During the Hutu massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, there were urgent calls from around the world for something to be done to protect the victims. Because the only effective way of doing it was to send in troops, nothing was done.
In an interview with CNBC after the event, President Bill Clinton said that if the US had promptly sent 10,000 troops into the country, 300,000 lives could have been saved—a third of those killed. The sense that the international community had failed the Tutsis of Rwanda in part lay behind Nato’s involvement in the Kosovo conflict of 1998-9, when Yugoslav army action resulted in civilian deaths and the displacement of a quarter of a million people, many of them into freezing winter conditions without shelter.
Nato’s Kosovan intervention did not have UN support, despite the fact that the Security Council had passed a resolution shortly before (number 1199) expressing “grave concern” at the “excessive and indiscriminate use of force” by the Yugoslav army. Controversy over whether Nato’s involvement was “legal” therefore quickly arose; those saying it was illegal citing the absence of express UN licence for it, those on the other side citing the consistency of Nato’s actions with UN concerns and principles.
These precedents are among those that figure in thinking about possible intervention in Syria by outside powers. Naturally enough, prudential considerations weigh more with doubters than questions of principle; they always do. The bad experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan—in essence, getting bogged down in unwinnable conflicts at great expense to one’s own citizens’ lives and one’s own country’s money—are at the forefront of minds. Any sense of shame on the international community’s part at not lifting a finger to help the Tutsis in 1994 has largely faded; the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrian citizens, some in what seem to have been chemical poison attacks by the regime, scarcely seems to remind us of it.
The quarrel is now one between morality and legality. Military intervention in Syria by the US and other powers would be legal if there were a UN resolution licensing it. In the absence of such a resolution—and with Russia and China on the Security Council baulking at any such moves, that absence is likely to be permanent—the question becomes one entirely of moral acceptability. Is it acceptable to stand by while an over-armed regime inflicts brutalities on its own people in order to crush its rivals and retain power?
The prudentialists make a good point in reply: that the moral question is muddied by the fact that the inheritors of any victory over the Assad regime may not be any better once in power. The initiators of revolutions are rarely their inheritors; look at Egypt, where liberal secular intellectuals began a process that brought something they did not want, namely, the Muslim Brotherhood taking power and abusing it, which in turn led the country straight back into military dictatorship. The anxious ask themselves: who will take control in Syria if a foreign-aided victory over Assad is achieved?
That, say those compelled by the moral argument, is not the immediate point, which is the duty to help the thousands of men, women and children being blown up and poisoned in a conflict of terrible ferocity and cruelty. It is to their rescue, they say, that competent outside powers should ride. The moral concern is clear and compelling. Prudential anxiety over the consequences is equally compelling. This is the very nature of a dilemma: that the arguments on both sides tug hard at us in ways that preclude an easy decision. But the present suffering of people caught in the horrors of this conflict seem to me to outweigh fears about what might come afterwards; future fears are suppositious, present agonies are real and in need of remedy. Solving the humanitarian crisis is the first urgency, and there does not seem to be a plausible alternative to military action against Assad regime forces.
For those who need geopolitical hopes to boost their moral sensibilities, there is the thought that toppling the Assad regime would weaken both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran, and could take Lebanon from under Syria’s shadow. On the other hand, of course, it might make matters worse in both directions. While we weigh up the options, let us murmur to ourselves Wilfred Owen’s 1917 lines describing the effects of a gas attack: “guttering, choking, drowning… the blood gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud of vile incurable sores on innocent tongues…” and wonder how long it can be allowed to go on in our own neighourhood in 2013.