The disastrous American led invasion of Iraq is exactly why the West should intervene now in Syria. Those who protested against the illegal war in Iraq should be calling on the UN and civilized countries to take action under international law

The Iraq invasion and subsequent fiasco is what happens when you do nothing for too long. 

If the West had intervened in 1988 when Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds at Halabja, the 1991 war and the 2003 invasion of Iraq may never have happened. 

The 2003 Iraq war was illegal. The weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist any more, as they clearly had in 1988. 

Syria is different. The evidence is still on the ground. The bodies are barely cold. There is no doubt that Assad ordered the murder of more than 1000 Syrians and therefore, we are compelled to act, morally and legally. Tyrants must not be allowed to mass murder with impunity. If civilized nations do not respond now, we will be as culpable as we were when our forces stood by and watched thousands of people murdered in Srebenica.

The mistakes in Iraq show us a better way to lawfully respond: Intervention has to be legal under international law. 

The Powell doctrine was a good guide to intervention - it has to have a clear objective, avoid mission creep and have an exit plan. The Iraq intervention had none of those. Syria could have all of them.

1. If the evidence is ‘undeniable’, as Secretary of State John Kerry claims, then intervention in Syria isn’t dependent on the UN Security Council for a legal framework. 

2. The objective is clear to most people: prevent more chemical weapon attacks against civilians. It’s not about regime change.

3. Use the Kosovo blueprint as an exit plan. In 1999 the Nato-led air-war in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians were being massacred by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, lasted 78 days and achieved all of its goals. “The strategic goals were to stop the fighting, force Milosevic to pull back his army, restore Kosovo as an autonomous Albanian enclave, and insert NATO troops—30,000 of them—as peacekeepers. All the goals were met, ” writes  Fred Kaplin in Slate magazine.

In an ideal world, this would be a UN-led mission. Under the United Nations Charter, signed in 1945, it is illegal to go to war unless a country is defending itself against aggression or the UN has given prior approval for any action. 

In 2012, the majority of the fifteen members of the Security Council agreed to send an African led military force against al Qaeda in northern Mali, after an illegal coup toppled a democratically elected president. The five permanent members - Britain, the United States, Russia, China and France - who can use their veto to stop any action, chose not to.

This time, Russia and maybe China, who support the principle of impunity, will use their veto, and hope that this removes the legal framework for intervention.  

But if a crime against humanity has been committed, legal grounds do exist.  A regional response, like the Nato led intervention in Kosovo was legal. A Nato or Arab League mission could work again in Syria. David Barrett in The Telegraph points out that a legal case for military action could be further bolstered by a principle known as “responsibility to protect”, or “R2P”. The principle is that the international community has a responsibility to protect against war crimes and crimes against humanity by using coercion, including military intervention as a last resort.

“The United Nations adopted R2P in 2005 following the genocide in Rwanda - and its principles could be drawn upon by the US and Britain, should a decision be taken to intervene in Syria.”

There are very convincing arguments for not intervening in violent civil wars in other countries, and I listed them here in an earlier blog http://pundit.co.nz/content/15-things-you-need-to-know-about-syria 

The US  can’t intervene in every civil war. Obama said in May:  “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?’’

The scale of the attack last week in Syria changed everything. 

The alternative to intervention is to do nothing. Doing nothing looks like Rwanda in 1994 where about 800,000 people died in just 100 days.

Comments (25)

by Matthew Percival on August 28, 2013
Matthew Percival

I was thinking about this situation just this morning and concluded that I was against intervention.

But this excellent piece has pretty much swayed my feelings on the topic.

by william blake on August 28, 2013
william blake

Two issues to consider; firstly the ethical complication of the stalled gas pipeline that is to run through Syria to supply Europe with natural gas and secondly can a breakaway coalition force afford to piss Russia off by attacking its ally?

by Josie Pagani on August 28, 2013
Josie Pagani

Thanks for your comments.

Matthew, I've agonised over this like you. But there are good precedents for intervention (Timor, Uganda and Sierra Leone for example). 

by Colin Fleming on August 28, 2013
Colin Fleming

My problem with intervention is - what happens afterwards? In this case it's not just a matter of getting Assad's forces to retreat and restore the previous status quo, because the previous status quo was Assad - I don't think Kosovo is a good precedent here. Do we leave peacekeepers there, and if so who are they keeping the peace from? The rebels are not exactly a western-friendly group of individuals either. Peacekeepers can't enforce a democracy or provide any sort of government either.

