It was late one August evening and Parliament had voted to declare war on its own integrity. In refusing to come to the aid of the Syrian people, Britain became a nation of apathy, isolationism and cowardice, unwilling to stand for the principles of international law, the cries of Arabic suffering unintelligible to English ears. The Labour MPs marched out of the division chamber to see the footage of civilians massacred, with one sentence echoing throughout the corridor. “What have we done?”
They had compromised the foundations of a vital part of international law. The moment that nations refuse to stand up in defence of core principles, they cease to be law. This extends to the availability of force as a final resort forming a foundation of diplomatic negotiations. Anyone wishing to cross certain red lines must be prepared for the consequences. If there are no consequences to be seen, then these lines in the sand will be washed out to sea.
False succour was found in the relief that another Iraq had been averted, despite the only similarity being that they are both in the Middle East. No land forces were required. There was clear documentary evidence of the atrocities committed, in clear contravention of international law. A definite timeframe was set, with a clear mission: to impose sanctions in order to uphold international law. Indeed, they look to the wrong Iraqi conflict. Operation Provide Comfort was launched by an international coalition in 1990 to protect Kurds from Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. In doing so it supported a political entity which has endured. It is a democratic, stable and prosperous region, which recognises the debt owed to Western protection. Indeed, the Kurdish Peshmerga were sent to aid their neighbours in Syria (the YPG), and have proven how intervention combining Western technology with grassroots forces may prove vital in restoring stability.
These air strikes have been crucial in turning back the tide of Daesh (formally referred to as IS, ISIS or Isil): the bombing campaign has neutralised around half of their top command. Combined with a ground force of local forces who have been aided by western training, the campaign has gone from perpetual retreat to the recapture of 700 km2 of territory, including the crucial town of Kobane. The capture of Mount Sinjar prevented the genocide of the Yazidi population and delivered vital aid supplies to the besieged Yazidi community. The importance of intervention is clear: where the West has intervened, Daesh has lost momentum; elsewhere, it is gaining traction.
Much of the criticism centres on the belief that the complexity of the situation ensures that any intervention could only worsen the situation, elongating the civil war. The situation suggests otherwise: non-intervention has allowed the civil war to continue indefinitely. In the worst years of violence in after the American-led invasion of Iraq (2005-7), the average number of civilians killed was around 25,000. In two and a half years of conflict in Syria, more than 200,000 people have lost their lives, with no end in sight.
The death toll can only escalate while the regime knows that there will be no international consequences to its actions, which as they grow more severe will only foment a more extreme, ruthless opposition: ending any hope of negotiation. The call for intervention is not one for Western engineered regime change. It is one to enable a level playing field, empowering citizens of the nation in question to come to a solution adapted to their national circumstances.
Those who see dictators as the only guarantors of stability waste their summers praying in vain for a saviour to rise from those streets. Well they’re no heroes; that’s understood: on this front non-intervention has categorically failed. Syria is increasingly divided by one of bloodiest civil wars in history. No political settlement is in sight; no vision of how extremism, chaos, and violence will be contained and prevented. Chemical weapons have been used on civilians. 3 million refugees have been forced from their homes and the infrastructure of neighbouring nations is in crisis. Non-intervention has allowed Daesh to spread like a villainous cancer.
Those that criticise intervention for introducing abstract, western changes to a nation’s constitution are correct. In Syria, however, there was a grassroots movement begging for assistance. Those that equate assisting the rebel force with Daesh simplify the complexity of the rebel movement: one which presented a relatively united and moderate force up until assistance was denied. With the moderates devoid of support, the movement splintered, and the extremes gained power. In other words, non-intervention can be just as culpable for the radicalisation of a populace as intervention itself. Daesh is not aimed solely at the West, but also at regional despotic leaders: the crueller their methods become, the more likely people are to turn to extremism. Paradoxically, misjudged western intervention and western non-intervention are both key factors in the rise of extremism.
