What Sir William Would do in Syria

Originally appeared in the New York Times/International Herald Tribune September 5, 2013.

By Alex de Waal and Bridget Conley-Zilkic

MEDFORD, Mass. — THE use of nerve gas in Syria is abhorrent, and those within the Syrian military command who ordered it are war criminals. But it is folly to think that airstrikes can be limited: they are ill-conceived as punishment, fail to protect civilians and, most important, hinder peacemaking.

The use of chemical weapons should be punished. No country should remain neutral when human beings are gassed. This is one thing on which the United States, Russia and Iran can agree. But the most convincing punishment would come through an international war crimes tribunal outside Syria.

Syrian civilians deserve protection from murder, but bombing won’t deliver it. Efforts to protect civilians through military action have a checkered history that reveals a fundamental truth: their success depends on whether they reinforce a political plan. From the creation of safe havens for Kurds in northern Iraq in 1991 to the campaign that ousted Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya in 2011, effective interventions support diplomacy; they don’t replace it.

The United States government dispatched nearly 30,000 troops to Somalia in 1992 and 1993 for humanitarian purposes, but the operation came to grief when the Americans stumbled into a partisan conflict, caused the deaths of hundreds of Somalis and lost 42 service members, including 18 killed in one culminating battle. The NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999 forced the Serbs to withdraw from Kosovo, but only after the campaign was expanded and the United Nations took responsibility for administering the area. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States and its allies got dragged into long and difficult wars. The consequences of NATO action in Libya are still uncertain.

The basic issue is efficacy, not legality. A century and a half ago, the British journalist, lawyer and parliamentarian Sir William Harcourt faced down a public clamor for Britain to intervene in the American Civil War. Writing under the pen name “Historicus” in The Times of London, Sir William argued that military intervention was like revolution: “a high and summary procedure which may sometimes snatch a remedy beyond the reach of law,” but “its essence is illegality and its justification is its success.”

The proponents of airstrikes against Syria invoke NATO’s Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 to argue that a limited bombing campaign can end massacres and civil wars. But that isn’t the lesson. The NATO raids didn’t end the atrocities, most of which — with the important exception of Srebrenica — had been perpetrated several years earlier. The air attacks were carried out in the same month as a ground offensive by allied Bosnian and Croatian armies, and helped American diplomatic efforts achieve a peace agreement; it was the combination that proved effective.

Syria is not Rwanda in 1994, abandoned by the world to week after week of systematic murder. The war is inflamed by multiple actors, with multiple agendas, backing up all sides. There is too much external intervention — not a void.

What’s missing is a political effort to seek peace. No talks are scheduled. The regional power brokers — Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which support the rebels, and Iran, which backs Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad — are at odds. American military action without a peace process involving all actors would only intensify the two-year-old war.

Sir William advised that the only aim of intervention should be peace, and that “to interpose without the means or the intention to carry into effect a permanent pacification is not to intervene, but to intermeddle.” Without credible peace negotiations, firing cruise missiles at Syria would be to intermeddle.

Sir William also warned that “intervention never has been, never will be, never can be short, simple, or peaceable.”

“I do not say,” he added, “that England, Russia and France might not impose their will on the American belligerents; I do not argue the question whether it is right that they should do so. But this I venture to affirm, that they never will and never can accomplish it, except by recourse to arms; it may be by making war on the North; it may be by making war on the South, or, what is still more probable, it may be by making war upon both in turns.”

And so Sir William advised Britain to stay out of the American conflict.

Punishment, protection and peace must be joined. None can be achieved in isolation. All require a strong international coalition. Syria needs a political process, and that demands that belligerents and all regional actors meet to set the terms of a solution. Force might still be required at that point, but it would at least serve a political process instead of standing in for it.

Chemical weapons shock the world’s conscience. Outrage will not dissipate, regardless of the slow pace of diplomacy. So far, international intervention has come in the form of arming all sides (and the rebels often seem as ready to turn their guns on one another as on the regime). The result is a conflict with a seemingly infinite capacity to metastasize.

An American assault on Syria would be an act of desperation with incalculable consequences. To borrow once more from Sir William: “We are asked to go we know not whither, in order to do we know not what.”

Alex de Waal is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. Bridget Conley-Zilkic is the foundation’s research director.



2 thoughts on “What Sir William Would do in Syria

  • September 6, 2013 at 1:33 am

    Dear Mr.de Waal and Ms. Conley-Zilkic,
    I read your op-ed piece in the NY Times today and felt like you were right on target regarding the need for world leaders to seek out peaceful interventions first, military ones later. However, I also read the opposing op-ed by Mr. Kristof which suggests responding militarily to the horrible massacre that occurred at the hands of Mr. Assad. I can see both points-of-view as valid. At a completely visceral level I imagine that if my family was killed or was soon to be threatened to be killed by Assad’s troops, I would want a quick military intervention as Mr. Kristof suggests to avoid ongoing mass killings of up to 5,000 people a month. So, this may be a case of finding a hybrid solution. Peace may be too high in the sky and irrelevant when people on the ground are carrying guns and threatening ones loved ones. Do you agree that the long road to peace may come at a great cost of human life? Can you say “Catch 22?”

    • September 6, 2013 at 11:53 am

      Thank you for your comment. Peace is not too high a goal; only through pursuit of this goal will any real civilian protection be possible. As many others have noted, more civilians have died from conventional than chemical weapons. While we do agree that chemical weapons are particularly heinous, we cannot pretend that response to this one threat in isolation from the larger conflict is a logical step.

      Further, the kind of military action currently being discussed will not protect civilians. It may feel powerful and emphatic to advocate for bombs to rain down, but this is a complex conflict and it will require a political plan for any action to be effective. There may yet be a role for international military action, but not in a vacuum. There are many people who argue that diplomacy has already run its course and to no effect–we disagree. There have been no talks with all the relevant players at the table–and this must include Iran, in addition to the other regional and international players. The first step to decrease the levels of violence is to diminish the military impact of the multiple outside players: Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, to be certain, but also Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, plus the U.S. and other nations.

      Today’s dominant framework for discussing response is wrong. It has become locked into the Iraq war debate over evidence, rather than where it needs to be, which is evaluation of the appropriate action. Have no doubt, we think action is needed. But bombing is not the only, nor, as we argued, is it the best action to consider. There is an opening forged by the global disgust for use of chemical weapons against civilians to enlist the regime’s allies to push it to the negotiating table and demand on real concessions. American insistence on military action alienates those actors, here I mean the regional players, not foremost the Syrian government (whose actions have destroyed any vestiges of legitimacy they might have still possessed), who are most needed to take advantage of this opening.

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