Why Striking Certain War-Sustaining Targets Can Save Lives

Over on the Yale Journal of International Law (YJIL) online Forum I have a short post (“Understanding War-Sustaining Targeting: A Rejoinder to Iulia Padeanu”) in which I provide an opposing view to a YJIL essay “Accepting that War-Sustaining Objects are ‘Legitimate Targets’ under IHL is a Terrible Idea” by Ms. Iulia Padeanu.  To my way of thinking, it would be wrong to not use means proven to effectively weaken a barbaric enemy while also being more protective of civilians than the alternatives.

I don’t endorse striking any and all possible targets that might be thought of as “war-sustaining” in some way, but only those where the linkage to actual battlefield effects is not speculative or remote, but real and demonstrable.  This is not about World War II-style bombing of the entire economic infrastructure of an adversary, but only that part which is distinctly facilitating its fighting ability, and not other activities essential to civilians.

As you might imagine this controversial topic is focused on the current practice of the coalition opposing the Islamic Sates in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) striking ISIS oil facilities and cash hoards that are sustaining their ability on the battlefield.  (The sale of oil is reportedly now the main source of Islamic States revenue.)

As I explain in my post, there are  “open source” reports that as much as two-thirds of ISIS’s “caliphate’s” budget goes for weapons and the pay of fighters.  Moreover, there is other evidence that when the pay stops or is cut, ISIS fighters leave the field, or don’t come in the first place.

In other words, the legitimacy of a “war-sustaining” target can be very fact-specific.  But as to ISIS, the fact clearly favor the propriety of the particular wars-sustaining targets the coalition has been striking.

Furthermore, rooting out ISIS fighters from complex urban environment where they make proliferate use of human shields unquestionably puts civilians at very great risk.  Yet very few civilians have been reported killed in the attacks on ISIS cash hordes or oil facilities.  In short, since the protection of civilians is one of the main underlying purposes of the law of armed conflict, and if we can remove ISIS fighters from the battlefield by affecting the finances, it seems to me we ought to try.

But as we say on Lawfire, check the facts and the law and make your own decision!

PS: A special shout-out to YJIL editors Libby Marsh and Mitzi Steiner for not only doing a superquick (yet superb) edit to my post (and remaining mistakes are mine alone), but also for being so welcoming to an alternative view.

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