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Mahmoud Elgindy: Why is there no genuine humanitarian intervention in Syria?

Mahmoud Elgindy: Why is there no genuine humanitarian intervention in Syria?
Author: Mahmoud Elgindy

 

As of late 2018, the Syrian Civil War has seen widespread and diverse foreign involvement in both support of the Syrian regime and various rebel groups. This spans humanitarian aid,[1] indirect military/non-military support for state or non-state actors,[2] punitive missile/airstrikes against select targets,[3] broad bombing campaigns,[4] and direct military intervention with and without the sovereign consent of the Syrian government.[5] Allusions to humanitarian intervention (HI) are not uncommon in the moral justification of these actions,[6] but that they failed to constitute HI in a traditional sense is relatively clear cut.[7] In examining why the proponents of HI failed to realise their goals we see that in addition to international political opposition grounded in traditional conceptions state sovereignty, practical problems and a lack of political will prevented genuine HI in Syria. These took the form of a perceived military cost that was prohibitively high, difficulty in identifying a separable “victim” group on whose behalf to intervene and concerns as to the aftermath of an intervention. Further, it is these practical concerns, not Syria’s sovereignty, that carried the greatest weight during the critical window of 2012-2013, during which HI in the true sense  was most likely,[8] and that prevented subsequent foreign involvement from developing into genuine HI.

Given the lack of a coherent accepted doctrine on HI,[9] it is not surprising that calls for foreign involvement in Syria were contested vigorously on the international stage.[10] China and Russia actively opposed proposals of intervention along the lines of that seen in Libya in 2011 on the basis that any interventionist action had to be carried out in accordance to international law.[11] This was most dramatically manifest in the vetoing of a number of security council resolutions on the conflict by the two countries, despite mounting evidence of “gross human rights violations” propagated by the Syrian regime.[12] The resulting division in the international community between those who, on face value, sought to defend sovereign immunity against erosion in the face of HI (and the derived principle of responsibility to protect) and those in favour of intervention impeded the creation of a UNSC mandated HI mission.[13] While numerous states have conducted interventions across the globe without UN approval in recent decades,[14] there can be no doubt that doing so carries a significant cost, and thus served at least a part in preventing HI in Syria.

However, while these arguments have some legal basis,[15] it does not necessarily follow that sovereignty was a principle reason Syria saw no genuine HI, or indeed, that sovereignty was of any concern to the political actors that obstructed it. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and its ongoing involvement in the Ukraine’s civil war eschews any normative approach to international legal positivism, and by extension sovereignty. One might conclude therefore, that it is principally geopolitical and strategic concerns that motivated Russia (in particular) to obstruct HI likely led by the west on the one hand and intervene unilaterally on the other.[16] By comparison Russia abstained on UN resolutions 1970 and 1973 in Libya, which was less geopolitically significant.[17] In light of this we may surmise that while ideas of sovereignty were leveraged in justifying international political opposition to HI in Syria, and that this international opposition was to some degree a factor in the ultimate decision not to intervene, Syrian sovereignty was not a reason why no HI was conducted.

Political opposition to HI in Syria was not limited to the international scene however, and featured strongly at the domestic level, particularly at the outset of the conflict. In August 2013, UK parliament historically defied the Prime Minister’s intentions of conducting a limited air campaign in response to chemical weapon attacks by the Syrian government.[18] Like the US,[19] the majority of the public in the UK did not favour intervention in response to chemical attacks during 2013, something opposition MPs made frequent reference to during parliamentary debate.[20] Similar sentiments prevailed in France, whose public staked particular emphasis on the need for UN approval of military action.[21] Public opinion in regional states was even more suspicious of western intervention, and opposed even the arming of rebel groups by the US and Europe.[22] Whether or not interdiction campaigns targeting the Syrian Regime’s chemical warfare capabilities constitutes HI is debatable, but this parliamentary defeat at the outset of a limited intervention curtailed the ambitions of those in favour of wider HI, such that it was only through targeting Daesh the UK continued its involvement in Syria.[23]

The rise of Daesh in 2014 effectively cemented this reluctance to conduct HI (somewhat paradoxically) by drawing both public and political focus onto this new and dangerous adversary. As such, international involvement in the conflict grew, and a common enemy gave cause for limited cooperation by government and rebel forces, and their international sponsors.[24] Daesh caused a significant shift in the political opinions of the US which had previously deemed military solutions to the conflict unfeasible, and thus facilitated interventionist action that was not possible on humanitarian grounds.[25] Political will ultimately plays a central role in determining whether or not HI takes place in situations where it is feasible.[26] In the case of Syria, the willingness of states to participate in the conflict in virtually every manner other than conventional HI suggests that a lack of domestic political support, much like international opposition, played an important but supplementary role in preventing HI.

