War Won’t Stop Atrocities–But Talking Might

Published in the Yorkshire Post, September 12, 2013

I HAVE a visceral memory of the cell-phone photo of a man with his eye-lids pulled off by the Syrian secret police.

This photo was shown to me in the Za’atari refugee camp by a coffee shop owner from Dara, who had fled to the camp, but left his imprisoned brother behind. I held a newborn girl in a small hot dusty tent in Za’atari, and talked to her mother, who, heavily pregnant, had fled the worst kind of war, while her husband politely asked me – as a university lecturer – why Britain did not intervene to help them.

Despite these personal experiences, that cause the blood to boil – and despite the possibility of good clear political, moral and legal arguments for intervention – I still must pause.

As a social scientist, I have to listen to the empirical evidence – and what it tells us. And the evidence for armed intervention at this moment in global history doesn’t look good, despite the House of Commons vetoing British involvement.


The only kind of war that ends mass atrocities outright is the kind of total war that eliminates the regime in its entirety. That’s not what anyone in the West is lobbying for, and it requires a whole different level of commitment that nobody outside Syria is prepared for.

So what other policies at our disposal end mass atrocities? The evidence shows us that aside from outright military victories, or regime exhaustion (neither happening here), another kind of action can prove very effective: deal making.

Deal-making isn’t pretty, and it certainly doesn’t sound as decisive as sending in cruise missiles to bomb Assad’s military HQ.

But it’s usually the best means to get brutal dictators to stop committing mass atrocities.

Two of the world’s leading analysts of protracted civil wars, Alex de Waal and Ken Menkhaus, have demonstrated repeatedly that deal-making is the
way fractious states are held together, and mass violence is brought to an 

Full essay is available here.

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