The dangers of Syria

Arming rebels risks prolonging the conflict
July 18, 2013

In the summer of 1956, after I had sailed across the Atlantic to join the British delegation to the United Nations in New York, I found that most of my fellow delegates knew by heart the wording of Article 2(7) of the UN Charter. This article prevented the UN from interfering in the internal affairs of a member state. The newer members of the organisation who had recently achieved independence were insistent on this point; they saw their formal colonial masters as the greatest threat to their new independence.

But as the years passed the emphasis shifted. The African and Asian powers detested the racial policies of South Africa and could not accept that the practitioners of apartheid were entitled to invoke Article 2(7) to plead a defence against UN resolutions. They argued that if the charter prevented the UN from taking measures against South Africa then it had to be reinterpreted. Resolutions were routinely pressed against South Africa and the practice quickly spread to include the French in Algeria and other colonial powers.

The responsibility to protect has now begun to establish itself as a guide to action (see p40). It declares that the interntional community has a duty to intervene if a state fails to protect its citizens from humanitarian atrocities. Although Russia and China dissent, it is increasingly taken to legitimise UN action against a member state whose government abuses human rights. The invasion of Iraq in 2007 by the United States and its allies was in the end defended on this basis, after the collapse of the argument about weapons of mass destruction.

The allies began to stress that military action should be the last resort; other measures must be exhausted before nations went to war. National leaders began to redefine and update the concept of a just war they had inherited from Thomas Aquinas. Among those prominent in the argument were the Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, and the French politician, Bernard Kouchner. At a speech in Chicago in 1999, Tony Blair spelt out for Britain the conditions which could justify a war. He stressed that the facts of a situation must be clear; that all measures short of force have failed; that proper authority has been obtained; and that the prospects of achieving a successful outcome by the use of force are sound.

Unfortunately when it came to the point in 2003, Blair flung the argument for the humanitarian intervention into the pile of words which he used to justify the Anglo-American attack on Iraq. This, in his view, was ultimately justified by the need to maintain the Anglo-American alliance. The result was, on the one hand, 150,000 Iraqis killed and 4m refugees; and on the other, the discrediting, through misuse, of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.

That brings us to Syria. Once again a regime has turned savage and begun to lash out at its own people. Once again opinion in Britain has begun to coalesce round the feeling that something must be done. Once again our television screens are bleak with tragedy. Once again the US and Russia are at odds—Putin is not a rash man and it seems unlikely that he would push his disagreement with the Americans to the point of actual conflict. Again, our rulers are contemplating intervention in Syria, though history shows that intervention of one kind can swiftly slip into something more drastic.

It is reasonable for parliament to insist on a vote on any type of intervention in Syria. It is also reasonable to insist on the test in the passage just quoted. The government would need to reach the conclusion that this time their intervention would be decisive in rescuing the people of Syria from a fearful ordeal.

The odds are so strongly in favour of the US in any struggle with Russia that I would discount the possibility of a renewed Cold War. It is, however, possible that, as in Spain in the 1930s, each side could arm the combatant whom they support and thus prolong the war for several months or even longer.