By Sean Welsh, researcher in robot ethics at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand
The problems of military invention in Syria are massive. The belligerents are not appetizing. The choice is between supporting the regime (a second generation tyrant), those who made their careers in the regime (recent defectors dissatisfied with the tyrant), al-Qaida aligned Islamic fundamentalists (terrorists), ISIS-aligned Islamic fundamentalists (terrorists) and Kurdish nationalists (separatists who may cause spill over wars with Turkey and Iran if they get a Kurdish nation).
Trump tweeted advice to Obama saying stay out. Yet the price of staying out was an ever-longer refugee queue that strains Europe and Syria’s neighbours. The latest chemical atrocity could not be allowed to stand. Trump blamed Obama for failing to back up the “red line” threat. When the “red line” was crossed on Trump’s watch, he punished the atrocity with a Tomahawk strike. In doing so, he has reminded the world who the superpower is, discredited the “Trump is a pawn of Putin” narrative and moved closer to implementing another of his campaign promises, safe zones in Syria.
The question is how to implement. Semi-autonomous weapons (drones, military robots) could (in theory) be one way to defend safe zones along with enforcing a no fly zone above them. To be sure, the robots would need human telepilots and there would still be a need for human boots on the ground but not always in the high-risk front lines of the zones. Beauchamp and Savulescu (2013) argued for the use of telepiloted weapons in humanitarian operations four years ago. The time has come to implement this idea.
Politically, the mission requires the declaration of demilitarized safe zones. None of the warring factions will be allowed in. To be sure, this is a large challenge. A UN mandate would be desirable but if Russia insists on blocking it to bolster Assad, then a coalition of the willing will have to do. Trump will not act unless those most affected by Syrian refugees pay the costs of the mission. Nothing is for nothing with Donald J. Trump. You want US intervention? Pay the bill. Trump can build a big military wall around safe zones but only if Europe and Syria’s neighbours pay for it. If there is no deal, Trump will walk away and let Syria burn. Deals are Trump’s art form. He owes Syria nothing. Let Europe fix it.
Operationally, the rules of the safe zone would be: 1) no weapons (except for those carried tagged blue helmeted personnel); 2) no belligerents; 3) no unauthorized vehicles.
The safe zones could be centred on airstrips or ports (to facilitate aid supplies). There would be a core zone where refugees and essential medical, sanitation and logistics facilities would be based. The core zone would be populated with unarmed refugees, aid workers and such blue helmeted personnel who would control the military robots (UAVs and UGVs) that enforce the rules of the safe zone. To get in and out of the safe zone would require passing through airport style security to eliminate weapons from the zone.
Surrounding the core zone would be a kill zone where any armed person or military vehicle not carrying a peacekeeping force Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponder would be shot on sight. Surrounding the kill zone would be a warning zone where any armed person or military vehicle not carrying a peacekeeping force IFF transponder would be warned that if they cross the kill zone line they would be shot. These warning zone and kill zone lines would need to be well-advertised by signage and public announcements in the area.
Armed belligerents or unauthorized vehicles crossing the warning line could be intercepted by small UAVs programmed to issue warnings. Those crossing the kill line could in the first instance be subject to shots to disable and if necessary shots to kill. Again low altitude UAVs and fast UGVs could be used. Such UAVs and UGVs could be semi-autonomous with “humans in the loop” to ensure “meaningful human control.”
Technically, many of the required capabilities are advertised features of sentry robot systems such as the DoDAMM Super aEgis II and the Hanwha Techwin SGR-1A that have been in production for years. Existing drones could provide air cover and enforce the military neutrality of the safe zone. Anti-aircraft systems and conventional air power could enforce a no-fly zone to prevent bombings by the Syrian Air Force. Systems such as the Raytheon Counter Rocket Artillery Mortar system could respond to artillery attacks in conjunction with drones. I do not suppose a complete safe zone defending system could be bought “off the shelf” but many of the required components are already available from military vendors and in service.
The question is whether the political will exists. Setting up safe zones in Syria will cause political problems and cost a lot of money. Trump will sell US protection but it has to be paid for. He has been crystal clear on this point.
Reference: Beauchamp, Z. and J. Savulescu (2013). Robot Guardians: Teleoperated Combat Vehicles in Humanitarian Intervention. Killing by Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military. B. J. Strawser. USA, OUP.
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