The way the international military campaign against Daesh unfolded highlights the most significant factor that prevented genuine HI in Syria; practicality. While Daesh proved surprisingly resilient to remote, interdiction-centric air campaigns,[27] target selection and identification, it was a much simpler and a less contentious issue than the convoluted government/anti-government dimension of the conflict.[28] Even when bypassing the question of on whose half to intervene, the reality of intervention in Syria, particularly before the rise of Daesh, was distinctly unattractive. Among the biggest obstacles to “exporting” the model of Operation Unified Protector in Libya was the lack of a credible and territorial secure ground force in the early stages of the conflict.[29] This is an established prerequisite of effective HI, the lack of which drastically refused the feasibility of using military means to achieve humanitarian objectives in Syria.[30]

To compound this issue, the greater competency of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) when compared to pro-Gadhafi forces in Libya and the concentration of fighting in and around urban centres increased the likelihood of military and civilian casualties.[31] Lastly, the spectre of mission creep and the legacy of protracted conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan served to all but preclude intervention on the scale required to prevent further humanitarian violations.[32] Specifically, the fear of a long term military presence akin to that that in Iraq dampened resolve for military action that could not be scaled back almost immediately.[33] The significant military cost HI would accrue and the aversion this created to conduct such an effort was perhaps best reflected in the pointedly limited nature of punitive US strikes against the Syrian regime in response to chemical weapon attacks in 2017 and 2018.[34] Had international support for HI been more robust, and had domestic political opposition been less vocal, these crucial practical factors would likely have limited affordable intervention options to arming the rebel population and striking logistical nodes of the SAA (particularly those necessary for chemical attacks).[35] In the course of the conflict, these measure have been taken, but in such a conditional and partisan fashion they cannot be considered “genuine ” HI measures in either intent or result.

The case of Syria represents then something of an architype of the limitations and obstacles that face international interventionism. The questions of sovereignty and legality that have dogged the concept since its modern resurgence in the 1990s have continued to rear their head, but on the international stage they have taken on a distinct utilitarian aspect in the hands of actors driven by geopolitical and strategic motivations. Moreover, it’s worth noting the distinct dynamics of the Middle East as a region when it comes to the question of sovereignty. Decades of interventions effectively dispel any illusions as to respect for sovereignty having provided an obstacle to the military actions of outside forces.[36] Rather, a lack of political will, and the prospect of a prohibitively high military and financial cost (with no guarantee of results) deterred the powers capable of HI from acting in the early stages of the conflict. As the conflict progressed, focus drifted to causes perceived as more important to the international community. HI, it seems, lost out to much more limited forms of “competitive interventionism” which showed equal if not greater disregard for state sovereignty than HI would have done.[37]

 

 

 

[1] Ostrand, N. (2015), The Syrian refugee crisis: comparison of responses by Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Journal on Migration and Human Security, 3:3, 255-279, p.266.

[2] Bellin, E., & Krause, P. (2012), Intervention in Syria: Reconciling Moral Premises and Realistic Outcomes, Middle East Brief, (64).

[3] Scharf, M. P. (2018), Striking a Grotian Moment: How the Syria Airstrikes Changed International Law Relating to Humanitarian Interventions, 19 Chicago Journal of International Law (2019 Forthcoming), Case Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2018-11, p.3.

[4] Souleimanov, E. A., Dzutsati, V. (2018), Russia’s Syria War: A Strategic Trap?, Middle East Policy, 25, 42-50, p.44; Blandchard, C. M., Humud, E., Nikitin, Mary. (2015), Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, Congressional Research Service Washington, AD1017816, p.19.

