"intelligent and useful posts on many of the key legal issues"

- Adam Wagner, UK Human Rights Blog

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

On hold

As will have been apparent for some time, I am not regularly blogging at the moment and in all probability will not be until some point next year.  I am working on a new project in the meantime, and will update here and on twitter in due course.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Intervention in Syria

I have posted the following comment on the UK Human Rights Blog this morning:

Much as the international law question is interesting regarding Syria, it is nothing to the point. There are a lot of straw men arguments floating around. No-one disputes that what has happened in Syria todate has been a disaster. No-one disputes that the use of chemical weapons is appalling. There is a moral case to do something about it, and perhaps a legal one too.

But we then hit the rocks of reality: the real question is whether we have the capacity to do anything about it. If we fire a few missiles at Syria the regime may respond in a variety of ways. It might cease using chemical weapons and simply go back to airstrikes, artillery and other means which have so far killed 100,000 people. What the moral or legal difference between killing by those means and killing by chemical weapons is I am unsure – I doubt the victims noticed any difference.

Alternatively, the regime might increase its use of chemical weapons to try and hasten the defeat of the rebels before Western intervention can make a telling difference. Or it might try something seriously desperate such as attacking Israel (either directly or by a proxy group), in the hope of drawing in its Iranian ally and sending the West’s interest well and truly elsewhere. Or it might sponsor some terrorist attacks on British soil. Or the Russians and/or Iranians might (if they haven’t already) supply supersonic anti-shipping missiles to the Syrians, who will use them to sink a few Western warships and cause chaos among Western leaders about what to do in response.

It seems to me that Assad will probably still win the civil war, and all we will do with a few token strikes is delay his victory – and consequently increase the casualties on all sides.

Or the regime might fall – in which case the civil war will continue until the country either splits into different territories with an uneasy truce, or until one side is strong enough to crush the rest.

Those calling for intervention must answer two questions: (i) what is the precise goal of any military action; and (ii) how far are you prepared to go to achieve that goal; that is, if the initial strikes fail, how much force are you going to use (or to put it another way, how much blood and treasure you are prepared to expend).  It does not help in this regard that the UK defence budget has been drastically reduced in recent years.  The Type 45 destroyers, for example, have not been fitted with cruise missiles - the first weapon of choice for any attack on the Syrian regime.

As well as the obvious lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, we might also remember Kosovo (an illegal war, incidentally, whatever one thinks of the moral situation), where a few token strikes did not deter Milosovic, forcing the West to mount a very expensive bombing campaign that only succeeded when the surrounding countries started to join NATO, thus opening up land borders and the possibility of a quick ground assault. 

What we might do instead is assist Jordan by supplying tents, food, sanitation equipment etc for the increasing number of refugees it is taking from the conflict. That would be a humane and tangible contribution even if it would not stop the killings in Syria itself.  Funding for the operation could come from the international aid budget, the source of some controversy recently.