Despite the desperate state of affairs, we should see opportunity in the midst of crisis. Daesh poses a common threat around which the international community may unite. Humanitarian intervention can certainly be in the national interest, and it is the moderated pursuit of interest in this circumstance that could lead to greater understanding. Both Iran and the United States desperately desire to destroy Daesh: rallying against a common threat may provide vital impetus for a shift in relations. Even those on the brink of a proxy war in Ukraine have found common cause, and seek to contribute in different ways. Russia is threatened by the large number of Chechen volunteers and as such is drafting a UN Resolution targeting extremist finances.
Such a resolution cannot dispute that one of the most effective measures against Daesh’s treasury has been the military intervention. In October, the International Energy Agency said the coalition’s targeting of oil infrastructure had reduced crude production down to around 20,000 barrels per day from a high of around 70,000: oil receipts may have dropped by two-thirds to $750,000 a day from $2-3m in June. This has widespread repercussions: not only in terms of nervos belli pecuniam infinitam, but in providing services: if these cannot be provided, then loyalty to the regime could collapse.
Intervention cannot be seen as solely Western: extremists have very cleverly manipulated the divide within the Middle East to secure their position: it is only through a coherent, multilateral approach which welcomes intervention from Muslim states and from the entirety of the P5. This goal is certainly within reach. Jordan, following the murder of al-Kasasbeh, have promised a concerted effort to destroy Daesh. The situation is a unique opportunity to bridge the apparent divide between West and East. Russia looks to Daesh with worry, yet must know that no intervention in Iraq can be successful without resolving the situation in Syria. China has been heavily involved in South Sudan and in Mali where instability has threatened global interests. Indeed, Mali provides an example of how to engage both regional and international partners to stem the rise of extremist groups.
Intervention, therefore, must be seen as part of a wider strategy to target extremism: one in which we target the finances of Daesh, one which engages with regional partners to win the ideological war against it, one which isolates the supply of weapons to Daesh, one which recognises the need for an open dialogue with Muslim communities to ensure that vulnerable, disfranchised youths do not look to Daesh as an option. In the Middle East, this means ensuring that the appropriate political mechanisms are in place to support Sunni involvement within the state. It means working with Russia and China to ensure that a political solution may be found within Syria. We cannot kid ourselves into thinking that we are at the end of history, the West destined to prevail. If R2P (the concept of the international community’s ‘‘Responsibility to Protect’’ citizens from genocide or war crimes if their state fails to do so) is to survive, it must be through the recognition that it is in the national interest of all involved. Intervention is essential, but it is also an instrument within a greater narrative, in which all of the P5 must play their part.
This is not a mere abstract, historical discussion. The battlefield of R2P is more contested than ever, and Parliament is beginning to realise the extent of its errors. The Commons Defence Select Committee has strongly criticised Britain’s hesitation in its commitment to intervention against Daesh. Britain only has three military personnel stationed outside Kurdish Iraq compared to 3,000 Americans and 300 Spanish personnel. Britain has contributed 40 heavy machine guns, compared to Germany’s 16,000 assault rifles, 10,000 hand grenades and 8,000 pistols. Meanwhile, RAF aircraft, confined to bombing Iraq and not Syria, have only contributed to 6% of the total strikes against Islamic State positions. Those who once stood in the way of intervention now see its necessity.
Time and time again we are told that intervention cannot work: and yet time after time the greatest atrocities have occurred when the international community has turned a blind eye, kidding itself that there is nothing that can be done, just as the guilty sinner convinces himself to do evil in the name of some artificial good. Neither intervention nor non-intervention offer a complete solution: we must work through diplomatic and regional channels to ensure that any intervention forms part of a long term strategy, both treating the symptoms, the causes and setting in place the necessary measures to sustain a transition to a state of affairs adapted to the country itself.
Foreign policy is not a boat which can be allowed to float lazily downstream. It is clear that apathy and isolation offers a far more worrying reality than involvement, a reality in which we care only for those who look, talk and think like us, where we ride to the North Sea, and wash these sins off our hands. A world that clicks for Charlie, yet won’t raise a finger for those massacred in Nigeria, Syria or Iraq. We can’t stand to let this reality take hold. Everything is still very much to play for.