The prevention of a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib could serve as a test case for how drones can be put to use for good.

The heavy use of drones in the US 'war on terror' has justifiably sparked immense criticism of drone use in warfare. More importantly, the assumption that drones may even facilitate warfare and provoke actors to incite war has affected the narrative around armed drones. 

However, despite the criticism, armed drones can also become effective tools for humanitarian intervention and to impose peace. It all of coure depends on who uses them and how they are used – as Syria’s Idlib shows.

In the beginning 2020, Idlib was on the verge of the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century. The Russian and Iranian-backed assault on Idlib by the Assad regime forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee from their homes. The catastrophe was almost complete. Turkey as the guarantor of the Idlib de-escalation zone, along with Iran and Russia, deployed its troops to Idlib to stop the further advance of the Assad regime. However, that did not stop the attacks. 

On the contrary, Turkish soldiers themselves became a target. On 27 February, 33 Turkish soldiers lost their lives to an Assad regime air strike. Some suggested that Russia was responsible for the attack, among those was US Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo.

Immediately afterward, Turkey launched Operation Spring Shield and conducted the first comprehensive drone air campaign. The Assad regime suffered heavy losses: Over 3,000 soldiers, 151 tanks, eight helicopters, three drones, three fighter jets (including two Russian-made Sukhoi Su-24s), around 100 armored military vehicles and trucks, eight aerial defense systems, 86 cannons and howitzers, ammunition trucks and dumps, and one headquarters, among other military equipment and facilities.

This devastation opened the way for a new Turkish-Russian summit in Moscow where both sides agreed on a ceasefire in Idlib.

A year later, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote: “For nearly a year now, three million civilians living in Syria's Idlib province have not faced deliberate bombing attacks by Russian and Syrian jets, thanks to pressure that Merkel, Macron, and Erdogan put on Putin to stop. It's essential not to let up.” 

In reality, the ceasefire in Idlib was agreed and remains in place not because of diplomatic pressure by the EU, but because of Turkish drones. The Turkish drone campaign inflicted heavy casualties on the Assad regime and forced Russia to the negotiating table and to agree on the terms of a ceasefire.

The ceasefire's impact is clear. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, at least 325 incidents of attacks on vital civilian facilities occurred in Syria between January and November 2020. At least 263 of them were before the ceasefire in Idlib. The chart shows the Turkish military intervention's dramatic effect – primarily through armed drones. Unlike other states who claimed intervention was not possible due to Russian control over Syrian airspace, Turkey circumvented Russian dominance through its drones.

Critics argue that armed drones reduce the costs of war and may reduce the obstacles preventing war – drones are facilitators of war and force multipliers. Particularly, they argue that frozen conflicts may erupt again due to the advantage provided by armed drones for one side of a conflict. However, this argument is weak.

The costs of war are immense, and no country of the world would engage in war because of the reduction of costs by armed drones. In reality, the reduction of costs may seem high, but they are relatively insignificant. 

Any nation, who would consider war, would not do so because of the money saved thanks to the use of armed drones. Moreover, frozen conflicts are still conflicts. Drones are not escalating these, but are merely changing the balance of power. If the balance of power was changed by the purchase of another weapons system, it would likely produce the same result.

On the other side, from the perspective of humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect, armed drones provide a new opportunity.

For instance, at the beginning of the Syrian civil war the Obama administration hesitated to intervene as the US worried about Assad's air-defense systems. Later onthe deployment of Russian S-400 systems made it almost impossible to engage in any form of humanitarian intervention. 

The fear that fighter jets may be shot down and pilots killed has been an important obstacle hindering the responsibility to protect. Many decision-makers, especially in democracies, fear domestic backlash from any intervention on humanitarian grounds.

In contrast to fighter jets, the use of armed drones does not come with the same risks. This opens the way for limited but effective humanitarian interventions. States can act against rogue states and devastate the killers before they kill thousands of innocent civilians. 

The use of armed drones also limits the air-defense capabilities of criminal regimes. Many systems are not capable of destroying drones before being destroyed by the drones, and others are just too expensive to use against drones.

While armed drones are mostly used in anti-terror operations, they can also serve to prevent war crimes. 

In short, the one-year experience of Operation Peace Spring indicates that armed drones can save lives, but it of course depends on those with their hands on the controls and how they are used. Based on the Turkish experience, the international community needs to discuss the potential role of armed drones in peacekeeping operations or humanitarian interventions.

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