On my last post, I tried to explain the general principles that underpinned my general support for intervention in foreign policy.
Since then, the House of Commons has voted, somewhat inadvertently, to oppose any route to intervening in Syria. Since Armchair generals like me love nothing more than fighting old, lost battles, I thought I’d try to explain why I still support intervention.1
On an introductory note. I find the public debate on this issue somewhat dizzying. Last night, just before the votes, the position of all three main parties was that they supported intervention in Syria, subject to various levels of checks and conditions.
By this morning, we do not support any such intervention in Syria by the UK, and the UK seems to have no position on whether other nations would be right or wrong to act without us, should the evidence we requested come to light, or whether the UN should now only focus on the humanitarian interventions and calls for peace talks.
This means I simply don’t know what the current British national position on Syria is. So for the ease of my comprehension, I am mentally rewinding the clock about twenty hours, and imagining I am writing a note (a dossier) if you will, outlining the basis on which I support intervention.
In general terms, because the Syrian regime has conducted a repression of a poplar revolt against its authority which has gradually morphed into a multi-faceted civil war. To advance their chances of victory in this war, the Syrian government has, we believe, committed numerous attacks on civilians, and most recently the regime or elements within it have used Chemical weapons on civilians.
So you want regime change to stop this?
There is a difference between what you would like to happen and what can happen.
Yes, speaking personally, I would like regime change in Syria. Who would not? However, after two years of civil war, it is now far from clear how such a result could be achieved without even greater suffering, given the nature of the regime, its international backers, and the balance of forces in the region.
This is why I believe we have already failed in Syria. The consequences of this failure are the hundred thousand dead, the escalation of atrocity, the export of terror across the region, the huge humanitarian crisis.
Given this horrific failure of policy, for which we are all responsible, the challenge now is only how to ameliorate the current tragedy and prevent further spiralling. This is not a particularly noble position, but it represents a minimum aspiration.
But can’t we just have peace talks?
There have been calls for peace talks for as long as the Civil War has been ongoing. The core problem is that there appears to be little desire for such on either side. Far from Jaw-Jaw being better than War-War, we’ve had the war-war, while pretending to jaw-jaw.
The reason for this appears to be that there is no common ground. The core demand of the opponents of the regime is the removal of the government. That is unacceptable to the regime. To insist on talks while giving up that core demand, would in effect involve a recognition of regime legitimacy.
Further, even if the ‘west’ was to demand of the anti-government forces that they reach such an accommodation with the Assad government “in the interests of peace” however much they had to concede, there is no certainty they would obey. They presumably fear elimination, and would be driven into the arms of forces beyond our influence.
OK, I get the moral justification for action, but can such strikes achieve anything?
They will not achieve regime change, or change the balance of forces on the ground, but if our limited aim is the retarding of the regime ability to deploy chemical weapons, then there is evidence that such strikes can indeed work. Past examples of such operations include actions against attacks on facilities in Iraq and Syria itself, and targeted strikes elsewhere. Further, it seems post 1991 attacks on Iraq both retarded chemical weapons development and provided the spur needed to force general compliance.
This is rather difficult, because at the time, few believed that the Iraqi government was co-operating, and indeed they seemed to which to leave the impression they were not, while in fact seeking to avoid provocation that would bring down further attacks. This complexity underlines that even when such strikes ‘work’ we may not know that they have ‘worked’.
All that said, there are no guarantees. We also know that such strikes are uncertain and the accuracy of intelligence that leads to such strikes can be highly contested, such as the attack on Al-Shifa in Sudan. This means a high bar is required for such action. In this case however, there is very little doubt that Syria possesses such weapons, is prepared to use them and subject to the inspectors, seems likely to have done so. This appears to pass that high bar.
But what will such strikes achieve, really?
We want them to achieve two things. First, to degrade the ability of the regime to deploy such weapons. Second to act as a deterrent against future use. We should be absolutely clear that this will not prevent the general slaughter. However, even while the fighting will not stop, reducing the possibility of chemical weapons use represents a real limitation on the regime, and demonstrate a willingness to prevent the most outrageous war crimes. This would be a real, if very limited, restraint.
Further, there is a more general point about the International standards on chemical weapons use. To use a silly example, you don’t jail a mugger because you are certain the mugger will never commit a crime again. You also do so to act as a deterrent to all potential muggers. In this sense, the ‘punishment’ aspects of a strike are not simply empty.
So can we take such action with any prospect of success? There are no guarantees on either, but we do know that merely threatening action has not acted as a deterrent, and it appears (again, subject to inspector confirmation) that chemical weapons use is becoming more obvious over time.
But what about the specifics; how can we know we’ll hit the right targets?
There are few certainties. History suggests we will hit some wrong targets. Further, we can’t know what details we have on Syrian chemical weapon facilities and command and control structures, for the simple reason that revealing likely targets in advance of a strike is obviously counterproductive, unless the target is immobile and cannot be ‘protected’ by civilians.
