Today’s refugee crisis is one result of doing nothing to stop Bashar al-Assad after he used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.

Everyone talks about the human consequences of intervention. But we also need to look at the human consequences of doing nothing.

It was a catastrophically wrong decision to fail to intervene two years ago.

The opposite of intervention was never going to be peace. It was always going to be this; children like Aylan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach fleeing certain death back home. 8 million Syrian refugees forced to flee their homes.

In 2013, after the first chemical attack, I argued for New Zealand to be part of an international intervention to stop another attack. I said we had a responsibility to protect innocent civilians no matter what country they lived in if tyrants were committing mass murder. Those tyrants must not be able to murder with impunity. If civilised nations did not respond, we were culpable. 

Too many said, “It’s complicated, so we shouldn’t get involved.” They let the tragic mistakes in Iraq paralyse them from supporting the principle that when civilians are under attack we act to protect the innocent.

The 2003 Iraq war was illegal. The weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist any more, as they clearly had in 1988. Syria was different. There was a legal framework under the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) principle.

R2P was introduced after the failure of the international community to stop genocide in Rwanda in 1994. 

No one credible doubts Assad ordered the murder of Syrian civilians. We had moral and legal grounds to intervene. 

Those who argued ‘do nothing because it’s too complicated’ need to show us they understand the appalling mistake they made. 

Just as George W Bush is accountable for an act of commission in invading Iraq, there are many culpable for the act of omission in Syria, of failing to intervene when we should have - just as civilised nations failed in Rwanda and in Srebenica. 

You don’t get to oppose intervention on the grounds of humanitarian consequences and then ignore the humanitarian catastrophe of failing to intervene.

We have to do our bit to help mop up now. We have to help the Syrian refuges. One of the main reasons we have to help is that we failed to act earlier. If John Key and National propose a one-off intake of 500 Syrians today, it's a start, but still leaves us behind Australia and other countries who are being more generous. 

And it was a gesture late coming. John Key doesn't like to be unpopular. As was said of a UK politician, you can't replace your moral compass with a clap-o-meter and expect people not to notice.

Be clear what the consequences of inaction are: hundreds of thousands more dead, eight million displaced and homeless, and Assad still killing with impunity.

Comments (31)

by mikesh on September 07, 2015

There seemed at the time to be evidence that the chemical weapons in question were used by the rebels, not by Assad, and had been supplied by Saudi Arabia. Also, it seemed unlikely that Assad would use them when that would have brought America into the war.

by Voice_of_Reason on September 07, 2015

As there was never any proof that Assad used Chemical weapons so surely that isnt the greatest idea to go and wage war in another Middle Eastern country ( See WMD/Iraq as the previous example) Having said that he is using barrel bombs etc on civilian populations so no he is no saint but civil wars are historically the most brutal.

And what happens if Assad was overthrown. Who steps into the breach?? Al Qaeda or ISIS . Take you pick. There are no easy answers and if the ignorant oil hungry USA hadnt got involved in Iraq post Sept 11th this surely wouldnt have played out as it has. To think that Al Qeada didnt exist in Iraq prior to the illegal "Operation Iraqi Freedom" kicked off and look at the country now. So very sad!

by mikesh on September 07, 2015

The Russians are/were backing Assad and presumably would have vetoed any action by the UN.

by onsos on September 07, 2015

It seems simple to just bomb Assad’s forces. The realpolitik of the situation meant that the outcomes were always going to be complicated and chaotic.

This would have directly strengthened ISIL, which was the dominant opposition force by 2013. It would have given them more moral authority, and weakened the government’s forces. This would have meant ignoring Russia’s opposition to the intervention. They would likely have responded by escalating their support for Assad, as they are talking about now.

Perhaps it would have been a good idea to launch a strike at Assad’s regime in 2013 or 2014. If the goal was to precipitate quicker victory of Assad or ISIL in the civil war, or to trigger an escalation of the conflict through the involvement of Russia, then it made perfect sense. The bombing would have bolstered ISIL, and might have brought the Civil War to a quicker close with their victory. Or it could have escalated the diplomatic conflict with Russia, and precipitated their earlier involvement. It might be the case that these were better outcomes than the ongoing civil war.

by onsos on September 07, 2015

By way of background, you can look at the history of the conflict and how it came to that point. What is apparent is that unilateral and piecemeal interventions are disastrous.

In 2003, the Coalition of the Willing invaded Iraq, and failed to secure the border regions. This is where ISIL took hold. That Coalition is responsible for producing the environment which made ISIL possible, laying the groundwork for the current civil war.

