The 2013 vote against military action in Syria by the House of Commons has proved to be every bit as fateful as the decision to go to war would have been. Twenty years after the end of the Kosovo War – and the soul searching that this inspired – the United Kingdom (UK) still lacks a coherent doctrine of humanitarian intervention. As a global power with a long tradition of intervening on humanitarian grounds, which goes as far back as the interventions in France and the Netherlands during the religious wars of the sixteenth century, Britain should undertake a thorough inventory of its military and political capacities to intervene as part of a comprehensive strategy of atrocity prevention.
On 21 August 2013 the Syrian Army fired rockets containing poison gas into two separate civilian areas of the Ghouta area of Damascus. Pictures of dead children lined up on carpets and laid out on hospital floors flooded the international media. The total death toll will never be known for certain, but a United States (US) government assessment puts it at nearly 1,500, with more than 400 of them children. The chemical of choice? Sarin, the weapons-grade nerve agent favoured by Saddam Hussein during the Anfal genocide twenty-five years earlier. Sarin gas kills by paralysing the lung muscles, and it might have taken up to 10 minutes to suffocate its child victims.
Far from being an aberration, this attack was only the latest outrage from the regime in Damascus. Ever since the 2011 rebellion descended into a civil war it had been using banned munitions against its own people. Human Rights Watch reported in 2013 the extensive and unlawful
use of weapons by Syrian government forces, including heavy 240mm mortars against populated areas, antipersonnel mines, indiscriminate air-dropped bombs, at least six types of cluster munitions, incendiary weapons against civilians, and indiscriminate tactical ballistic missiles.
The world had tolerated the butchery so far, but with the Sarin atrocity, the conscience of humankind was well and truly shocked.
US President Barack Obama’s famous ‘red line’ against the use chemical weapons had been crossed, and the Western alliance looked set to undertake a humanitarian intervention. But Prime Minister David Cameron’s inexplicable decision to put the question of intervention to a parliamentary vote spectacularly backfired. His proposal was defeated by a coalition of Labour parliamentarians and Tory rebels. Spooked by the British vacillation, Mr Obama soon cancelled the planned operation. Six years after the event, the decision of the House of Commons to veto a humanitarian intervention intended to degrade the Syrian regime’s capacity to deploy chemical weapons and shore up the ‘democratic’ opposition appears less than prudent.
Indeed, inaction in the face of repeated atrocities by the Syrian regime has done nothing to strengthen international peace and security. The years since have witnessed the normalisation of chemical weapons attacks against civilians (with at least 106 occurring since Syria became a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013), a refugee crisis unprecedented in Europe since the Second World War which arguably contributed to Brexit and the wide-spread destabilisation of the European Union (EU), not to mention hundreds of thousands of dead, the rise of Daesh, and an imminent total victory for Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies – a victory won largely by bludgeoning civilian populations and almost completely destroying much of the country’s infrastructure.
But today, presented with the carnage in Syria, it is reasonable to ask what would have become of Libya if the UK and US had instead sat on their hands. Given both the rhetoric and track record of Muammar Gaddafi, an atrocious massacre in Benghazi and protracted civil war characterised by systematic targeting of civilians seems to be at least a plausible outcome.
To a significant degree, the decision not to act in Syria was a reaction against the perceived disaster of the 2011 intervention in Libya and the long shadow of Iraq. Yet the ongoing tragedy in Syria proves beyond doubt that non-intervention has consequences too. The original US plan, Senate Joint Resolution 21, provided for a 60 day air campaign to degrade and deter the Syrian regime’s capacity to further deploy chemical weapons or supply them to terrorist organisations. Deployment of Allied ground troops was specifically prohibited. The President was required to “consult with and submit to Congress an integrated US strategy for achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict in Syria, including a comprehensive review of current and planned US diplomatic, political, economic, and military policy towards Syria.” Unlike the war in Iraq, the proposed humanitarian intervention in Syria was limited, responded to an ongoing crisis actively destabilising the region and involving massive violations of universally accepted humanitarian norms, and aimed at a realistic and achievable political outcome.
