Monday, 6 January 2014

‘Happy ever after’ is not a realistic standard for any policy

My recent post, Syria (still) needs a No-Fly Zone, has been republished at Left Foot Forward where it has attracted a few comments, which is gratifying even if they were all in disagreement with the argument. Below is a very slightly edited version of my responses to comments so far.

On the idea that NATO exceeded UNSC Resolution 1973 on Libya: this is a distortion of history. The resolution authorised UN member states “to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians… excluding a foreign occupation force…” It wasn’t limited to a No-Fly Zone, and didn’t exclude actions liable to end the regime. All UNSC members knew that the US and allies wanted a resolution that went beyond a No-Fly Zone, and that they identified Gadafi’s rule as the primary threat to civilians. This was made clear publicly prior to the vote by Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN at the time. If any Permanent Member really didn’t want this outcome, they should have voted accordingly.

Therefore we have to doubt that Russian and Chinese Government objections to a Chapter 7 Resolution for Syria are genuinely based on legalistic concerns about the implementation of Resolution 1973 in Libya. I’m against allowing Putin’s obstruction to be the last word, and wrote in the post that I believe a No-Fly Zone “requires making the case that defence of collective security requires and justifies this military action even in the absence of a Security Council resolution.”

The British Parliament is another matter. I believe MPs need to reconsider military action based on evidence of outcomes as explained in the post. Similarly the US Congress, though I note that their approval is not needed in advance for the President to conduct military action.

On whether Libya was a successful intervention: To be precise, I’m arguing that fewer were killed or maimed thanks to the Libya intervention than otherwise would be the case. Remember that the Libyan protests began over a month before the intervention. In the time prior to the intervention hundreds had been killed, fighting was ongoing, and Benghazi and other areas were under opposition control or were contested. So that’s your “before” picture. For all the problems today, the “after” is much less violent, and Libya is of course incomparably better off compared to the counter-example of Syria.

On whether the size of Assad’s forces makes a Syria intervention less likely to succeed: Back in August, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey made clear that the US could destroy Assad’s air force, even as he argued that doing so wouldn’t serve US interests. I accept his assessment of US military capacity, but reject his political and moral judgement on the issue. As to the size of Assad’s ground forces, he has needed external reinforcements in a way not seen in Libya, and reports are that these reinforcements, particularly from Hezbollah, are suffering heavy losses.

On whether the benefits of removing Assad justify the risks of intervening: The argument I’ve laid out for a No-Fly Zone is on the basis of saving lives, not to hasten the demise of Assad. There is no guarantee it would do so (see Iraq’s No-Fly Zone history) but it would limit his regime’s ability to kill to a degree, particularly in areas out of the control of his ground forces.

On the suggestion from Shuggy “that ‘save lives, create a failed state’ (overstating but you know what I mean) isn’t a sellable strategy”: ‘Save lives, create a failed state’ doesn’t just overstate the Libya story, it wholly misrepresents it. A violent failed state was the start point, and a less violent failing/struggling state was the endpoint – endpoint of the military intervention at least, though not of Libya’s story.

Similarly in Syria, there’s no question of an intervention creating a failed state, as it’s here already. Even if you hold a cynical view that rule by Assad is better than the alternative (not that there is only one single alternative) that option is unavailable as the regime has shown itself unable to control the territory even with help from Iran, from Iraqi militias recruited by Iran, and from Hezbollah. Government services have collapsed or been withdrawn. The scale of displacement and impoverishment of the population is enormous. It is indisputably a failed state. And aerial bombardment of civilian areas is one of the reasons for that.

On whether material support to Assad from external allies would accelerate rather than diminish following an intervention: I don’t know the degree to which Assad’s allies would be able to accelerate material support in the face of a No-Fly Zone. Much reporting indicates they’re giving all they’ve got now, and it would make sense for them to do so as the chances of an intervention are greater in the long term than the short term. A No-Fly Zone would greatly complicate foreign support for Assad as it would interrupt air transport from abroad as well as internally.

On whether a No-Fly Zone would help extremist Jihadis spread in the Middle East and eventually to Europe: Anyone worried about Syria exporting Jihadis should read an article published yesterday in The National by Mohammed Habash, former member of the Syrian parliament. The headline is Radicals are Assad’s best friends. In it he writes of how in 2003 the Syrian regime encouraged the radicalisation of young men and bussed them to fight in Iraq. Survivors who inconveniently returned were jailed. And then after the protests began in 2011, Assad opened the jails, declaring an amnesty on 31 May. Assad’s survival would do nothing to protect Europe from terrorism.

Anyone still clinging to the belief that Assad’s forces are busy fighting terrorists should listen to Eddie Mair’s BBC Radio 4 interview with surgeon Dr David Nott on his experiences treating wounded in Syria. Dr Nott describes treating untold numbers of civilians who were deliberately targeted by regime snipers. He saw hardly any actual fighters hit by snipers. To him it was clear: the regime’s primary target was not terrorists, it was the civilian population.

On whether Libya is like Albania used to be and whether it risks becoming another Somalia: The further we go into speculating about Libya’s future, the further removed we are from the issue of the direct effects of the intervention. The fact remains that nothing since the intervention has matched what we saw in the month prior, both in the degree of state collapse during that month, and the level of violence directed at civilians by the regime in that month.

The idea that Libya would now be ‘happy ever after’ land if only Gadafi had been given free rein is unconvincing. Syria demonstrates how dubious that notion is. If anything Libya would likely have been bloodier and more chaotic than Syria had there been no intervention, as prior to the intervention Gadafi had lost control of territory and of elements of government much more rapidly than was the case with the Syrian regime.

‘Happy ever after’ is not a realistic standard for any policy. We have to make a judgement on better or worse likely outcomes based on the best evidence available.

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