By Chris Doyle
13 August 2014
Twelve months ago, chemical weapons were deliberately used on Syrian civilians in a sarin gas attack to the east of Damascus. It reignited a tempestuous debate about humanitarian intervention, the issue of the right to protect and just war.
The ghosts of Afghanistan and Iraq towered over debates in both Washington and London. Dramatically, the British parliament voted against the government, rejecting getting involved in military action. Obama insisted on having approval from congress, a body with whom he himself has frequently been in conflict. The eleventh hour Kerry-Lavrov stitch up led to a deal that has seen the Assad regime give up its declared stocks of chemical weapons, perhaps the only single positive outcome of the last three years in Syria.
The intervention debate ended abruptly with that deal, leaving it festering and unresolved. Those in favour last year still argue that significant military action would have toppled the Assad regime and prevented the flourishing of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its self-styled promotion as an Islamic Caliphate. Opponents of intervention argue that Western action would only have created chaos and a greater vacuum for the extremists to flourish with no guarantee of success. It would have fractured Syria even more, they argue, than it is today. Realists in the U.S. and Britain ask why the outside world should get involved and if it did, what would the exit strategy and the definition of success be?
The result is that neither in the United States nor in Britain is there any clarity as to the circumstances in which intervention might or might not be justified. This means that the reactions to events in Iraq have been slow, weak and tentative.
A Humanitarian Intervention
Given that ISIS threatens to carry out genocide against various communities in Iraq, backing up their threats with mass executions, mass burials and crucifixions, a humanitarian intervention has some justification. Obama has ordered military action to protect the Kurdish areas and prevent ISIS from wiping out over 50,000 Yazidis in the Sinjar mountains. Britain has started to aid this humanitarian intervention, a mission clearly creeping from merely a supporting role to military partner.
Yet if the aim is to save the Yazidis and protect the Kurdish areas, this is a pedestrian response that is too half-hearted to achieve either goal. General Richard Shirreff, Britain’s most senior officer in NATO until March, slammed the British government for “posturing.” The Yazidis are dying every day, some from hunger, others at the hands of ISIS. It is not clear how much of the humanitarian aid gets to its intended recipients without being lost or destroyed. The air strikes have boosted Kurdish morale but their limited number have barely dented ISIS’s advances.
This limited operation no doubt appealed to Obama’s low-risk outlook. The president is clearly nervous of being sucked back into the very country he worked so hard to get out of. The hard reality is that the White House is in election mode, as is David Cameron in Britain.
Yet Obama’s very caution arguably has increased the risk. The Yazidis have not been saved or taken out of danger and at best they have some survival rations left in the blistering heat of the Iraqi summer. ISIS has barely been deterred by the limited number of U.S. air strikes. Their fighters have run rampant over much of northern and western Iraq with no external response. The slow hesitant response allowed ISIS to gain strength in Iraq and acquire advanced American weaponry as well as billions of dollars in assets all of which will make defeating ISIS a much longer-term and more painful prospect.
If the U.S. and UK are serious about saving these peoples a much heavier military footprint may be required, at least to evacuate the Yazidis to safety. Half measures will get half results.
Saving Some, Abandoning Others
Yet as we take action in Iraq, Syrians are entitled to ask why Iraqi Yazidis and Kurds get protection and they do not. Palestinians ask why Western states arm their oppressor and ask them, the occupied, to provide security for the occupier. Why were Rwanda and Darfur ignored? Iraqis are similarly right to ask why the military occupation from 2003 was so disastrously planned and why their country was destroyed and looted under U.S. control.
The debate over intervention and the right to protect cannot just be resurrected every time there is a major crisis. It is a debate should never die down until there is a coherent framework that would give clarity on when external intervention is justified based on consistent application of sound principles.
Without this, intervention may hardly ever be possible. Public support for interventions in the U.S. and European states has plummeted. A majority of Americans were against a strike on Syria and it would have taken a gutsy president to have ignored that. Either U.S. and EU leaders accept that interventions are no longer viable or they set about winning back public and political support for what has become a discredited aspect of foreign policy.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.