During the Arab Spring in 2011, Western powers (particularly our friends, USA, UK, and France) worked assiduously to de-stabilise the Assad regime, and supported opposition elements in starting the civil war itself. They later provided a huge amount of support to the FSA. Nonetheless, this was too little and too late. The FSA proved inadequate, and that support was siphoned to the much more effective ISIL. This led to the bizarre position where the same Western powers found themselves indirectly supporting ISIL in Syria.

By the time that the chemical weapons attacks took place, those Western nations had lost the moral authority to act. They had already positioned themselves as participants in the war.  They are no in the invidious position of opposing both the Syrian government, and its principle opposition (ISIL). Attempts to destroy the Assad regime would simply hand Syria over to ISIL.

by Rich on September 07, 2015

How would any intervention get rid of Assad whilst stopping ISIS from taking power - like they are doing?

The west is good at killing people and destroying armies, and very bad at implementing any sort of replacement government (mostly because a large part of the population doesn't want the sort of government we want to impose).

The only possible options would be to:

- impose a dictator, but one who isn't quite as despotic as Assad

- set up a police state that's a cross between 17th century England and 1950's East Germany, with extensive surveillance and zero tolerance of any religious and political movements outside a state religion of "moderate" Islam. (the Stalin solution)

- slaughter the entire population and grant the land to settlers (the Australian solution)

I don't think any of those would be an improvement for the locals. They might be considered an improvement for the "west", at least until the process had to be repeated in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.


by Fentex on September 07, 2015

There are assumptions in this article that...

a) Intervention could have successfully defeated Assad (instead of, for arguments sake, escalating the conflict by drawing more combatants in).

b) Defeating Assad would have forestalled the refugee problem (a better bet I think, but given the evidence that the economic upheaval that drove rebellion is a persistent drought, and that resolving issues with Assad would not resolve all the conflicts it isn't certain).

It is, to my mind, exactly the same sort of thinking war hawks fall prey to - the assumption that the best possible outcome is/was the most likely.

And it picks and chooses the point at which decisions ought have been different. Why go back to a point where nations had to chose to intervene in Syria or not but not more saliently (to my mind) back to the invasion and destruction of Iraq that is a more influential cause?

We hanged Nazis at Nuremburg for exactly the same crime the U.S, U.K and allies committed - the prosecution of aggressive warfare. 

Tap dancing around that to try and pick lesser acts to salve peoples consciences pretending they could be the good guys and save the day with just the right judicious uses of violence and force is moral masturbation in the absence of efforts to try and enforce the international laws that exist to stop these disasters.

by onsos on September 07, 2015


As a final comment, structurally it was complicated, but that did not mean we should not be involved. If we look at the different stages, we see that different approaches are possible. In each case, the western powers could have either been more decisive, or taken a multilateral approach.

In 2003, the Colaition of the Willing should have stayed out of Iraq. They did not have the moral, political, or military wherewithal to secure peace in Iraq. This should be unsurprising: this was one of the dominant strands of opposition to the conflict.

But if they were going to invade, they needed an overwhelming force of the kind that had won the Gulf War—500,000 troops instead of 100,000, with heavy support (tanks, etc.) as well as the mobile forces favoured by Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. This would have given them a much better capacity to secure a peaceful outcome at the outset.

In 2003, when the invasion of Iraq took place, the Coalition of the Willing should have worked to get Assad on side. Yes he is a brutal dictator, but we work with those all the time. This would have helped to secure the western flank of Iraq, and would have helped stabilise the areas where ISIL developed.

After the invasion, Bush’s government should have worked quickly to reinstate a functional government in Iraq. This would have meant reinstating Ba’athist functionaries. Faced with the instability in western Iraq from 2006 onwards, the Coalition allies should have moved rapidly to bolster neighbouring states’ ability to fight ISIL and prevent them using neighbouring nations’ territory. This would have meant co-operating with Assad.

During the Arab Spring, Western Powers should not have supported the opposition to Assad. They did not have the wherewithal to support them in the subsequent conflict, as was clear to all. The FSA was inadequate to overthrow Assad’s regime, which meant that de-stabilisation was going to favour ISIL and al-Nusra, who were the dominant opposition.

Having supported the beginning of the Civil War, the West needed to support the FSA decisively. This was how they won the Libyan conflict. Unfortunately, this was not really possible, because Russia opposed it.

When ISIL and al-Nusra took the ascendancy in the opposition to Assad in late 2013/ early 2014, the FSA was clearly done for. This should have been acknowledged. At that point it would have been apparent that Assad, al-Nusra or ISIL was going to triumph, and that the western powers had to make a decision as to which of these they would support. Instead, they decided to favour the FSA and affiliated forces.