[5] Talmon, S. (2018). ‘Difficulties in assessing the illegality of the Turkish Intervention in Syria’, German Practice in International law, <https://gpil.jura.uni-bonn.de/2018/01/difficulties-assessing-illegality-turkish-intervention-syria/> [date accessed: 24 November 2018]; Averre, D., Davies L. (2015), Russia, humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: the case of Syria, International Affairs, 91:4, 813–834, p.  X

[6] Such allusions vary greatly in their formality, and the degree with which they are intented to provide legal rather supplementary moral justification. See: Schmitt, M. N., Ford, C. M. (2017), Assessing U.S. justifications for using force in response to Syria’s chemical attacks: An international law perspective, Journal of National Security Law and Policy, 9:2, 283-304, p.286; The Times (2018), Humanitarian grounds justify Syria attack, says Theresa May, < https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/humanitarian-grounds-justify-syria-attack-says-theresa-may-rcrjhr3jg>, [date accessed: 28 November 2018]; UN Security Council (2018), Identical letters dated 20 January 2018 from the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council, S/2018/53.

[7] Lombardo, G. (2015) The responsibility to protect and the lack of intervention in Syria between the protection of human rights and geopolitical strategies, The International Journal of Human Rights, 19:8, 1190-1198, p.1194.

[8] Türkmen, F. (2015), From Libya to Syria: The Rise and Fall of Humanitarian Intervention, German Review on the United Nations63, p.25.

[9] Stahn, C. (2014), Between Law-breaking and Law-making: Syria, Humanitarian Intervention and ‘What the Law Ought to Be’, Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 19:1, 25-48, p.26.

[10] Williams, P. R., Ulbrick, J., Worboys, J. (2012), Preventing mass atrocity crimes: The responsibility to protect and the Syria crisis, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 45(1 and 2), 473-504, p.475.

[11] Chesterman, S., Geiß R. & Melzer, N. (eds.) (2018), R2P and Humanitarian Intervention: From Apology to Utopia and Back Again, The Oxford Handbook on the International Law of Global Security, (Oxford University Press, Forthcoming), pp.11-12.

[12] Nanda, V. P. (2013), The future under international law of the responsibility to protect after Libya and Syria. Michigan State University College of Law International Law Review 21(1), 1:42, pp.1-4.

[13] Cronogue, G. (2012), Responsibility to Protect: Syria The Law, Politics, and Future of Humanitarian Intervention Post-Libya, Journal of International Humanitarian Legal Studies, 3:1, 124-159, p.133.

[14] Pape R. A. (2012), When duty calls: a pragmatic standard of humanitarian intervention, International Security, 37:1, 41-80, p.76.

[15] Sarvarian, A. (2016), Humanitarian intervention after Syria, Legal Studies, 36:1, 20-47, p.21.

[16] Williams, P. R., Ulbrick, J., Worboys, J. (2012), Preventing mass atrocity crimes: The responsibility to protect and the Syria crisis, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 45(1 and 2), 473-504, p.475.

[17] Lombardo, G. (2015), The responsibility to protect and the lack of intervention in Syria between the protection of human rights and geopolitical strategies, The International Journal of Human Rights, 19:8, 1190-1198, p.1193.

[18] Kaarbo, J., & Kenealy, D. (2016), No, prime minister: explaining the House of Commons’ vote on intervention in Syria, European Security, 25:1, 28-48, pp.28-29.

[19] Pew Research Center (2013), Public opinion runs against Syrian airstrikes, < http://www.people-press.org/2013/09/03/public-opinion-runs-against-syrian-airstrikes/>, [date accessed: 29 November 2018].

[20] Kaarbo, J., & Kenealy, D. (2016), No, prime minister: explaining the House of Commons’ vote on intervention in Syria, European Security, 25:1, 28-48, p.37.

[21] Stokes, B. (2013), As French, U.S. leaders push for Syria action, their people are united in opposition, Pew Research Center, < http://pewrsr.ch/1axaXkF>, [date accessed: 26 November 2018].

[22] Stokes, B., (2013), Middle Eastern and Western publics wary on Syrian intervention, Pew Research Center, <http://pewrsr.ch/116Oekc>, [date accessed: 26 November 2018].

