The Calculus of Intervention

Andrew Noakes

Image © Maggie Osama

With the NATO campaign in Libya now over and the reputation of humanitarian intervention restored, why has the West failed to use military force to challenge the Syrian regime as it brutalises its own people? It is clear that the responsibility to protect is universal so, if we intervened to stop a slaughter in the besieged towns of Benghazi and Misrata, then why not in Homs and Hama?

Of course, there are some on the left who will interpret any example of Western inconsistency as proof of the hollowness of our liberal ideals. But there is a calculus at play here. Libya was an easy intervention. The Gaddafi regime lacked reliable international and regional allies and the crisis was not complicated by regional, sectarian, or ethnic divisions within Libyan society (although post-Gaddafi Libya may prove to be a different story). Nor was the internal violence likely to develop into a wider, regional conflict. It was a war of national liberation, confined to Libya and fought with overwhelming international and regional support.

The same is not true for Syria. The Assad regime has dependable regional and international allies in the form of Iran and Russia. Russia, in fact, has recently sent naval warships to the region, presumably in order to deter any kind of Western intervention. It has also refused to allow the UN Security Council to introduce sanctions against the Syrian government and has been half-hearted in its condemnation of the violence.

More importantly, the internal conflict in Syria clearly has a sectarian dimension. Most of the protesters and rebels appear to be Sunni Muslims, whereas the regime is dominated by Alawis. This further raises the possibility that the conflict will morph into a regional war along sectarian lines, bringing in Shia Iran, the Sunni minority in Iraq, and Turkey, which is mostly Sunni.

The calculus of intervention, which pits humanitarian need against factors that work against interference, thus far favours non-intervention. Crudely put, 6000 deaths are not enough to convince the West to ride roughshod over regional and international objections to intervention and to potentially unleash a bloody sectarian civil war and a catastrophic regional conflict.

The Libyan intervention has saved the reputation of humanitarian intervention after the disaster of Iraq but it is clear that we must now take the opportunity to formulate a clear doctrine of intervention that includes the moral calculus described above. How many casualties must there be before we can justify intervention? What criteria should be met before we decide to intervene? And, crucially, how do these two issues interact? We need to be clear about the rules governing our decision to intervene in Libya but not in Syria.

The aim of such an exercise would not only be to improve our capacity to deal with humanitarian crises; it would also be to improve our ability to build public support for interventions, and to deter future crimes against humanity (if we continue to be vague as to when we will and will not intervene, regimes will be more inclined to gamble on Western inaction).

A starting point would be Tony Blair’s Chicago doctrine. In 1999, during the Kosovo crisis, the former prime minister outlined five rules that should come into consideration when the West is weighing up an intervention. The war must be just (i.e. we must be sure that the intended target is indeed carrying out crimes against humanity), diplomatic avenues must have been exhausted, the use of military force must be a viable option, we must be prepared to deal with the long-term consequences of intervention, and – finally – national interests must be considered.

Notably, this formula misses out any demand for international and regional support, which should certainly be central to a future doctrine. I am also uneasy about adding national interests into the mix. It is worth mentioning, too, that Blair violated most of his own rules when he invaded Iraq. The Chicago doctrine is a start, but more work needs to be done.

I do not believe that if some of the criteria laid out above cannot be met we should necessarily rule out intervention. Rather, the extent to which we must tie military action to their fulfilment should itself be tied to the extent of the humanitarian need. I would have supported an intervention to stop the Rwandan genocide, for example, despite the highly complicated nature of that crisis, and would not have been troubled if such an intervention had lacked international or regional support. In this case, the humanitarian need (nearly a million people were ultimately murdered) outweighed the importance of sticking to all of the rules. This calculus should also be part of any doctrine.

With this point in mind, we should be prepared to consider a Libya-style intervention in Syria if the situation continues to worsen. Unlike some, I do not believe the Arab League’s peace plan has much chance of convincing either side to stop fighting, although I hope that I am wrong. It is likely that the Assad regime is simply using the initiative to stall for time. Nor do I accept the ugly assertion made by some on the left that mass murder in other countries has nothing to do with us. Our progressive values and sense of humanity should never stop at our borders. That is the lesson of Auschwitz as much as of Rwanda and Kosovo. If the violence escalates further and the death toll starts to run into the tens of thousands, the humanitarian need for action may become overwhelming. But let us hope that a peaceful solution is found before we reach that point.


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