I'm as horrified as anyone by what happened in Damascus but I'm increasingly anti-intervention unless there's a clear plan for what will come after. I'm not convinced that many people in Libya are really better off than they were under Gadaffi, for example, at least yet - large parts of the country are still in anarchy. I must admit I don't know enough about the other precedents you quote to comment on them.

by stuart munro on August 29, 2013
stuart munro

The first level of humanitarian intervention - food and medical supplies - is hard to gainsay. Given that chemical weapons are an abomination no matter who uses them, supplies of masks, breathing kits and especially materials that can be used to protect children or infants could also be dropped immediately.

Armed intervention however requires a bit more of a plan. Assad can certainly be encouraged to cease and desist. A consultation group should identify major local interest groups, with a view to making the 2014 election a meaningful engagement rather than a rubber stamp for the current regime.

New Zealand's role might well be to provide medical and humanitarian support - there are presently significant numbers of refugees and displaced people in Syria. They need to be housed and secure as soon as possible. Shigeru Ban has a great interim solution, which as a paper producing nation we should get into. David Shearer might have a few clues too, together with our local Syrian community.

The legitimacy of attacking Assad would really depend on how he responds to the provision of legitimate humanitarian aid. Ideally, he should not be attacked. In the modern world one of the basic virtues of democracy is that it can allow peaceful transitions. If Assad will allow the 2014 elections to be free and fair, that might establish a better precedent going forward than a drone free-fire zone.

by Alan Johnstone on August 29, 2013
Alan Johnstone

You seem in a big rush to trust the US on their story here; doesn't history teach you anything ?

Can someone answer me this question, why would President Assad, after a unbroken run of victories over the course of this year, standing on the cusp of victory order a chemical weapons attack which is certain to invite international intervention and weaken his position ?

This badly fails the sniff test; Cui bono ?

 

by Andrew Geddis on August 29, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Josie,

I'm not an international law expert, but I'd note that the claim that military intervention in Syria would be "legal" absent a resolution from the UN Security Council is not as clear cut as you suggest:

[T]he Obama administration’s efforts to build a legal case are encountering skepticism among U.N. officials and some international experts, including former Republican and Democratic State Department lawyers, who argue that the use of force against Syria, absent a U.N. Security Council resolution, would be illegal.

“Using force in a situation like this could be seen as legitimate internationally and the right thing to do; that’s the policymakers’ call,” said David Kaye, a former State Department lawyer who teaches international law at the University of California at Irvine. “But that’s different from saying it would be legal: It wouldn’t be, unless you had authorization of the Security Council.”

Further:

But U.S. government lawyers have been less willing to claim a special legal right to act. In Kosovo, Clinton-era policymakers were never able to prevail upon the State Department’s lawyers to characterize NATO action as legal. Instead, the lawyers agreed to call it legitimate. In Iraq, the Bush administration argued that its legal authority derived from a 12-year-old resolution that ended the first Persian Gulf War, a contention that was hotly contested by then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who termed the war illegal.

In recent days, senior Obama administration officials have privately invoked the Kosovo intervention as a possible precedent. But legal scholars say that could prove problematic, because the United States has never released a legal defense of its decision to attack Serbia to halt mass abuses against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. In authorizing the use of force, the Clinton administration argued that NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo should not constitute a precedent.

Any international law geeks out there who want to weigh in on this would provide welcome expertise ... .

by Alan Johnstone on August 29, 2013
Alan Johnstone

Here's what one lawyer said in 2007.

"The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

That lawyers name was Barrack Obama.

by mikesh on August 29, 2013
mikesh

I agree with AJ. The chemical attack looks more like a false flag operation aimed at providing a pretext for western intervention.

by Ross on August 29, 2013
Ross

Can someone answer me this question, why would President Assad, after a unbroken run of victories over the course of this year, standing on the cusp of victory order a chemical weapons attack which is certain to invite international intervention and weaken his position ?

Sorry I can't answer that. Nor can I answer why, if Assad is blameless, he didn't invite weapons inspectors in to Syria from the get-go, but instead waited several days to do so, coincidentally after much of the evidence has probably been destroyed or degraded.

by william blake on August 29, 2013
william blake

The people who jumped in and stated that W.Bush was responsible for the Jet attacks on the World Trade Centre were rightly shouted down as fringe conspiracy theorists, but its 'wise' to posit the same for Syrian opposition factions?

The unpredictable and unstoppable nature of nerve gas makes this level of applied martyrdom unlikely and well down the spectrum of psychopathy. 

by william blake on August 29, 2013
william blake

Can someone answer me this question, why would President Assad, after a unbroken run of victories over the course of this year, standing on the cusp of victory order a chemical weapons attack which is certain to invite international intervention and weaken his position ?

A: To terrorise his opposition.

by Alan Johnstone on August 29, 2013
Alan Johnstone

"A: To terrorise his opposition."