It’s lovely to think that the west could intervene and somehow support the FSA, defeat ISIL and al-Nusra, overthrow Assad, and install a democratic regime. But the reality is that the FSA and its affiliates are in the weakest position. Assad has significant international support and is the incumbent. ISIL and al-Nusra have much greater resources and revolutionary energy than the FSA, etc. 

by Alan Johnstone on September 07, 2015
Alan Johnstone

Attacking Assad just hands control of Syria to ISIS.

The idea that there was some "nice" Syrian alternative two years is a fantasy.

Pre-war Assad was a reformer, Syria was a emerging democracy. He was forced into this by outside forces, funded by our Saudi friends who we buy sheep farms for 

Our best solution now is to allow the Russians to facilitate a swift Assad victory

by Alex Coleman on September 07, 2015
Alex Coleman

You never actually said what you were advocating for though Josie. You hand waved away the objections around how complicated it is, and you still haven't addressed them.

Instead, you just pat yourself on the back for having urged, 'do something'. 'Do something' is not a plan. 'Do this particular thing', is a plan.

The fact that it was arguably legal isn't the point. Bush's invasion of Iraq was arguably legal, but even if it was illegal, that isn't what turned it into a humanitarian disaster. What caused the disaster was the lack of realistic planning and understanding of the local conditions.

You seem to think your critics were paralysed by the failure if Iraq, and that this was only about the legality. False. 

In your initial post you cited the Powell Doctrine, though you left out large parts of it. GWB's invasion failed the Powell doctrine in many respects. It failed to really account for political realities on the ground, it failed the honesty test, it failed to plan out contingencies. These are the things people meant when they talked about how 'complicated' it was. We were not being squeamish, we were looking at the realities on the ground and wondering what exactly it was you were asking us to support.

The flipside of 'doing nothing is not a plan' is that 'proposing "something" is not even a thing'.

It would be good if you could at least make a token effort to address this angle if you are going to claim that your critics are as morally culpable for Syria today as Bush is for Iraq.

I'd start with explaining how under D2P the west would avoid being drawn into a deeper conflict if airstrikes failed to stop Assad. I'd also discuss the facts about regional politics;

ie, the fact that the govt in Baghdad supports Assad and that he has many Iraqi shia militia (not to mention Hezbollah and Qods) in country and fighting for him, the fact that the Turkish govt opposes Kurdish strength, and the fact that the anti-Assad forces are dominated by militant Sunni. 

These are not trivialities, they are decisions that have to made in order to get to what the 'something' is that you say we should have done. 

Should have we gone to war with Hezbollah, the Badr brigade et al? Should we have invaded if and when airstrikes failed to protect, (as seems likely given how committed each side seems to the fight)?

Would the D2P extend to Allawites and other Shia? How would this be enforced? 

Would our D2P also mean bombing Sunni groups aligned to AQ/IS. What would have been the predictable reaction to that?

When these sorts of issues were raised previously, you simply said yes it;s complicated but global community has a duty etc. That's not an answer to the policy paralysis, it's just wishing it away. And that's not morally serious.




by Ross on September 07, 2015

It was always going to be this; children like Aylan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach fleeing certain death back home.

Actually, Kurdi had lived in Turkey for the last 3 years. He wasn't living in Syria and hadn't for quite some time.

by Ross on September 07, 2015

Whether the story of Kurdi's death is accurate remains to be seen.

by Rich on September 07, 2015

In the 19th century, after the British establishment had come to the realisation that colonising countries overtly to steal their resources and enslave the population was immoral, the concept of "enlightened colonialism" was adopted. This was based on the idea that "lesser breeds" could not govern themselves ('evidenced' by atrocious behaviour, real and mythical, ranging from human sacrifice to suttee).

Sound familiar?

It mostly didn't work (NZ and Tasmania being the best and worst extremes of "not working"). The colonised didn't accept being "civilised", the colonisers morphed "educate and develop" into "enslave and exploit" and eventually, Britain and the rest of the "developed" world decided sensibly that colonialism wasn't a good idea and abandoned it.

Now it's back, in a half hearted way and under the guise of a "duty to protect" (with a fairly obvious bias - there never seemed to be any "duty to protect" the Fijians or Burmese). It isn't any more of a good idea than it was in 1946.


by Murray Grimwood on September 07, 2015
Murray Grimwood

Libya and Egypt went well. Perhaps we should copy what happened there.

:Rwanda wasn't a genocide. Rwanda was too many people in too small a space (meaning, not enough resources). The fight happened along whanau lines, but they were consequential not causal.