[23] Rogers, P. (2015), The UK’s creeping intervention in Syria, Oxford Research Group, <https://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/the-uks-creeping-intervention-in-syria>, [date accessed: 21 November 2018].

[24] Griffen, B. A. (2018), Cooperation between adversaries: the US and Russia’s joint effort against the Islamic State in Syria, (Texas: The University of Texas at Austin), pp.46-47.

[25] Blandchard, C. M., Humud, E., Nikitin, Mary. (2015), Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, Congressional Research Service Washington, AD1017816, p.15.

[26] MacFarlane, S. N., Thielking, C. J., Weiss, T. G., (2004), The responsibility to protect: is anyone interested in humanitarian intervention?, Third World Quarterly, 25:5, 977-992, p.980.

[27] Quintana E., Eyal, J. (eds.: 2015), Inherently Unresolved: the military operation against ISIS, Royal United Services Institute, p.11.

[28] Phillips, C. (2015), Sectarianism and conflict in Syria, Third World Quarterly, 36:2, 357-376, pp-371-371.

[29] Kildron, C. (2012), The Libyan Model and Strategy: Why it Won’t Work in Syria, Journal of Strategic Security, 5:4, 35-50, p.44.

[30] Pape R. A. (2012), When duty calls: a pragmatic standard of humanitarian intervention, International Security, 37:1, 41-80, p.57.

[31] Pollack, K. M. (2013), Breaking the Stalemate: The Military Dynamics of the Syrian Civil War and Options for Limited US Intervention, (Saban Center at Brookings), pp-5-7.

[32] Jenkins, B. M. (2018), The Dynamics of Syria’s Civil War, (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation), PE-115-RC, p.2.

[33] Habets, I. (2016), Obstacles to a Syrian Peace: The Interference of Interests. European View15(1), 77–85, p.82.

[34] Gerstein M. D. (2018), What does mission accomplished in Syria really mean, RAND Blog, <https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/04/what-does-mission-accomplished-in-syria-really-mean.html>, [date accessed: 20 November 2018].

[35] Pollack, K. M. (2013), Breaking the Stalemate: The Military Dynamics of the Syrian Civil War and Options for Limited US Intervention, (Saban Center at Brookings), p.15-16.

[36] Hinnebusch, R. (2018), From Westphalian Failure to Heterarchic Governance in MENA: The Case of Syria, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 29:3, 391-413, pp.391-392.

[37] Ibid. p.403.

 

Bibliography

 