Come on, be serious. This is not a rational course of action; whatever else we think of President Assad, we must at least assume him to be rational.

This is like a boxer going into the 12th well ahead on points deciding to start throwing kick and getting disqualified.

 

by Andrew Geddis on August 29, 2013
Andrew Geddis

"This is not a rational course of action; whatever else we think of President Assad, we must at least assume him to be rational."

Why? Wouldn't a "rational" dictator falsely accused of using chemical weapons against his own people fall all over himself whisking the UN inspectors to the site so as to prove he's a victim of a stitch up?

Nothing in the whole Syria mess makes much sense, and frankly I think starting from any particular base assumption is likely to produce an answer that is equally likely to be true or false as any other.

by Josie Pagani on August 29, 2013
Josie Pagani

Hi Andrew - Here's a link to someone who is an expert on international law (pay wall).

Strike in Syria legal without full UN mandate, says top QC

And here is Geoffrey Robertson again in May 2013 talking about the 'Responsibility to Protect' principle I refer to, introduced post Rwanda.

I agree, international law is hazy. The preference is always for a very direct and clear Security Council resolution, as New Zealand had in Solomon Islands, Timor and Afghanistan. But if Russia and China are determined to thwart the Security Council process, what then? Do nothing? There are other legal precedents, and since Rwanda, international law has toughened up. 

by Josie Pagani on August 29, 2013
Josie Pagani

Thanks for all your comments. Events are moving so fast now. Keep the debate the going over the next few days.

One argument I hear alot (not in this comment thread so much) -  how can America condemn Syria for the use of chemical weapons, when they knew that Saddam Hussein gassed his own citizens in 1988 and did nothing? How can they condemn Osama Bin Laden when they helped create him by supporting the anti Russian Mujahideen in the 1970s? And so on and so on...

But how is that having previously turned a blind eye to an atrocity is a reason for doing nothing about the next one?


by Colin Fleming on August 30, 2013
Colin Fleming

Why? Wouldn't a "rational" dictator falsely accused of using chemical weapons against his own people fall all over himself whisking the UN inspectors to the site so as to prove he's a victim of a stitch up?

Because I believe that the UN Inspectors' mandate is only to confirm that chemical weapons were used, not who used them. So he could reasonably be concerned that a positive confirmation would always be blamed on the regime anyway (as appears to have happened, only without the official positive confirmation).

by stuart munro on August 30, 2013
stuart munro

This problem is really too big for New Zealand. If we are to intervene anywhere in the middle east, Syria might not be the best place to make a difference. But supporting the fledgling democracy in Tunisia - the most locally authentic democratic regime - or helping moderate the situation in Egypt could forestall an insuperable Syrian scale problem later on.

NZ's advantage in peacekeeping missions is the lack of global ambitions, we can be honest aid and reconstruction providers, England, France, and the US not so much. The attraction of war to non-performing leaders like Cameron, or Key for that matter, is that it tends to grow support for the regime. Thatcher certainly would not have had the opportunity to do so much damage without the Falklands.

We should be reluctant to join an offensive in Syria, at least until we know who the enemy is, and that there is a finite strategy with an achievable end. There will be ample opportunities for humanitarian intervention however.

by Andy on August 30, 2013
Andy

 "If the evidence is ‘undeniable’, as Secretary of State John Kerry claims" this is a pretty big if. It seems to me there is still doubt as to who is responsible. If Kerry and the US are so sure who committed these crimes, why are they not prepared to wait for the UN to complete their inspection?

by Le Grand Mal on August 30, 2013
Le Grand Mal

This seems to be a cherry picking of readings of international law (mostly supported by western specialists not wanting to endanger their dayjob) and a misinterpretation of the ending of the Kosovo conflict. The end of the Kosovo war was not bought about, not hastened by the NATO air campaign - Most of the parties to the conflict had achieved their goals of displacing "undesirables" and stabilizing hazy borders by the time the air NATO campaign truly got underway - the went to the negotiating table because further conflict served no purpose to the antagonists, not because they had been bombed "into submission" - A goal almost never achieved since the rise of air power as an instrument of war. Josie also fails to recognise that NATO breached their own charter and also the charter of the United Nations with their decision to launch an air campaign. Further to this - I cannot imagine that the US or NATO or would commit to anything except for an air campaign against Syria, The problem with that is that US and NATO air doctrine implicitly calls for strikes against civilian infrastructure and will include the use of cluster munitions and depleted uranium - (Warden's Five Rings) how is that going to lessen the suffering of Syrians or make their lives more tenable in the aftermath of the conflict? Look to Lebanon after the 2006 conflict with Israel to see the impact of prolonged airstrikes. Nor is air power as accurate as most people seem to believe, look to the Af-Pak border and behold the mounting civilian casualties from supposed smart weapons and drones.