In any case, the UK and the US were anyway drawn gradually into the conflict, first to fight Daesh and then to respond to yet another chemical weapons attack by the regime – in the rebel stronghold of Douma on 7th April 2018. But by then – due to the complexity of the situation on the ground and the fact that Russia had decisively ensconced itself in the vacuum left by Western inaction – the belated intervention was unable to have either a decisive impact on the course of the war or to substantially alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe. The moment had passed.
The perceived failure of the 2011 intervention to avert a much-publicised massacre in the Libyan city of Benghazi compounded a feeling that Western involvement could only make matters worse. Mr Obama himself, after all, famously called the post-war situation a “shit show”. But today, presented with the carnage in Syria, it is reasonable to ask what would have become of Libya if the UK and US had instead sat on their hands. Given both the rhetoric and track record of Muammar Gaddafi, an atrocious massacre in Benghazi and protracted civil war characterised by systematic targeting of civilians seems to be at least a plausible outcome. It is also important to note that the intervention in Libya was not an example of humanitarian intervention, because it was authorised by the United Nations (UN) Security Council under the auspices of the Responsibility to Protect.
All of this points to a failure of UK foreign policy to fully imbibe the lessons of the Kosovo War – the highly controversial NATO campaign against Serb aggression and ethnic cleansing – which concluded with the full withdrawal of Serbian forces from the separatist province 20 years ago this week. The Kosovo Report’s recommendation that “the time is now ripe for the presentation of a principled framework for humanitarian intervention,” which “could be used to guide future responses to imminent humanitarian catastrophes and…assess claims for humanitarian intervention,” rings as true in the wake of Libya and Syria as it did in the former Yugoslavia. The Responsibility to Protect, the global political commitment adopted at the 2005 World Summit to combat mass atrocity crimes, has made great strides in developing structural capacities for prevention. Yet the all-important issue of the UN Security Council veto was largely bypassed. The issue of humanitarian intervention comes into play as an exception to the established mechanisms for authorising the use of force within the UN Charter, i.e. when the Security Council is gridlocked by the threat or application of a veto from one of the five permanent members.
As the UK moves forward with its post-Brexit vision of a ‘Global Britain’, it should include a cohesive political and military doctrine to prevent mass atrocities.
As a global economic and military power with strategic obligations to a wider European area – through NATO – the UK cannot immunise itself from the destabilising consequences of mass atrocities carried out with impunity. This is especially so when they occur in highly volatile and strategically vulnerable regions such as the Middle East. Besides the moral impulse to respond to massive violations of international humanitarian law, it is also in the national interest to do so. Indeed, the weakening of the global prohibition against the use of chemical weapons may have already borne fruit on British streets.
As the UK moves forward with its post-Brexit vision of a ‘Global Britain’, it should include a cohesive political and military doctrine of humanitarian intervention within a broader, comprehensive and cross-government mass atrocity prevention strategy, focused on early prevention and capacity building. Britain already has a well-articulated legal position on the justifiability of humanitarian intervention, as set out in the wake of the 2018 strikes on Syria. This is defined by three key criteria:
- There is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;
- It must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and
- The proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).
This is supported by a centuries-long tradition of deploying force overseas to protect religious minorities from violent oppression, which can be traced as far back as Elizabeth I’s interventions in France and the Netherlands during the second half of the sixteenth century. The Royal Navy’s nineteenth-century offensive against the slave trade, and the numerous interventions to protect vulnerable Christian populations in the Ottoman Empire present other well-known foreign policy precursors to today’s attempts at humanitarian intervention. Establishing a doctrine of humanitarian intervention, within a broader cross-government atrocity prevention strategy, could increase the political will to act when the government’s legal thresholds have been met.
This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Forum on Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.