  • Averre, D., Davies L. (2015), Russia, humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: the case of Syria, International Affairs, 91:4, 813–834.
  • Bellin, E., & Krause, P. (2012), Intervention in Syria: Reconciling Moral Premises and Realistic Outcomes, Middle East Brief, (64).
  • Blandchard, C. M., Humud, E., Nikitin, Mary. (2015), Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, Congressional Research Service Washington, AD1017816.
  • Chesterman, S., Geiß R. & Melzer, N. (eds.) (2018), R2P and Humanitarian Intervention: From Apology to Utopia and Back Again, The Oxford Handbook on the International Law of Global Security, (Oxford University Press, Forthcoming).
  • Cronogue, G. (2012), Responsibility to Protect: Syria The Law, Politics, and Future of Humanitarian Intervention Post-Libya, Journal of International Humanitarian Legal Studies, 3:1, 124-159.
  • Gerstein M. D. (2018), What does mission accomplished in Syria really mean, RAND Blog, <https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/04/what-does-mission-accomplished-in-syria-really-mean.html>, [date accessed: 20 November 2018].
  • Griffen, B. A. (2018), Cooperation between adversaries: the US and Russia’s joint effort against the Islamic State in Syria, (Texas: The University of Texas at Austin).
  • Habets, I. (2016), Obstacles to a Syrian Peace: The Interference of Interests. European View15(1), 77–85.
  • Hinnebusch, R. (2018), From Westphalian Failure to Heterarchic Governance in MENA: The Case of Syria, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 29:3, 391-413, pp.391-392.
  • Jenkins, B. M. (2018), The Dynamics of Syria’s Civil War, (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation), PE-115-RC.
  • Kaarbo, J., & Kenealy, D. (2016), No, prime minister: explaining the House of Commons’ vote on intervention in Syria, European Security, 25:1, 28-48.
  • Kildron, C. (2012), The Libyan Model and Strategy: Why it Won’t Work in Syria, Journal of Strategic Security, 5:4, 35-50, p.44.
  • Lombardo, G. (2015) The responsibility to protect and the lack of intervention in Syria between the protection of human rights and geopolitical strategies, The International Journal of Human Rights, 19:8, 1190-1198.
  • MacFarlane, S. N., Thielking, C. J., Weiss, T. G., (2004), The responsibility to protect: is anyone interested in humanitarian intervention?, Third World Quarterly, 25:5, 977-992.
  • Nanda, V. P. (2013), The future under international law of the responsibility to protect after Libya and Syria. Michigan State University College of Law International Law Review 21(1), 1:42.
  • Ostrand, N. (2015), The Syrian refugee crisis: comparison of responses by Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Journal on Migration and Human Security, 3:3, 255-279.
  • Pape R. A. (2012), When duty calls: a pragmatic standard of humanitarian intervention, International Security, 37:1, 41-80.
  • Pew Research Center (2013), Public opinion runs against Syrian airstrikes, < http://www.people-press.org/2013/09/03/public-opinion-runs-against-syrian-airstrikes/>, [date accessed: 29 November 2018].
  • Phillips, C. (2015), Sectarianism and conflict in Syria, Third World Quarterly, 36:2, 357-376.
  • Pollack, K. M. (2013), Breaking the Stalemate: The Military Dynamics of the Syrian Civil War and Options for Limited US Intervention, (Saban Center at Brookings).
  • Quintana E., Eyal, J. (eds.: 2015), Inherently Unresolved: the military operation against ISIS, Royal United Services Institute.
  • Rogers, P. (2015), The UK’s creeping intervention in Syria, Oxford Research Group, <https://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/the-uks-creeping-intervention-in-syria>, [date accessed: 21 November 2018].
  • Sarvarian, A. (2016), Humanitarian intervention after Syria, Legal Studies, 36:1, 20-47.
  • Scharf, M. P. (2018), Striking a Grotian Moment: How the Syria Airstrikes Changed International Law Relating to Humanitarian Interventions, 19 Chicago Journal of International Law (2019 Forthcoming), Case Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2018-11.
  • Schmitt, M. N., Ford, C. M. (2017), Assessing U.S. justifications for using force in response to Syria’s chemical attacks: An international law perspective, Journal of National Security Law and Policy, 9:2, 283-304.
  • Souleimanov, E. A., Dzutsati, V. (2018), Russia’s Syria War: A Strategic Trap?, Middle East Policy, 25, 42-50.
  • Stahn, C. (2014), Between Law-breaking and Law-making: Syria, Humanitarian Intervention and ‘What the Law Ought to Be’, Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 19:1, 25-48.
  • Stokes, B. (2013), As French, U.S. leaders push for Syria action, their people are united in opposition, Pew Research Center, < http://pewrsr.ch/1axaXkF>, [date accessed: 26 November 2018].
  • Stokes, B., (2013), Middle Eastern and Western publics wary on Syrian intervention, Pew Research Center, <http://pewrsr.ch/116Oekc>, [date accessed: 26 November 2018].
  • Talmon, S. (2018). ‘Difficulties in assessing the illegality of the Turkish Intervention in Syria’, German Practice in International law, <https://gpil.jura.uni-bonn.de/2018/01/difficulties-assessing-illegality-turkish-intervention-syria/> [date accessed: 24 November 2018].
  • The Times (2018), Humanitarian grounds justify Syria attack, says Theresa May, <https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/humanitarian-grounds-justify-syria-attack-says-theresa-may-rcrjhr3jg>, [date accessed: 28 November 2018].
  • Türkmen, F. (2015), From Libya to Syria: The Rise and Fall of Humanitarian Intervention, German Review on the United Nations63.
  • UN Security Council (2018), Identical letters dated 20 January 2018 from the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council, S/2018/53.
  • Williams, P. R., Ulbrick, J., Worboys, J. (2012), Preventing mass atrocity crimes: The responsibility to protect and the Syria crisis, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 45(1 and 2), 473-504.
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