R2P is inherently problematic - it should never have been adopted by the UN. Who decides when diplomatic options have been exhausted? Who decides when a level of violence is unacceptable? And why is it that no one will act to protect Palestinian civilians or the the civilians of Iraq from massive breaches of international law, war crimes, and crimes against humanity commited by "Western" states? The Iraqi's would have been amongst the people most greatly assisted by an application of R2P following the illegal US led invasion. Does R2P not apply when it is "The West" acting? The way that the term "civilized countries" is often rolled out with regards to Syria seems to confirm it - despite it being horribly patrician and borderline racist.

The way to end conflict is not to perpetuate it, nor to deem more conflict a tool suitable for ending conflict.

PS: The answer to the question Obama poses in your article is "The Pentagon and geo-politics" not a weighing of lives.

 

by Mike Osborne on September 02, 2013
Mike Osborne

R2P:Orwellian doublespeak writ large.

"If the West had intervened in 1988 when Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds at Halabja, the 1991 war and the 2003 invasion of Iraq may never have happened."

Here is an alternative view of some of what that 1988 "intervention" comprised. 

"2. The objective is clear to most people: prevent more chemical weapon attacks against civilians. It’s not about regime change."

On that basis, can we be assured that the US will abstain from using depleted uranium? Or will they leave a legacy of Enduring Contamination along with the purported Enduring Freedom?

"The US  can’t intervene in every civil war."

True - they tend to limit themselves to the ones they foment which is why Obama's May statement is empty rhetoric.

The whole article seems predicated on a notion that the USA is some sort of beneficent but bumbling international peacekeeper with a tortured conscience. I prefer George Carlin's take

 

by Andrew P Nichols on September 04, 2013
Andrew P Nichols

Sorry I can't answer that. Nor can I answer why, if Assad is blameless, he didn't invite weapons inspectors in to Syria from the get-go, but instead waited several days to do so, coincidentally after much of the evidence has probably been destroyed or degraded.

Nonsense. Silly propaganda from Kerry. Sarin persists in the kind of signature chemicals it produces. If it didn't why would there have been any other investigations of CW use in Syria (which inconveniently revealed  evidence of rebel use, helpfully brought to our attention by Carla Del Ponte). We've been encouraged to forget this and the Turkish arrest of rebels with CW some months back.

Josie, how many times do you need to be lied to eg Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, Iraq, Afghanistan..etc etc...before you get sick of Uncle Sam crying Wolf? - and ask yourself, how does killing some more people for killing people end? Time for you to reflect on  this history and think again.

by Alex Coleman on September 04, 2013
Alex Coleman

Hi Josie.

The Powell Doctrine is a list of 8 questions Powell said the US shoudl be able to answer in the affirmative before deploying troops. If that was meant the follow up is that the US should deploy sufficient force to achive the objective as quickly and as overwhelmingly as possible. It's an inherently realist doctrine designed to avoid the country getting involved in wars with no clear purpose, as aknee jerk reaction.

the questions are:

1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?

2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?

3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?

4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?

5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?

6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?

7. Is the action supported by the American people?

8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

Even if we accept that duty to protect meets "1", (and I do), I don't think any of the others can be answered 'yes' in light of what the US administration has been saying. They are being quite explicit that D2P is not the framework in any case. Today they went as far as to say that regime change might be a "collateral effect" of the attacks they are planning. That seems to me to be still saying that as far as the civil war goes, they will not be getting involved. There will be no safe havens or refugee corridors established or defended. Assad will be left, essentially, to fight as long as he ceases the use of CW. 

 

That's not to say that there isn't an intervention that left wingers could support in Syria. But it doesn't seem to be this one, as far as I'm concerned.  

 

 

 

 

by Richard James McIntosh on September 07, 2013
Richard James McIntosh

The Syrian civil war is being fed from abroad! There are aspects of it which are reminicent of Cold War-era proxy conflicts, Angola for example.

The great powers are quite able to dampen the conflict by stemming the flow of weapons, parts, munitions and finance to the combatants.

Military strikes on Syrian territory by great powers will suit their own domestic purposes, but stop or modify the established patterns of the conflict? No.

"R2P" doctrine is mobilised by you, Josie, to bolster an argument in favour of attacking a country. International Law indeed!

Regarding New Zealand's perspective, thank goodness it's Murray McCully (!!!) and not you who is Minister of Foreign Affairs. In public at least he said more than once this week, "multilateral path, multilateral path". 

Go on though, girl, there's a small chance a good drubbing of the drums of war might make people pay attention to what you're saying... if they can lipread.

 

 

 

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