Funny what folk have to buy into, to assuage the original conscience-problem. 3rd Party Political broadcast from this person, and no doubt counting.

by Wayne Mapp on September 07, 2015
Wayne Mapp

Alan Johnstone

Pre-war Syria an emerging democracy? Who are you kidding? 

The whole reason why there is a civil war is because Assad during 2010 brutally put down the protests that were calling for democracy. Much as in the manner of his father. You seem to have conveniently forgotten that Assad's police and military were killing hundreds in the streets during 2010. This is what precipitated the armed struggle against Assad. And it was the West's complete failure to properly back the opposition that meant Assad was not toppled at that stage. The outcome of this failure was predicted by Tony Blair (though I realize for the Left anything that Blair says is ipso facto wrong - forgetting his success in foreign policy as a PM prior to Iraq).

Blair was right, and Obama and Cameron were wrong.

Mr Johnstone, you are entitled to your prejudices, you are not entitled to invent your "facts".

by Wayne Mapp on September 07, 2015
Wayne Mapp


Well at the moment Egypt is about 1000% better than Syria. 

by Alex Coleman on September 07, 2015
Alex Coleman

" forgetting his success in foreign policy as a PM prior to Iraq"

Aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?

Obviously Assad made the mistake of not hiring Tony:

by Alan Johnstone on September 07, 2015
Alan Johnstone

Mr Mapp,

I don't invent my own facts.

Hillary Clinton used the word "reformer" in conjunction with President Assad, when he came to power one of his first acts was the release of large numbers of political prisoners.

The early days of his leadership saw the "Damascus Spring", where many restrictions were lifted. Private newspapers were opened.

That a lot of the reforms weren't followed through on is sad, the security situation was problematic. 

by Charlie on September 07, 2015

Josie: 100% correct!

There was willingness by the Europeans to get involved and all it would have taken was a nod from the Americans. This humanitarian disaster is the direct result of Obama's weakness in the face of that tinpot thug, Putin.

Along the same lines the only reason ISIS is running amok in Iraq is because Obama removed the military bases when it was clear the place was still unstable.

His Presidency has been a disaster for foreign relations.


by Ross on September 07, 2015

Ah, yes, Tony Blair, disgraced former PM who was a good mate of Gadaffi's. I can see why the Right might put him on a pedestal.

by Brendon Mills on September 08, 2015
Brendon Mills

Last time I looked, Assad's Syria was a secular Arab nation. Women could walk around in western clothing without some nutter throwing acid in their faces,unlike Saudi, Iran, Pakistan, etc.

Same with Iraq under Saddam and Libya under Ghadaffi.

It seems that every time the West intervenes in a regional conflict (which results from previous Western interference) it really only makes things worse.

Alan Johnstone is right from where I can see. A strong Syria, backed Russian hardware and manpower (which seems to be happend from the reports I have read), may be the only way to defeat ISIS, depsite what the Fukuyama-ists might think.

by Brendon Mills on September 08, 2015
Brendon Mills

Last time I looked, Assad's Syria was a secular Arab nation. Women could walk around in western clothing without some nutter throwing acid in their faces,unlike Saudi, Iran, Pakistan, etc.

Same with Iraq under Saddam and Libya under Ghadaffi.

It seems that every time the West intervenes in a regional conflict (which results from previous Western interference) it really only makes things worse.

Alan Johnstone is right from where I can see. A strong Syria, backed Russian hardware and manpower (which seems to be happend from the reports I have read), may be the only way to defeat ISIS, depsite what the Fukuyama-ists might think.

by Wayne Mapp on September 08, 2015
Wayne Mapp


Assad's secular arab nation also shot hundreds of people in the streets in 2010. That is what precipitated the civil war. Of course Assad the junior thought he could act like his father and massacre hundred of people, and that would end the matter. But the Arab Spring was different to prior insurgencies. The Arab dictatorships could no longer count on the loyalty of all sections of the Army.

Having said all of that, it is no longer apparent what the outcome will be. Assad doesn't seem to be able to win. ISIS has committed so many outrages, no-one wants them to win. The other opposition forces seem to have collapsed and become the refugees - hence why there are so many military age men among the refugees.

Whatever chance the West had in 2010 to support the non ISIS insurgents seems to have evaporated.

Most civil wars end with a victor, or a partition, but at least for the moment that is not in sight.

I do detect that ISIS is backing off the level of anti-West actions as being counter-productive. If that is actually occurring then the current air campaign will wind down. ISIS could then win, at least over a large part of the country. But Iran and Russia are clearly backing Assad, so even that is not certain.


by onsos on September 08, 2015

The Arab Spring was different to prior insurgencies because the west was actively engaged in supporting the opposition FSA, and committed to funding them in the Civil War. With Russia backing the Assade regime, this was always going to lead to escalation. It also led to the growth of al-Nusra and ISIL in Syria.


