The US Right wants the West to intervene in Syria: when will they ever learn?

The  Financial Times unaccountably published, prominently, an article on 8 December 2012 provocatively headed:  The West must intervene to finish the Assad régime.  Its author was Ambassador James Francis Dobbins, Jr., according to Wikipedia an American diplomat and former United States Ambassador to the European Union (1991–93) and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (from 2001, the first year of the presidency of George W. Bush).  He has served as US envoy to Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia, and is head of international and security policy for the RAND corporation.

Ambassador Dobbins advanced several predictable and familiar arguments for western military action against President Assad’s admittedly odious régime.  He acknowledged that such intervention would be most unlikely to be authorised by the UN, as required by the Charter, because of Russian and Chinese objections (he might have added, but didn’t, that those objections would be reinforced by their experience of the way NATO abused and exploited the limited UN authority granted, with Russian and Chinese acquiescence, for intervention against Gaddafi in Libya).

Mr Dobbins argued, however, that western military intervention in Syria could be legitimate under international law, even without the authority of the UN Security Council, on the basis that:  a. western powers could recognise one of the insurgent factions in Syria as its government and then respond to its appeal for help under its right to self-defence, as recognised by the Charter; or b. they could cite the precedent of Kosovo (where NATO bombed Yugoslavia for months without UN authority);  and, apparently in the same breath, c. they could  “assert what is now an internationally recognised responsibility to protect a population from abuse by its own government.”  (The ambassador wisely refrained from capitalising the term of art, Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, which has a very specific and well defined meaning as a new principle of international law.)  The Dobbins article also d. made a glancing reference to Libya.

These proposed arguments for the alleged legitimacy of military intervention in Syria without UN authority were all breathtakingly phoney, as should have been obvious to anyone with the most superficial knowledge of international law in general and the Charter of the United Nations in particular.  I submitted the following letter to the FT:

Sir, As a former US envoy to Kosovo, Ambassador Dobbins (The West must intervene to finish the Assad régime, 8 December) must know that —

  • it was US-Russian-Finnish quiet diplomacy, not the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, that ended Serbian control of Kosovo; that the NATO bombing, never authorised by the UN Security Council, contravened the Charter and was technically a war crime, whatever its motives, and can’t therefore be quoted as a precedent to legitimise western intervention in Syria without UN authority;
  • and that the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) put forward by Ambassador Dobbins as an alternative source of legitimacy for a Syrian intervention itself requires action in the Security Council under the agreement at the 2005 UN World Summit which approved the R2P principles, some of which don’t apply to the Syrian situation anyway.
  • The suggestion that we should legitimise intervention by “recognising” one of the Syrian opposition factions as the government and then responding to its appeal for help under the right to self-defence would entail twisting the criteria for recognition and provide a precedent for similarly slippery behaviour by others anywhere in the world (anyway Britain recognises countries, not governments).**
  • Finally, Libya is not a helpful precedent, since the bombing had UN authority (however much NATO then abused it), which the Ambassador rightly recognises would not be available for a Syrian intervention; anyway the Libyan intervention has hardly proved to have the outcome we sought.

The unavoidable conclusion must be that armed intervention in Syria, necessarily without Security Council authority, would be illegal in international law and thus a war crime.  The closest parallel would be Iraq, the one recent intervention that Ambassador Dobbins understandably doesn’t mention.

Brian Barder (HM Diplomatic Service, 1965-1994)
London, UK
8 December 2012

The FT subsequently published two letters rebutting different aspects of Ambassador Dobbins’s case, but mine was not one of them.  I think, though, that the gaping holes in all his arguments for claiming international legality for yet another western military intervention in the middle east, after the disastrous failures of all such interventions in living memory (and Suez is within mine) deserve to be placed on the record.  Hence this post.

When an experienced senior diplomat, occupying a prestigious post in a distinguished American think-tank, can publicly advance such a shabby case for a course of action in Syria so likely to be doomed to failure and ignominy, we should cease to wonder how the catastrophic and criminal enterprise of the invasion and occupation of Iraq came about, even though (as we now know) the experts in international law in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office warned in advance that it would contravene the UN Charter and amount to the crime of aggression.

**A very senior retired British ambassador privately commented to me on the suggestion that the western powers could “recognise” a Syrian opposition faction and then respond to its appeal for help under its “right to self-defence”:

An argument used mutatis mutandis by scoundrels regularly. eg the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

“Scoundrels” looks about right.




4 Responses

  1. Oliver Miles says:

    I agree with almost everything you say about Dobbins. Fortunately neither Washington nor London, nor other European governments, seem to be on this tack. The difficulties and dangers of intervention in Syria are widely understood.

