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Red lines and dangerous incoherence: Syria and the international community

While the region slips further into instability, the rejection of military action over Syria by the US Congress would be a huge stepping stone to undoing the US and western way of war since 9/11.

David Held Kyle McNally
1 September 2013

British hesitation and the military option

The debate and votes in the British Parliament on Thursday, August 29 were momentous by any standard, wherein the House of Commons rejected a government motion that would have left open the door for military action against Syria. 

This was the first time since 1782 that a Prime Minister lost a vote of this kind. Many MPs afterwards were in a state of shock.  Few predicted that both the Labour and government motions would fall with the extraordinary outcome that the Prime Minister would declare ‘the government will act accordingly’.  The reverberations from this statement have been felt across the world, and especially across the Atlantic. This was evident from a 20-minute statement given by US Secretary of State John Kerry the following day, when he did not even mention Britain once.  This silence was made only louder by the subtle but significant endorsement of France as the US’ ‘oldest ally’.  Whilst it would be premature to say the special relationship between the UK and the US has been undermined, it is certainly under some pressure. 

The special relationship has typically meant that the UK would walk in-step with key elements of US foreign policy. This deference to the US has, for now, halted. The logic of war since 9/11 – act irrespective of compelling and comprehensive evidence from UN weapons inspectors, and other impartial sources – has broken down.  A much more cautious House of Commons rightly asked for sound procedures before any decision regarding acts of war are made – sound procedures with respect to evidence collection (ensuring enough time for the UN chemical weapons inspectors to do their work), allowing enough time for the UN Security Council to debate and come to a considered view, and demanding overall that these procedures are respected and adhered to.  In sum, they took the view: no war without publicly justifiable evidence, an affirmative vote by the House of Commons, and legitimacy in international law via UN Security Council resolution. 

Although a rush to war has been averted in the British Parliament, elsewhere weapons are being readied. Last year President Obama drew a ‘red line’ in the sand on the deployment of chemical weapons, warning that their use would constitute a grave violation of inviolable international norms.  As he has recently insisted, ‘we cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale’. He has consulted his military brass about a wide range of options and indicated that ‘a limited, narrow act’ of military force is being closely considered. While he is clear that he has not made any final military decision, he is equally clear that he ‘meant what (he) said’.  His position will now be tested by Congress, a bold move Obama initiated on Saturday, August 31. Assuming Congress approves the President’s view, the US will be poised to act. Meanwhile, President Hollande of France has insisted that ‘France will be part of it. France is ready.’ And a number of other countries have signalled their support (Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia as well as other Gulf Monarchies).

While some form of military action against Assad appears imminent, it is striking that Obama and his allies acknowledge that any action must be circumscribed and avoid at all costs ‘boots on the ground’ or a ‘long term campaign’.  The Obama administration is well aware of the political and human costs of the post-9/11 wars.  It appreciates that the geopolitical results were far from what was intended or expected, and that domestic support for military conflict is minimal.  Kerry put the point bluntly when he stated that any operation in Syria would ‘bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya’, that the US would not ‘assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well under way’. 

Which red line?

Evidence provided by a summary intelligence report from the US outlines the case against Assad, and illustrates the regime’s responsibility for the chemical weapons attack.  The veracity of such intelligence will never be completely certain and verifiable, however, the US and its allies are making decisions as if it were – and this is what matters most in a call to action.  The red line has been crossed and there must be consequences.  The world’s despots must learn that this norm cannot be violated without repercussions.   But this begs the question, why this red line? With over a hundred thousand dead, over five million people displaced by civil war, and atrocities of diverse kinds, why focus on chemical weapons?  Is it that deaths by chemical weapons are somehow more appalling and outrageous? Why is it that a death toll greater than 5,000, 10,000 or 100,000 does not cross a red line, but the deaths from chemical weapons do?

In the US Administration’s account, the justification is that a sacred international norm has been violated, and the use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs affects their national interests – interests which can only be protected in an international arena free of weapons of mass destruction.  An important element of this is that Israeli security requires the region to be free of weapons of mass destruction (and this, despite the fact that Israel holds an arsenal of nuclear weapons). 

But in an age of drones, cruise missiles, stealth bombers and hugely powerful conventional weapons, and over a decade of appalling loss of life in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, we need to ask about the coherence of an acceptable and legitimate ‘red line’.  There is no question the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and breaks a fundamental international law; indeed there is a stark qualitative difference in casualties resulting from chemical weapons and conventional weapons.  But the scope and scale of civilian deaths resulting from conventional weapons far exceeds those from chemical weapons to date in Syria.  This poses an important question about what constitutes a red line, or a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate warfare. What global security means, and how we achieve it, is deeply puzzling in this context.

