Syria and beyond: data demands and intervention policy

The recent debate over military action in Syria – and the upcoming Commons Defence Committee’s Inquiry on UK intervention strategy - shows how data and information in conflict is changing the imperatives of decision-making. 

Jacob Beswick
17 October 2013

In the August 29th parliamentary debate over whether the UK would support military strikes following the use of chemical weapons in Syria, there was an obvious lack of clarity with regard to the proposed intervention’s strategic objective: was the purpose to undermine the Assad regime’s capability to deploy chemical weapons; was it meant to punish him for using these weapons; was it meant to protect civilians (narrowly from such weapons or generally from the conflict parties and in accordance with their rights as per international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights law); or some mix?

Whatever the case, over the course of the debate, MPs and the Prime Minister identified a range of factors that influenced decision-making around the proposal. One such key concept upon which any decision would be contingent will be discussed here: information. Some found available information adequate to support Cameron’s proposal, while others found it lacking. In Ed Miliband’s words, Parliament required “further evidence” – beyond what was provided by the Joint Intelligence Committee – to be convinced that chemical weapons were used and that Assad’s forces were responsible for the attack.

At the time, the perceived lack of credible and representative data about the August 21st attack – including such basic details as how it was carried out and by whom – compelled uncertainty, and in the wake of the Blair government’s inaccurate (or fallacious) case for war in Iraq, nurtured a hunger for verifiable data that many thought would be in part sated by the findings of the UN investigation team’s report on the attack.

As former foreign secretary Jack Straw explained, “one of the consequences of the intelligence failure on Iraq has been to raise the bar that we have to get over when the question of military action arises.” Raising the bar, however, should be met with efforts towards articulating its height, essentially allowing those gathering and producing the evidence to know how high to jump.

Data, data everywhere

Because of its ambiguous strategic objective, it is possible to take away from the debate that the purpose of the proposed intervention was to protect civilians. According to Prime Minister David Cameron, an attack was meant “solely…to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring [the] use of chemical weapons.” Data drove Cameron’s argument: “We have thousands of social media reports and at least 95 different videos – horrific videos – documenting the evidence…I believe that anyone in this Chamber who has not seen these videos should force themselves to watch them.”

This objective, coupled with the PM’s utilisation of social-media-supported data, is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, if information (evidence) drives political will and shapes policymaking, then why don’t standards for evaluating and gathering such information exist as publicly available guidelines? And secondly, in the context of Syria, given the wide availability of data about civilian harm, why has political action been limited to addressing a single incident where chemical weapons were used on a massive scale?

Guidelines or standards regarding the gathering and producing of evidence and information are sensible and should be considered by the Defence Committee in their review of the UK’s intervention strategy. Standardising which points of information are necessary and sufficient for political action, as well as how to engage with data produced through social media outlets or NGOs, might prove valuable.

An example where standards may prove useful is the information available from various non-governmental sources. Data on deaths caused over the course of the Syrian conflict have been made available due to the work of NGOs and news agencies operating both within and outside of the conflict zone. Organisations like the Syrian Center Statistics and Research, Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, Syrian Network for Human Rights, Syrian Shuhada, Syria Tracker and the Violations Documentation Center have each collected information on conflict casualties since 2011. Many of the above websites provide detailed data about individuals killed and the incidents in which they died when the information is available.

These organisations utilise various methodologies to produce systematic records of deaths and incidents. While imperfect –due to access constraints, various limitations associated with conflict environments and potential biases– their data have been used by the Office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) to produce estimated casualty tallies. Tallies, however, are limited in that they fail to provide the type of substantive information surrounding occurrences of violence offered through detailed accounts – something implied as necessary by UK policymakers and that is often made available by the aforementioned organisations. This, in turn, offers opportunity for a lesson learned: know what you need and learn how you might get it from entities producing data.

Information and action 

Within a conflict where conventional weapons regularly kill civilians, and where deaths are clearly or arguably in breach of IHL, selecting a particularly heinous incident in which civilians were killed with chemical weapons to inform military engagement aiming to protect civilians is counterintuitive. As Micah Zenko explains, “the types of interventions that proponents have endorsed for Syria…have almost nothing to do with how Syrian non-combatants are actually being killed.”

Where civilian protection is a priority, or where the accountability of conflict parties is at stake, understanding how civilians are targeted and killed – and who is doing the killing - is essential in every incident, and not only extraordinary ones. This might be considered another lesson for the Defence Committee: understand the implications of informing intervention affected by various forms of selection bias and how this might differ from action predicated on a thorough understanding of the conflict’s impacts on civilians.

Acting on what is known

 That information matters for decision-making regarding military intervention is reassuring; it means, in theory, that parties act responsibly insofar as they address a clearly understood threat and a responsible party. Where data is substantive, descriptive, and systematic, and where there is a high degree of confidence in such data or at least a clear understanding of its limitations, then action – whether military or diplomatic – can be more focused and its political and operational risk reduced.

Putting theory into practice is another matter. To this end, there are some measures that may facilitate the transition:

 - In their quest for data, UK policymakers should consider the aforementioned sources of information on the Syrian conflict (and other such sources where appropriate) when making determinations, and they should study the data in order to understand it and its limitations;

 - Civil servants and MPs alike should seek insight into the reasons why the OHCHR ­– which has a high standard of proof itself – found the data produced by these organisations acceptable for its purposes and stood by it publicly; and

 - MPs should identify what implications Straw’s “raised bar” might have in terms of data requirements. Making this comprehensible to data providers might facilitate a ‘meeting of the minds.’

Ultimately, in their deliberations over whether to intervene in Syria, parliamentarians unwittingly displayed a clear need for systematic and thorough information on the incident in Ghouta. However, their demand for information requires a concomitant effort on their side. They themselves need to acquire a better understanding of their information requirements and articulate this to data collectors – and where possible, support efforts to facilitate its collection. 

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