Dan Smith's blog

Syria – myth and argument about non-intervention

Last week an article in the Washington Post stirred what seemed like quite a Twitter buzz, lamenting the effects of “the disastrous nonintervention in Syria“. The article is angry and vivid about the misery and destruction wrought by war in Syria. It blames the war’s continuation largely on the US deciding not to intervene in the war. It is an argument that could become influential so it’s worth examining.

The pain of doing nothing

As the misery in Syria mounts, the pain of standing by and doing nothing only increases. Especially with Russian bombing and Turkish forces in northern Syria reportedly achieving some of those intervenors’ objectives, the sense that it is just wrong of the US and various European states to stand aside can easily grow. In June a group of 51 mid-level US State Department officials publicly criticised the US for not doing more. Also in June, a report from The Century Foundation, “a progressive, nonpartisan think tank”, made the case for robust military intervention in Syria.

The arguments are, of course, contested politically, on grounds of effectiveness, and on the moral foundations of the Just War tradition. But Anne Applebaum‘s argument in the Washington Post is particularly strong, in part because of its refreshing honesty. This is no gung-ho case for an inevitably successful intervention. Instead, Applebaum says,

“Maybe a U.S.-British-French intervention would have ended in disaster. If so, we would today be mourning the consequences. But sometimes it’s important to mourn the consequences of nonintervention too. Three years on, we do know, after all, exactly what nonintervention has produced”.

Three years of not doing nothing

The trouble is that the argument is based on a huge fallacy. The West is not in non-intervention mode in Syria.

A critic of Western policy towards Syria can legitimately argue that the intervention should be carried out differently – that it should be more robust, for example – but to speak and write as if no intervention is occurring at all simply defies the facts.

The decision in 2013

From the outset, Anne Applebaum’s article sets up the August 2013 UK House of Commons vote not to support a missile and bombing campaign against Syria because of the use of nerve gas as the key moment that stymied intervention. As the normally predictable British support for intervention evaporated, President Obama, already reluctant about intervention, likewise wobbled.

It bears recalling that the vote was not against intervention; it was actually a vote to be sure of the evidence about alleged Syrian use of nerve gas, be sure of UN approval and be sure that there was a reasonable exit strategy before intervening. Prime Minister’s Cameron hasty reaction transformed it from a tightly defined argument about the conditions under which to act into opposition to acting.

The interventionist arguments that got the most support at the time were likewise tightly defined. The mainstream preference was action not to overthrow Assad but to deter future use of chemical weapons. My view at the time was that this was nonsense. Intervention for deterrence purposes has a poor track record and the idea of intervening in a civil war without affecting its outcome is eccentric. The strongest arguments in favour of intervention were simply not strong enough. Looking back, many and perhaps most of those who supported strikes against Syria over use of chemical weapons probably did so in order to the first step on a bigger interventionist road.

Expectation – reasonable or otherwise

Here we come to the crux. The honesty of the Applebaum article – “Maybe a U.S.-British-French intervention would have ended in disaster” – is welcome; it is much preferable to Senator John McCain’s confidence that Raqqa could and should be retaken from ISIS by “some few thousand” American troops in alliance with “a number of the Sunni Arab countries, including Turkey” (and there are so many things wrong with that sentence). But that honesty crashes the interventionist argument.

The Just War tradition expresses  criteria for thinking about war that have become more or less common sense values in how we normally think about issues such as military aggression, the authority to intervene and atrocities. Some of the criteria are fundamental moral questions – just cause, right intention, right authority. Others are contingent (last resort) and prudential. Such is the criterion that there should be a reasonable expectation of success. Closely allied with it, the other prudential consideration is that entering and pursuing the war should do more good than harm.

Compared to those two considerations, the idea of using armed force, while realising it might be disastrous, because it is so painful to stand by and watch a tragedy unfold is not a serious argument. It is a glib case for cleansing the national conscience. It is perhaps not as shallow and certainly not as cynical as the argument that the US should ramp up its use of force in Syria because, even if it fails, it will make the point that the US is “back”.

The current half-way house

At present, the US, France and Britain are militarily engaged inside Syria. Their use of force is limited and their objectives seem local and tactical. It is, not surprisingly, beginning to attract considerable criticism that it is shaped as a compromise between the opposing alternatives of doing nothing except to provide humanitarian assistance, on the one hand, and of setting out to defeat ISIS and overthrow Assad, on the other, and then handle everything that comes after the war is “over”.

Through all this, the reality remains that using force is always a serious thing. It kills people. And it does not always solve the problem. It sometimes generates a new and worse problem.

I am confident that missiles strikes and bombing in Syria in 2013 with the limited aim of deterring future use of chemical weapons would have failed. However, it is, to be as frank as Anne Applebaum, unclear to me whether US and Western intervention with a broader strategic intention would fail – or succeed in such a way that its consequences would be a continuing burden of pain and misery for Syrians and many others. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya all give strong grounds for thinking it would. But there is no certainty either way.

In such circumstances, opting not to use force, or at least to limit its use very tightly, is preferable in every way to letting slip the dogs of intervention. And in the meantime every effort has to go into searching for the unlikely prospect and eventual necessity of a political settlement. It is an uncomfortable place to end the argument but it is the only place.