Drones have been relatively absent from the discourse about military options in Syria. Despite their divisive political and moral trappings, drones have traditionally been lauded as a relatively low-risk, high-precision way for the U.S. to engage in the future of violent global conflict. But their absence as an option in today's conflict in Syria is telling.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, security scholar Audrey Kurth Cronin argues that Washington has aimed to make armed drones a "lynchpin of U.S. power projection" in the 21st century, but the much-lauded futuristic military weapon has failed to live up to expections, failing to serve as useful tools during crises in Libya and Syria. "Armed drones have serious limitations," she writes, "and the situation in Syria lays them bare."
Cronin points out a compelling point about the absence of drones in today's debate about military options in Syria. For all of the discussion of Tomahawk cruise missiles as a weapon of choice to target Assad's key assets in the coming days in response to chemical weapons use, drones are rarely mentioned as an option. The cruise missiles, instead, have smaller engines and offer a much more accurate military tool, according to military strategists.
The practical limits to the drone option are somewhat obvious. In Syria, the U.S. does not have complete and unobstructed access to Syrian airspace. Nor does the U.S. have a well-defined target on the ground that air strikes could easily seek out from above. In Syria, using drones to target chemical weapons stockpiles risks releasing the chemical agents in the air. From their remote distance, it can be difficult to discern their effectiveness in complex target areas and foresee various unintended results of drone strikes from afar.
But, unfortunately, these challenges are all too common in the tragedy of modern warfare. Drones have been used, for example, to perform attempted surgicial strikes on targets in Somalia, Mali, and Afghanistan, where the U.S. has gained some control of airspace, or in Yemen and Pakistan, where the U.S. has gained some degree of formal permission from host governments. But even then, the challenges to identifying targets and successfully eliminating them without sacrificial human or political costs have been painfully brought to bear in almost every case.
The sheer moral pitfalls drone of use present yet another challenge: a reliance on the drone is a poor solution to the problems of modern warfare. Their sterile, detached approach to conflict is considered a particularly dangerous tool to put to use in the Middle East, where the drone is a despised creation of Western military might.
The evidence that self-defeating anti-Americanism can be fueled by drone tactics is compelling. In Yemen, drones have shaped U.S. efforts to eliminate Al-Qaeda's presence in the country to some chagrin. A Yemeni lawyer's famous tweet last year simply said: "Dear Obama, when a U.S. drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with Al-Qaeda." In 2009, the terrorist organization reportedly had only a few hundred members and controlled no territory; today it has, along with Ansar al-Sharia, significant territory and at least 1,000 members despite millions of dollars invested in targeted drone strikes against the organization's presence.
Of course, these challenges are not unique to drone warfare alone. The tactical, moral, and political challenges are similar to those that arise when considering a range of risk-averse military strategies to affect change in Syria and beyond. Drone technology could also develop to improve accuracy and lower risks with time. But it is useful to take a step back and consider the absence of the drone in today's debate about Syria. This helps bring to light how disastrous an over-reliance on the "futuristic" new tool in military strategy could be for realistically addressing modern conflict on the ground.
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