This was intensely counter-productive. The rise of al-Nusra and ISIL is worse than the maintenance of the Assad regime, on a humanitarian level, and it has led to a situation where Iran and Russia are justified in escalating their support of Assad, and increasing their influence in the region. On top of that, civil wars are horrific, and this is no exception.


If the West was capable of the realpolitik necessary to prosper in the region, they would have supported Assad long ago. As it is, they have persisted in supporting in FSA, who cannot win. This support has been co-opted by ISIL.


What needs to happen is the opposite of what Pagani is doing here. There needs to be an acknowledgement that the west’s support of the Syrian opposition has backfired, and there is no reason to assume that this will change. There needs to be acknowledgement that Assad’s victory is the best possible outcome, in spite of the fact that Assad is a brutal dictator.

by Voice_of_Reason on September 08, 2015

Interesting article in the Atlantic of Syria pre war versus post war. The West meddling yet again has led to a humanitarian disaster for the local populace. Syria even managed to make GW Bush's hit list of the "Axis of Evil" with sanctions etc so really it was only a matter of time before "regime change" was attempted in typical messy fashion.

During the rule of the two Assads, Syria made considerable progress. By the eve of the civil war, Syrians enjoyed an income (GDP) of about $5,000 per capita. That was nearly the same as Jordan’s, roughly double the income per capita of Pakistan and Yemen, and five times the income of Afghanistan, but it is only a third that of Lebanon, Turkey, or Iran, according to the CIA World Factbook. In 2010, savaged by the great drought, GDP per capita had fallen to about $2,900, according to UN data. Before the civil war—and except in 2008 at the bottom of the drought, when it was zero—Syria’s growth rate hovered around 2 percent, according to the World Bank. In social affairs, nearly 90 percent of Syrian children attended primary or secondary schools and between eight and nine in 10 Syrians had achieved literacy. On these measures, Syria was comparable to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Libya despite having far fewer resources to employ. 


by Rich on September 08, 2015

The best plan would be to not support anyone and to reduce our use of fossil fuels, which are the only thing of any consequence produced in the area, thus decoupling ourselves from the whole mess.

In fifty or a hundred years, people will probably realise that radical Islam is a dumb idea and adopt a more secular and liberal course.

by Charlie on September 08, 2015


This is to refresh your memory about the Assad regime. A regime of terror and thuggery going back decades which the 'luvvies' in the media chose to ignore because it didn't fit with their anti-Israel agenda (yes, you Jane)





by Lee Churchman on September 09, 2015
Lee Churchman

Everyone talks about the human consequences of intervention. But we also need to look at the human consequences of doing nothing.

I don't trust any of our government to do anything that doesn't have a higher probability of making things worse. They're just not up to it, as the Iraq debacle and subsequent disasters have proved (and anyone still defending Iraq, or for that matter who ever argued in favour of it should be permanently removed from influence). 

by mikesh on September 09, 2015

"Assad's secular arab nation also shot hundreds of people in the streets in 2010. That is what precipitated the civil war. Of course Assad the junior thought he could act like his father and massacre hundred of people, and that would end the matter."

Dear me, Wayne. Assad must hopped out of bed one morning in 2010 and, on a whim, must have said to himself "I think I'll arrange to shoot a few hundred people in the streets today. What a lot of fun that will be."

by Peggy Klimenko on September 09, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

@ Josie Pagani: " It was always going to be this; children like Aylan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach fleeing certain death back home. 8 million Syrian refugees forced to flee their homes."

It is just as likely to have also been like this as as a result of intervention. Worse, even: 8 million Syrian corpses, either in the ruins of their homes and cities, or floating in the Mediterranean. You - and we - cannot know the counterfactual, but, given the chaotic situation in Syria in 2013, the outcome of intervention wouldn't have been better.

You are wrong about this, as you were in 2013 when you argued for intervention. And the rest of us, who pointed to the perils inherent in yet another imperialist adventure, were right. The arguments against trying to fix what we thought was going awry in Syria were canvassed at that time, and have been again here. All we in the west can do now is to offer what help we can to the innocents, and thank our lucky stars that our polities hadn't blundered in, thereby bringing about an even bigger catastrophe.

by Andrew P Nichols on September 10, 2015
Andrew P Nichols

Josie this article utterly depresses me in that I'm seeing someone I thought was  another ostensibly intelligent progressive political figure swallow all the lazy conventional propaganda about Syria that deliberately ignores the wider context of what has happened here since 2011. You really need to find the time to read more widely than the Dominion and Time magazine.

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