International law is on the side of intervention in Syria

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 

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.