Dangerous incoherence

The international community has failed from the outset to address the calamity of Syria in a manner that would provide protection to civilians or bring the conflict to a close. This was apparent during the recent G8 conference at Lough Erne, Ireland earlier this summer.  All parties agreed on a banal reference to the desirability of a political solution (paragraph 7), but set out few practical ways to achieve it.  Russia blocked any mention of Assad in the official communiqué and obstructed any action taken against him. The reductio ad absurdum came when the communiqué called for Syrian authorities ‘to commit to destroying and expelling from Syria all organizations and individuals affiliated to Al Qaeda, and any other non-state actors linked to terrorism’ (paragraph 87).  Surely Assad would have been delighted to read this.  

Up until the current crisis, the UN Security Council had deliberated and voted on three separate resolutions pertaining to the conflict.  Each one has been vetoed in turn by Russia and China.  When it comes to Syria, the international community is, for all intents and purposes, gridlocked (see Hale, Held and Young, 2013).  The institution tasked with maintaining global peace and security – the United Nations – has failed in remarkable ways to respond to the Syrian crisis. 

In the absence of any coherent international approach, different countries have taken a range of responses and positions in relation to the crisis. There are those of course that back Assad, including Russia and Iran. There are those who strongly support particular factions within the rebel forces. Among these are the US, the EU and some of the Gulf Monarchies.  Yet, while they have given their support to parts of the opposition these countries remain far from united on the matter of military intervention with Britain and Germany parting ways from the US and France.  Meanwhile, Iran is threatening retaliation against Israel if Assad is attacked, and Israel is preparing its own military options. On top of all of this, even those in favour of military action against Assad are, at one and the same time, seemingly hesitant to take decisive action on behalf of any one party.  For example, Obama and Kerry have made it clear that the US has no intention of conducting anything more than a limited military operation, without a continuing engagement in the civil war.  Against this background, the Syrian crisis continues to deepen and civilians continue to bear the brunt of a devastating and tragic conflict. 

The responsibility to protect and its limits 

The international community has attempted to offer a framework for managing crises in which states no longer can or will provide security to their citizens, but these attempts have been fatally flawed. In 2001 The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty set out the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine; a doctrine justifying and even calling for international action when a state cannot or will not protect its own citizens.  The UN adopted this doctrine in 2005 at the World Summit. Since then it has been evoked in the justification of intervention in Libya and it undergirds the current discussion surrounding action in Syria.  However, the manner in which it is invoked is at best myopic and, at worst, self-serving.  What is meant to be a three-fold responsibility to prevent, to react, and to re-build, has been narrowed to reaction alone and only in select instances.

A deeper problem concerning the responsibility to protect doctrine is the question of who decides when to apply the doctrine and under what criteria and evidence.  As things stand, the doctrine is operationalized only on the decision of a select few.  The alternative would be the creation of new rules and procedures which would weigh evidence that peoples around the world could find compelling and acceptable – ways independent of the particular interests and concerns of any one or set of nation state(s), whether powerful or humble. The Security Council at the centre of such deliberations could not be the Security Council that prevails today, for this one is constituted by the geopolitical settlement of 1945, which embedded privileges and select interests into its very structure.

Given the current organisation of the Security Council, leading states will continue to impose solutions on an ad hoc and, at times, unilateral basis. In this context, leading states play out a diversity of positions geared as much toward domestic politics as wider international considerations. This is far from an international community that is evidence-based, coherent, impartial and effective.

The (lack of a) way forward

The Obama administration continues to build a coalition that supports, either in principle or in action, a military operation against Assad and the Syrian army.  It stresses how any military strike would be limited and narrow. 

Yet, even a more restrained operation is fraught with unpredictable and potentially unintended consequences.  The continuing violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the intensity of identity politics in each of these countries, and the weakness of political institutions throughout the region provide ample warning that any military operation, regardless of how narrow it might be, could go horribly wrong.

At the start of the Syrian civil war there may have been an opportunity to create safe havens for vulnerable populations and humanitarian corridors for individuals fleeing violence.  A no-fly-zone across these areas may even have been possible.  However, the military capacity held by the United States, and the political will they draw upon, is not suited for such activities.  The US military and its appetite for action continue to be guided by the logic of large scale interstate war; wars fought with naval destroyers, cruise missiles, f-16 fighter jets and unmanned drones.

Moreover, pacific and democratic societies can take centuries to establish, whatever the declared objectives of those who seek to build new representative state institutions. European democracies were formed over hundreds of years and then nearly imploded in the first half of the twentieth century.  Without a separation of ethnic and religious identities from the political sphere, without the establishment of a culture of citizenship, without the creation of a polity separate from the interests and entitlements of particular groups, democratic institutions are very difficult to create and sustain, if they can be at all.  Western intervention since 9/11 has demonstrated, although this lesson hardly needed repeating, that there is a world of difference between winning a conflict and creating peace, between violent intrusion and institution building, between interventions and a political solution based on justice. 

Of course, Obama’s position could be undermined if Congress, following the House of Commons, does not endorse military action.  As unlikely as it seems, such a move by Congress would be a huge stepping stone to undoing the US and western way of war since 9/11. Let us hope. In the meantime, one can only look on with a hesitation and despair as Syria disintegrates, human suffering abounds, and the region slips further into instability.

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