This is also one of the reasons why there is a sense of ‘rush’. What would a Syrian general do if told that in a fortnight, international forces would launch an attack on their chemical weapons stocks? So advance notice is problematic, and a desire for clarity and consultation actually works against the often paired demand for ‘effectiveness’.
Bluntly, we just have to assume that we have sufficient knowledge of Syrian to degrade their capability as to reveal how we could do so would be counterproductive. Past actions suggest that we are indeed able to track their supply networks and infrastructure, so there is some comfort.
We should not expect though that such action would entirely eliminate such ability. Instead it would retard it and place a clear limit on future deployment.
But what of the repercussions – like Russia, Iran and if Assad is a madman, won’t he escalate, especially if we can’t get rid of all the weapons?
One of the dangers of painting dictators as ‘mad’ is that it implies somehow they are incapable of acting rationally.
For all the Syrian regime is murderous, that does not make it irrational.
For example, the regime has not significantly responded to Israeli attacks on chemical weapons capability, presumably precisely because the strikes were limited and a response would have been escalatory. Further the longer history of Assad, for example in terms of his relationship with other states suggest he is sharply aware of what would cause a ‘wider reaction’ and thus undermine his main aim of preservation.
If this is correct, both the rhetoric of reaction and subsequent absence becomes explicable. By threatening huge reaction, the regime can warn off intervention, preserving as much freedom of movement for internal victory as possible, while if limits are established that would undermine regime preservation it would make internal sense to quietly abide by them.
Since our aim is no longer regime change, but ‘regime limitation’ this is an acceptable outcome.
The same general approach applies to Syria’s backers. While it is clearly in the interest of Russia and Iran to prevent the weakening of the regime, neither is it seriously in their interest to escalate their response to ‘regime limitation’ actions, certainly not in compared to ‘regime change’ options. Again, we’ve seen this pattern many times.
So just as our ‘tough talk’ about regime change is largely empty, so inflated rhetoric about the response is both rational and worthy of scepticism.
Do you have a way out?
This is not a way out of the overall Syrian war, as we’re not in it, for good or ill.
Is it a way out of an escalation of suffering and war crimes? Again, no. There is nothing we will do that would prevent the use of high explosive on civilian targets, for example. If we regard that as unacceptable, we will need to back up our words with more than this.
So in a sense it isn’t a way out, because it’s not even a way in. Strikes of this nature are already a limited engagement, with very limited objectives. In effect, we will be acting to reduce the likelihood of future chemical weapon use, both practically and as a calculation. Since we are not demanding anything more than that, this is the way out.
But really, what if Syria responds irrationally, with further chemical weapons attacks?
I’d say two things:
One, if the regime use chemical weapons before and use them after an attack, there’s no ‘escalation’. The mission has just failed in its deterrent effect. We can decide then that we don’t care, and a warning shot is all we’ll do. Again, we have failed so comprehensively so far that contemplating the possibility of more failure shouldn’t prevent any action.
Second, consider the reverse. If we don’t act in the face of likely chemical weapons use, then we are making clear there are no consequences for such use. The logic from that is pretty remorseless. So in the two scenarios of a regime that has used chemical weapons, only one contains even a possibility of prevention. This is what I mean when I say inaction also has consequences.
But surely we need to be sure?
As much as possible, Yes. That’s why, despite the need for secrecy, it’s important that we know that Chemical weapons were definitely used. It’s also important that we are as clear as possible as to the command chain and culpability.
However, this cannot be a total barrier. The reason for this is that it would then become possible for any regime to use Chemical weapons or commit war crimes simply by creating enough uncertainty about events to prevent total certainty. We have to accept some uncertainty, unfortunately.
Isn’t this really just a matter for the UN?
Sadly, it can’t be. The UN both accepts the valid need for ‘responsibility to protect’ and is constructed in such a way that can prevent this. If you accept entirely the power of the UN security council to decide such matters, you effectively grant the P5 a veto on any humanitarian intervention. It is possible to take this position, but it would involve a great deal of looking the other way and doing nothing. Nor is this solely a western problem. To go back in time, the UN would certainly not have approved the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam, due to US and UK opposition.
However, we do have a duty to explain to the UN why we act as we do, not just because of the ‘International community’ which is nonsense, but because only by exposing our case to sceptical nations can we be sure ourselves that our case is strong. that is why we need the weapons inspections and as much intelligence as possible.
So there you have it. Intervention as proposed is uncertain, limited, hesitant and unambitious.
It is not “a solution to Syria”.
It is not a great humanitarian campaign, even if there is a temptation to present it as such.
It is simply better than the alternative of inaction.
- As I’ve said before, though: I’m very aware I’m only an observer, with no special knowledge or insight. So if the counter argument is about my position as cheering from the sidelines. yes, you’re right. But I’m still allowed to try and think things through, yes? [↩]