By Gareth Evans
Jun. 27, 2014
Only one possible justification – moral, political, or military – exists for renewed Western or other external military intervention in Iraq: Meeting the international responsibility to protect victims, or potential victims, of mass atrocity crimes – genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes against humanity or major war crimes.
Shiites and other non-Sunnis in the path of the marauding ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria) – a group whose ideology and behaviour are too extreme even for Al-Qaeda – have plenty of reason to fear such atrocities. Ugly executions of military and other captives have undoubtedly occurred in Mosul, Tikrit and other cities that were recently seized by ISIS.
But, based on the evidence that is currently available, it would be premature to conclude that violence against the defenceless has already occurred – or is imminent – on a scale that is necessary to justify outside military intervention.
Though pundits have been wrong about almost everything so far in this round of violence, the best current assessment of the overall military situation is that the acute phase of the crisis is past. The mobilization of Shiite militias means that the nightmare scenario that was envisaged, the fall of Baghdad, is unlikely, despite the virtual collapse of the Iraqi army.
According to this view, a protracted civil war can be expected, with the most probable long-term outcome being a permanent partition of Iraq along ethno-sectarian fault lines. In this scenario, the Kurds would control the north, the Sunnis would rule in the west and censer, and the Shiites would hold power in Baghdad and the south.
It is difficult to make a case for military intervention to prop up the current government and try to enable it to re-establish authority over the entire country. Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, has been brutal, corrupt, and outrageously sectarian – deeply embarrassing his supporters in the U.S. and sometimes even his patrons in Iran. Taking his side in an intercommoned civil war, even if it aided the much-needed rapprochement that has taken place between the United States and Iran, would simply add fuel to the Middle East cauldron.
Things might be different if Maliki could be persuaded to step down in favor of a broad-based Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish administration that is determined to govern inclusively and create an effective, non-political national army. Massive diplomatic effort certainly should be mobilized to achieve this goal. But this project has failed in the past, and the leadership needed to ensure its success is nowhere to be seen.
Even if such an optimal political outcome were achieved, it is difficult to see what value could be added by external military intervention intended to destroy ISIS as a militant Sunni force. Maybe the limited advisory and technical support now on offer from the United States would be of some use.
But, beyond that, airstrikes require targets – elusive when no armies are on the move – and all too often they produce innocent civilian casualties. And even 150,000 pairs of foreign boots on the ground were insufficient to stabilize the country after the horribly ill-judged U.S.-led military intervention in 2003.
None of these means that an external military option should be ruled out in the event of mass atrocity crimes occurring – or being imminently feared – at the hands of ISIS militants or anyone else. In 2005, 150 heads of state and government at the United Nations unanimously supported an international responsibility to protect (R2P) populations that were at risk, which in extreme cases could take the form of Security Council-authorized military intervention, as happened in 2011 in response to the behaviour of Mu’ammar Qadhafi’s regime in Libya.
Disagreement about the use of that mandate to pursue regime change, rather than only protection of civilians, paralyzed the Security Council in the face of similar atrocities in Syria. But international support for basic R2P principles remains strong, with the Security Council itself continuing to use “responsibility to protect” terminology in its resolutions and statements (12 times, at last count, since Libya). It is not impossible to envisage a consensus re-emerging should a sufficiently horrifying new atrocity occur in Iraq.
Of course, no such intervention will, or should, be approved in practice unless it is seen as satisfying several moral or prudential criteria, which, though not yet adopted by the U.N. as formal benchmarks, have been the subject of much international debate and acceptance over the last decade.
Those criteria are that the atrocities occurring or feared are sufficiently serious to justify, prima facie, a military response; that the response has a primarily humanitarian motive; that no lesser response is likely to be effective in halting or averting the harm; that the proposed response is proportional to the threat; and that the intervention will actually be effective, doing more good than harm.
These criteria, particularly the last, will always be difficult to satisfy. But, should an obvious case for action arise in Iraq, we should not be so consumed by the desire not to repeat the misguided intervention in 2003, that we fail – as we did in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and so often elsewhere – to respond as our common humanity demands.
Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister and president of the International Crisis Group, chairs the New York-based
Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate