Intervening militarily in Syria? Many more questions than answers

Kal Syria The EconomistOnly last week, a US-led military intervention in Syria seemed inevitable. Today, the immediate future looks more uncertain. In a historic debate, the UK Parliament refused to endorse a military action. President Obama referred the matter to Congress. NATO Chief announced that they would not be part of a strike. And the Arab League Secretary General said that a military action outside the UN mandate “is out of the question”.

As of this writing, since the UN research team has not announced its findings, there is no official truth about whether chemical weapons were used in Damascus on 21 August. I think we should first wait for this team to complete their job, although I am personally ready to accept that it happened. MSF treated patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” and Amnesty International has gathered information from survivors of the attack. Nevertheless, the scale of the effects remains unknown. France speaks of 281 deaths, MSF counted 355 and so did the UK Government, while the meticulous US intelligence mysteriously raised the number to 1429 victims. (Toby Helm rightly asks: “Why, if UK relations with Washington were so close, and the UK had known it was facing a crucial parliamentary vote, was Cameron not given access to new, higher casualty figures from US intelligence, cited by Kerry?”). The UN team will not be able (it is not in their mandate either) to determine who used or released the chemical agents, but the attack was directed against areas under control of the opposition forces, which gives us a relevant clue.

Future evidence may prove me wrong, but I believe that the Syrian Government used chemical weapons against its own population, which is clearly prohibited by customary international humanitarian law and constitutes a war crime (Rules 74 and 156 of the ICRC study on Customary International Humanitarian Law). However, when I am confronted by the possibility of a non-UN sponsored military attack in Syria, I ask myself many more questions than I can answer.

Firstly, if Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal, why isn´t he treated as such? The UN Security Council could have brought Assad to the International Criminal Court, as they did with Gaddafi in 2011. Other selective sanctions such as asset freezes against Assad and other key members of the Syrian government and army could have been applied. The Security Council must have also ensured that the independent international commission of inquiry on Syria, established by the UN Human Rights Council, could fulfil its fact-finding task of identifying human rights violations and international crimes in situ.

More than 100,000 people have died in Syria so far. One third of the population has been forced to move: 5 million people are internally displaced within the country and 2 more million are refugees, 97% of them in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. Recently declassified CIA files have confirmed that the US knew but chose to do nothing when Saddam Hussein gassed up to 20,000 people in the Iraq-Iran war in 1988. If the public is supposed to believe that Western leaders’ enragement is truthful, their governments must show a higher level of consistency and coherence. In the words chosen by Gilbert Achcar, “is killing up to fifteen hundred people with chemical weapons more serious a crime than killing over a hundred thousand with ‘conventional’ weapons?” Some (like Rory Stewart MP) would respond that chemical weapons are absolutely banned in international law while conventional weapons are not. On the other hand, though, the action of committing war crimes is equally prohibited by international law, regardless of the conventional nature of the weapons used for such purpose.

This takes us to the next question: What would be the goal of an international military intervention in Syria? Is it to punish Assad? Is it to discourage others from using chemical weapons in the future? Is it to challenge the Russians? Is it to test Iran? Is it to guard Israel from possible regional spilover effects? Is it to protect Washington’s credibility? Is it to distract the European public from their appalling socioeconomic situation? Is it to get back the lost grandeur of the French? The only valid motive could be the protection of civilians, but Western powers have not yet explained how a military intervention would be in the interest of the Syrian people.

In fact, a more fundamental question lies behind the above. What is left of humanitarian intervention and the idea of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) since the Iraq war? Although some tried to frame the 2011 UN-sponsored military action in Libya in R2P terms, as written in this blog back then, “the altruism of the military intervention in Libya is, at minimum, very questionable” (see also here). Neither the American public nor the British seem persuaded enough to go to war. As noted by Peter Beaumont in The Observer last Sunday, “after a decade of pointless, counterproductive wars, the public and politics in the western countries involved are sick of war, dubious of the promises made for humanitarian intervention”. One cannot help being suspicious when the national leaders of the US, the UK and France appear much more devoted than their citizens to their generous and genuine duty to protect civilians in a faraway country.

The last question is nonetheless the most critical one: What is the role of the West in a world increasingly ruled by the Rest? As discussed previously in this blog, for a few years now, the world is witnessing a shift of global power away from Europe and North America. At a time of Western stagnation, new actors (not only the BRICS -Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa-, but also Turkey, Indonesia, Kenya, Qatar, Mexico…) are becoming increasingly relevant in the international stage, particularly at the regional level. This fundamental change in power distribution will inevitably have an impact on economic policy and international relations. For the first time in more than a century, the West doesn´t have the means to impose its will on others. While Bill Clinton and George W. Bush knew that their decision to bomb a distant country would remain more or less diplomatically uncontested, Barack Obama’s world is essentially different and chances are it will not reverse in the foreseeable future.

The prospects of an international armed conflict in Syria pose too many and too important questions, but one thing is for sure: The alternative to a military strike cannot be inaction. The international community cannot keep turning its back to the Syrian people. The world awaits the necessary leadership to unleash a diplomatic offensive in Syria.


Koldo Casla


KAL’s cartoon in The Economist, 31 August 2013


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