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Eyes over Syria: Using Drones to Monitor Atrocities

Commentary, 27 August 2013
Aerospace, Middle East and North Africa
The Syrian government has rejected 'utterly and completely' US claims that there was 'undeniable' proof of a regime-initiated chemical attack last week. To determine the truth, and deter further atrocities, we should deploy unarmed and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's).

The Syrian government has rejected 'utterly and completely' US claims that there was 'undeniable' proof of a regime-initiated chemical attack last week. To determine the truth, and deter further atrocities, we should deploy unarmed and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's).

By Dr. David Whetham and  Dr. Bradley J Strawser for

Predator XP UAV

The international community remains deadlocked over what to do about the atrocities in Syria. We believe that there is one option that has thus far gone unconsidered: deploying flying cameras as observation tools. It is the chance of being caught rather than merely the severity of the punishment that affects criminal behaviour, but there is simply no accountability in Syria at present, and the perpetrators of war crimes on every side in Syria know this. Unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - 'flying cameras' - could be deployed under a relatively uncontroversial UN Resolution over Syria in a matter of hours to stand witness and record events on the ground as they happen.  

What would be the potential problems with such a course of action? The hurdles can be grouped together into political, legal, and military practicalities. The biggest of these hurdles by far would be the political one - if the issue of political will can be addressed, the other potential problems can all be resolved.

Could the UN Security Council agree on providing a flying observer mission over Syria? The deployment of a non-invasive UN 'observer team' in the skies over Syria would not be aimed at any specific group or actor. If the Russians feel that this would be used against their friends in Damascus, they would be free to offer their own capabilities. Indeed, we encourage as many unarmed flying cameras as possible be deployed over Syria while the conflict rages - people can and should be held accountable, regardless of the side they fight on. All footage showing violations of human rights should be passed to the International Criminal Court for individuals to be identified, prosecution cases to be built, and indictments handed out where possible. If the latter is too difficult now, the archive data would make the future identification and eventual prosecution of individuals far easier.

Would such a violation of Syrian sovereignty be unacceptable on legal grounds? Not necessarily. The government in Damascus may be persuaded that it is in its interests to permit such a mission under a Chapter Six Peacekeeping Resolution. Such an even-handed approach as set out above would keep the mission true to the core ideas of the United Nations.

Military Practicalities

However, if Damascus cannot be persuaded by their remaining friends that this would be in their own interests, precisely because the observation would be impartial and very limited in the sense that it is a purely an unarmed observation presence, it should be possible to get sufficient unanimity in the Security Council to secure a Resolution under Chapter Seven. This relatively minor infringement of Syria's airspace could be well worth the potential humanitarian gains.

What about the military practicalities? The risk of losing platforms is high. Unmanned flying cameras would be vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, air-to-air systems, and ground based missiles. However, precisely because these platforms would be unmanned, most of the problems associated with a military deployment are removed. One of the objections to having observation teams on the ground is that their safety cannot be secured - they are simply at too much risk. However, an unmanned aerial camera does not need protecting in the same way. It is possible to deploy systems with increased survivability (from stealth characteristics, ultra-high flight paths through to anti-missile protection systems). An alternative path (or indeed, parallel one) is to deploy cheap systems with little protection apart from their very numbers.

When viewed in terms of military budgets, while there are extremely expensive unmanned platforms that rival their manned alternatives for cost and sophistication, unmanned platforms can potentially be extremely cheap, almost disposable. Moreover, if there is an area in which the flying cameras are suffering a high attrition rate, this is precisely where more cameras should be sent for this is a place that people on the ground do not wish to have scrutinised. Thus, trying to counter the aerial observers may well backfire on the perpetrators of war crimes. The balance between what capabilities were deployed would be up to the international community and those who were willing to offer their capabilities (this could be backed with footage from spy satellites provided by those states with this option at their disposal).

Chances of Success

Would it work? We have seen the difficulty of getting UN observers to the site of recent chemical attacks on civilians. Flying cameras could never be considered as a like-for-like substitute for people on the ground, but they could be there straight away (or even be potentially watching such an attack being launched) making it possible to catch the perpetrators in the act. We know that the chance of being caught affects behaviour. If a person or group is in a consequence-free environment, they are likely to act in a different way than if there is a chance of being seen and punished for their crimes.

Bringing people to account for their actions will not be easy, but at the moment, the international community is doing nothing in a situation that is spiraling further and further out of control. We believe simply knowing that actions might be observed and recorded by these eyes in the sky could potentially curb and restrain the present human rights atrocities. That potential chance is more than enough to justify trying this low-cost, non-invasive option on behalf of an international community that must not simply wring its hands and say 'nothing can be done'.

One could object that attackers would just adopt different tactics. It is possible that the chance of being watched could drive the abuse of civilians under cover, but this would at least curtail some action and would create patterns of behaviour that might still be enough to raise questions. There is the very real problem of people dressing up in each others' uniforms or using stolen military equipment to cast blame on innocent parties, but this is not a problem unique to aerial surveillance but rather an issue for any kind of observation or verification mission. However, the advantage an aerial platform has is that it can observe over a long period of time. Perpetrators would know that they have the chance of being observed after the fact as well, making it harder to just dump uniforms and disappear. 

Such an approach could reap benefits in other war-torn places around the globe. Indeed, a deployment of neutral, unarmed, observation drones could be one of the first responses taken by the international community as soon as reports of war crimes surface from any quarter. In this case, we may not be able, nor do we believe it would be wise, to militarily intervene and directly put a stop to the horrors in Syria. In fact, we may regrettably be able to do very little in the immediate face of the mass humanitarian suffering within Syria due to geopolitical interests, ideological deadlock, and pragmatic difficulties. But what we could do, right now and at very little cost in treasure and no blood at all, is let the people on the ground know that we are watching. That alone could make a difference in deterring atrocities, on both sides.

 Dr. David Whetham, Senior Lecturer, King's College London at the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College

 Dr. Bradley J Strawser, Assistant Professor of Defense Analysis, US Naval Postgraduate School

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