what is disturbing the Free Army is the long range bombardment that targets the houses and kills innocent children and civilians, while the number of the Free Army’s martyrs is tiny compared with the civilian martyrs.”

Answering a question on what is said about the preparations of the Syrian Army to storm Baba Amr and wipe out the armed manifestations there, he said that “the army of (Syrian President Bashar) al-Asad is more coward than to dare to storm Baba Amr or any area in Hims.” He added: “They can enter a square for minutes, but they quickly withdraw in face of the strikes by the soldiers of the Free Army who go out of their defenses.”

On how do the revolutionaries in Hims get weapons and ammunition in spite of the tight siege imposed on the city, he said that “we get weapons from some traders or the dissident soldiers or from the spoils of war that the Free Army gets as a results of its operations against the regular army.”

He pointed out that “the revolutionaries in Hims are not satisfied with the performance of the National Council, which has not offered anything to the city in spite of the massacres and the destruction the city is facing and in spite of the ordeal the people are experiencing.”

He added: “We have received information, which we are going to verify, that says that prominent figures in the National Council do not want to topple the regime but want to share power with it. If this information is correct, then we will withdraw our confidence in it and will call for its collapse and to form a new national council that include ranking officers of the Free Army and civilian figures, such as Haytham al-Malih, Bassam Ji’arah, Muhyi-al-Din al-Lazqani, and Shaykh Adnan al-Ar’ur, and many other honorable figures.”

Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council yesterday called for “providing secure passages under international protection to deliver the humanitarian, relief, and medical aid,” considering that “any delay would mean a humanitarian tragedy whose consequences are awful.”

A spokesman for the National Council told Al-Sharq al-Awsat: “The Council has contacted European diplomats and the International Committee of the Red Cross to send urgent assistance to Baba Amr and all stricken areas in Syria, which are on continuous increase to include all the Syrian governorates and cities, and the response of the International Committee of the Red Cross was that it is impossible to go to areas other than those that the Syrian Army allows the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to enter to prevent the targeting of the convoys.”

(Description of Source: London Al-Sharq al-Awsat Online in Arabic — Website of influential London-based pan-Arab Saudi daily; editorial line reflects Saudi official stance….) “

7 Responses

  1. General Martin Dempsey said, ” I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point”. We know that there are religious radicals amongst them, that they are not all united behind the SNC (thank God), and that various outside groups are trying to co-opt the movement. So, whatever is done, let’s not paint “the opposition” as secular,democratic, human-rights-respecting freedom fighters, unless some evidence of that emerges.

    • Which you know would get this humanitarian project instantly get labelled an Isreali plot if we did use Israeli bases.

  2. I kind of doubt that our Drone Fleet begins to have the simple payload capacity to deliver enough edibles and drinkables and medical supplies and blankets and all that “humanitarian” stuff to Homs or anywhere else. See link to en.wikipedia.org, which can carry MAYBE 1,000 lbs of stuff that hangs on pylons. (A nice side bit of info is the asymptotic curve of procurement of these Really Smart Weapon Platform Systems, at $30 million General Atomic bucks a pop.) Some of the other drones have “bomb bays,” but again there would have to be another whole “procurement” to whip up some “combat-qualified” containers to cram the plasma and Evian and Ensure into.

    The Berlin Airlift had C-46s, C-47s and C-54s, a lot of them, carrying tons of stuff each. To deliver humanitarian aid in quantity, you are needing a bunch of C-117s and C-130s and suchlike. The last gasp of less specialized warships.

    Nice thought, though.

    • A General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper can carry 3,750 pounds, 800 in an internal bay and the rest on four underwing pylons. It is astonishing how large these aircraft have become: this drone is the size of a 1940 dive bomber, minus its human crew and their accommodations. Fifty seven Reapers have been built; they are operated by the US Air Force, US Customs and Border Protection, the RAF, and the Aeronautica Militare.

      The airlift of 1948–1949 had to supply Berlin, a city of 2 million, with 1,534 tons of food and 3,475 tons of coal and gasoline daily. After the first month, the C-47 and Avro York transports were replaced by a fleet of 225 C-54 Skymasters which delivered 5 thousand tons daily. The C-54 could carry 32,500 pounds of cargo. It was a robust four motor aircraft I remember with some fondness, having flown on its civilian version the DC-4 as a child.

      Homs, which had a population of 823,000 in 2008, requires 631 tons of food and 1,430 tons of coal and gasoline daily. A Berlin-style airlift could theoretically be accomplished by a fleet 850 or 900 Reaper drones. Since only 57 of these aircraft have been built, it is safe to say that the siege of Homs cannot be relieved by a drone airlift.

      All of this ignores the fact that in 1948 Berlin, while under blockade, was not a war zone. Nevertheless, these numbers have helped me to grasp the magnitude of today’s humanitarian crisis.

  3. Where are Syrian Americans? What are their numbers? WEhy are they not demonstrating before the Russian Embassy?

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