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Monday, 20 May 2024
From Tokyo to Idlib
James Denselow

Writer, Middle East Analyst

Seventy-five years ago bombs dropped from 279 Boeing B-29 Superfortresses burned out much of eastern Tokyo. More than 90,000 Japanese, mostly civilians,

were killed and one million left homeless, making it the single most destructive air attack of World War II. Tokyo to Idlib

A month before Tokyo suffered its fate the German city of Dresden endured a similar firebombing that killed up to 40,000 Germans.

Both attacks remain debated as to both their morality and efficacy despite occurring during what was considered a global ‘total war’. However, decades on questions around the strategic, tactical and legal aspects of the use of AirPower have again come to the fore during the nine years of conflict in Syria.

The conflict has seen virtually all of the modern superpowers involved at one stage or another and the Syrian people have experienced the full panoply of modern weaponry deployed against them.

Ever since the 1990/1991 Gulf War we’ve grown used to the concept of ‘precision’ weaponry. Back then clips of ‘smart’ guided missiles finding their way down the chimneys of enemy targets was a stark contrast to the mass effect of the carpet bombing that Tokyo endured.

Today even more nominally ‘precise’ bombs have been accentuated by the rise and rise of the use of ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’ (UAVs) who are able to loiter around targets for longer and theoretically be more judicious around mitigating for civilian harm.

However, whilst weapons may be more accurate, their use in densely populated urban environments - where increasingly conflicts are happening - is devastating.

 Idlib and now Idlib are the Syrian cities all bearing the scars of high explosives. The numbers of hospitals and schools that have been hit make it hard to refute the suggestions that they’ve been directly targeted.

The British diplomatic mission in New York has condemned the tactics used in Idlib, arguing that “International law does not permit you to attack the 99 percent to handle one percent”.

Often this is the precise dilemma of fighting against well dug in groups like ISIS who are more than happy to hide behind civilians to try and stay the hand of their enemy.

Yet evidence from northwest Syria suggests that the area is being used almost like a laboratory for a smorgasbord of weapons. Cluster bombs, chemical weapons, crude barrel bombs and more high tech missiles containing flechettes have all made an appearance.

Indeed the laws of war and the protections given to civilians around distinction, proportionality and military necessity all appear to have steadily hemorrhaged as the conflict has become more brutalised.

This will and is having consequences far beyond Syria’s borders. If it is acceptable in modern warfare to destroy cities in order to eliminate the non state groups hiding within them, then it is like a chemotherapy killing the patient as well as the cancer. Tokyo to Idlib

So what can be done? Firstly there needs to be vastly improved accountability for attacks that breach the laws of war. If hospitals can be targeted with impunity then don’t be surprised if the trend continues to worsen. A politician, commander or pilot carrying out such an attack must have the spectre of recriminations behind them to make them think twice before carrying out such wonton destruction.

Accountability needs to be complemented by the creation, manufacture and training given to militaries around using weapons that don’t have wide area explosive harm. Some armies are already deploying non-explosive warheads and utilising high accuracy without the same collateral that is being increasingly seen.

What’s more contested is what to do about non state actors who vary enormously in their respect to international law and codes of conduct. The ICRC have suggested developing curricula that reflect local customs into ways of protecting civilians but there is still much to do. levant

Until action is taken across these areas of accountability, weapon systems and the issue of non-state actors then the legacy of the Tokyo will remain hugely relevant in the Syria of today. levant