Is intervention in Syria really an option? If so, what prospect success?

If you remember when Gorbachev called time on the Soviet Union, you might also remember thinking a new era of peace and harmony was just beginning. Not only were we not going to have nuclear bombs dropped on our heads, but we were also not going to have to spend so much of our money on armies. In other words, a reduction in the threat would enable a reduction in defence spending, otherwise known as the peace dividend. Do you remember?

I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. Our record since then hasn’t been that great. There’s been the Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Macedonia, Afghanistan and Iraq; and more recently Libya and Mali. Our proclivity for war – or its various manifestations: conflict, intervention, counter-insurgency, anti-terror, humanitarian assistance, international justice and more – far from abating, seems as strong as ever.

As it turned out, only half of the peace-dividend bargain was true: governments found ways to reduce defence spending. The other half, the idea that the threat of conflict had also reduced, was not true. And we – by that I mean the West – seem as ready as ever to opt for the military solution.

And now Syria. The rhetoric is hotting up, albeit gradually. It really should not surprise us if we ended up intervening in some way there, too – notwithstanding the very real likelihood that clandestine activity is already well underway. France, citing the use of chemical weapons, has called for international action, though it’s not entirely clear what that should be; Israel has already bombed a convoy thought to be carrying surface-to-air missiles; the USA has mentioned something about red lines; and the FCO has welcomed the lifting of the EU arms embargo on the Syrian opposition.

The point here, however, is not to argue we should never intervene. Rather, it’s to question the manner of our intervention. Those examples I listed above all had their justifications, most of them extremely good: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was unacceptable; the humanitarian descent in the Former Yugoslavia was real; the UN was on the verge of defeat in Sierra Leone, or had it already been routed, I can’t quite remember; terrorists really were prepping themselves for Jihad in Afghanistan; and weapons of mass destruction in… Well, that’s a little more complex!

Anyway, by my crude reckoning, less than fifty percent of those interventions proved a long-term success. Not a very good return. The Gulf War was only the first episode in the longer-running Saddam show. What future problems might have been avoided if we had removed him from power in 1991, as was justified by his unprovoked invasion of a sovereign state? There’s something for the counter-factual historians to consider. Afghanistan is still unresolved after more than a decade, and we really don’t know what will happen when we leave. And the so-called Arab Spring is not really my idea of spring.

Most people understand the imperfection of military intervention: that results cannot be guaranteed, and that military activity is a messy business. Indeed, these facts, proven time and time again throughout history, bring to mind one of the key conditions we use for justifying military intervention: that ‘there must be serious prospect of success.’

Well, that’s obvious, you say. But it’s worth asking what this actually means and why this condition is thought to be so important in Just War doctrine. Full deconstruction of the point probably deserves a thesis of its own, but the gist is this: war always causes suffering, so if you must go to war then make sure you know what success looks like and how you are going to get there; anything else leads to protracted conflict, which in turn leads to more suffering.

States entering into war must therefore make every preparation for success. Which means not stinting on either the capability of the force being deployed or the determination with which operations are conducted. The Gulf War is an exemplar of proper preparation. General Schwatzkopf pushed the ‘overwhelming force’ approach, having learnt the lesson from Vietnam. American involvement in South East Asia was too incremental; not enough decisive action. The planners did not really know what success looked like, and they certainly did not know how to get there. The result we all know.

At first, General Schwartzkopf was criticised for being over-cautious, profligate with military force (money) and perhaps too aggressive. But he was vindicated. The war was decisive and it was short, the ground campaign lasting only four days. Suffering was loaded mostly onto the aggressor, and the innocent were spared as much as possible.

Where criticism is, however, justified is in what followed. After the Gulf War we immediately entered a new conflict centred on containment, no-fly zones, sanctions and a massive US military footprint in the region. There was justification behind this new engagement, but there was no clear understanding of what success looked like. The spectacle was not unlike a lumbering giant poking a massive wasps nest with a stick. Conditions were perfect for those naturally hostile to the West to portray foreign forces in the Middle East as imperialist aggressors. Although Islamist hostility existed before, and would have existed had western troops not been in the Middle East, their presence, with no end in sight, made it much easier for extremists to whip up hatred.

Overwhelming force does, of course, sound unsophisticated to some ears – mainly ears that will be nowhere near the action. But war is a binary business: life and death, victory and defeat. The more time spent in between these two states, the more suffering there will be. That is the reason why prospect of success is so important: it reduces the likelihood of a long, drawn-out conflict, thus minimising long, drawn-out suffering.

And what is happening in Syria? At first, analysts thought the conflict could last weeks or perhaps months. But we are now about two years in, and the suffering has become long and drawn out, and neither is there much indication that the end is in sight. UN figures indicate 80,000 deaths so far, and over a million refugees displaced from Syria; and many more internally displaced within the country.  Conflict with no serious prospect of success is every bit as terrible as short and sharp conflict, and in many respects far worse. The refugee crisis and the storing up of generational grievances will scar the region for decades to come.

Any intervention we might make in the crisis, other than genuine humanitarian aid, must be set against an identifiable measure of success. Doing something because, well, we’ve got to do something, is not really good enough. Prolonging a civil war, no matter how brutal it might be, with half-hearted intervention merely prolongs the suffering.

This is one of the many dilemmas politicians are facing over Syria. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s almost impossible, which goes a long way to explain why many people do not want to start arming the opposition. The fear is not just that weapons might end up in the hands of Islamists, but that the conflict will simply be prolonged. But grappling with such dilemmas is why we have politicians.

Perhaps, all things considered, the thing to do here is to follow the old maxim: that sometimes the best course of action is to take no action at all. If not, and we decide to intervene, then the implication is clear: to achieve success, we must pick a side and prosecute the war with everything we have so as to achieve success. The only question remaining is: which side to pick.


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