    There is of course the well-known “something must be done” phenomenon. I think David Cameron may have been quite shaken by what he saw and heard from Syrian refugees in Jordan in November.  An official in his office later said “The prime minister wants to come back and look at things that were on the table a year ago which we didn’t want to do then… We haven’t ruled anything in and we haven’t ruled anything out … This is the moment to get some impetus going forward. We want to put everything on the table.”
    Later statements have not been too alarming. On 17 December Cameron told Parliament, reporting on a European Council meeting, “the Council was clear – as Britain has been for many months – that Assad’s regime is illegitimate…We will continue to encourage political transition from the top and to support the opposition which is attempting to force a transition from below. This will include looking at the arms embargo.”

    Nor have I seen any wild talk from the US administration. On 19 December David Cameron and Barack Obama had a teleconference: “On Syria, they agreed that the Assad regime was under increasing pressure, and that it was important that the international community continue efforts to force a political transition, to support the emergence of a more coherent and effective opposition, and to relieve the humanitarian suffering.” There have been some rather positive reports of US/Russian discussions about backing the UN/Arab league representative Lakhdar Brahimi, who for my money is the best hope we have.

    May I draw attention to my letter in the Guardian on 20 December on Afghanistan:

    “In your advance report of the prime minister’s welcome decision to speed up withdrawal from Afghanistan (4,000 British troops to leave Afghanistan next year, 19 December), you comment that it ‘will fire the starting gun for other Nato countries also looking to leave’. In fact, President Hollande of France has already carried out his undertaking to leave immediately, and the French troops remaining number only a few hundred. Germany has announced that it is accelerating its withdrawal and Australia is also leaving, currently down to about 1,000 men. The defence secretary, Philip Hammond, told parliament that the withdrawal plan is based on current UK military advice. That is not enough. The modalities of withdrawal are for the military, but the decision on withdrawal is for the government. It should not be timed to suit the Americans or the generals, but to avoid losing more British and Afghan lives in what has become a lost cause.”

    I should perhaps have included a reference to Hammond’s statement that the cost of the war is now over £17 billion. I have been wondering what is the most telling way of expressing what £17 billion means – so many hospitals, aircraft carriers, houses, so much off income tax, so many footballers or gold medals.

    Brian writes: Many thanks for this. The statements that you quote on Syria are generally reassuring. I can’t believe that President Obama, more secure now that he has been re-elected, has any appetite for a military adventure in Syria when the outcome of any intervention would be so hopelessly unpredictable. His military advisers were said to be extremely lukewarm, verging on hostile, about the pretty limited US involvement in Libya, and it’s difficult to see that getting involved in Syria could be anything but more dangerous still. William Hague still sometimes sounds worryingly keen to “do something” in Syria, but it seems unlikely that the prime minister, the Defence Secretary or the Chiefs of Staff would humour him.

    I cordially agree with everything you say about Afghanistan: when I read your letter in the Guardian the other day I almost cheered aloud. Ministers continue to talk vainglorious rubbish about what has in reality deteriorated into a personal vanity project. Every additional day that our troops are kept there, and every new death of a British soldier, should weigh heavily on the consciences of politicians and generals who can’t bring themselves to admit that the whole thing has been a disastrous failure. The withdrawal of all our forces, even though occasionally slightly accelerated, is still far too leisurely. It could and should be completed within a couple of months. Why is the Labour opposition not clamouring for this?

  2. ObiterJ says:

    Well said.  Re Iraq: in the end Blair got his way because of the Attorney General’s opinion which effectively overruled any other legal view and resulted in one member of the FCO’s legal team resigning.  Most of Britain’s involvements abroad are disasters but the political class never learn and, certainly since Thatcher and the Falklands 1982, every Prime Minister has wanted some “military glory” to rub off on him.  The cost to our country in money and personnel has been appalling.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I agree strongly throughout.

  3. treborc says:

    But of course Blair has a faith foundation and a larger income from that war, he made well out of it.

    Brian writes: Thank you. I haven’t got a good word to say for Blair in the Iraq context — I think the war was an act of aggression by Blair, GW Bush and their accomplices — but I don’t believe for a single second that Blair was acting over Iraq with any thought of self-enrichment. I think he convinced himself that he was doing the right thing, although I also think that in this belief he was profoundly mistaken. He committed himself hopelessly prematurely with Bush to UK participation in any attack on Iraq, and by the time he (perhaps) began to realise that it was all a terrible mistake, he felt that it was too late to back-track. But the idea that he intended to enrich himself as a result of it seems to me, frankly, ludicrous.

  4. Pete Kercher says:

    Ludicrous it may be, Brian (commenting on your response to treborc), but the fact remains that Blair was either in bad faith in the Iraq war or monumentally incompetent. When will Labour – and the official historiographers who write the hagiographies of such blatantly incompetent politicians – get around to doing a spot of healthy mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa?

    Brian writes: Thank you, Pete. I agree with your comments on Blair and Iraq, but I remain convinced that he was not motivated by any thought of personal gain. I don’t think in general politicians do mea culpa: if they do, their political opponents and the media eat them alive, thanks to our childish adversarial system of politics. But none of this is even indirectly relevant to my post, so the discussion must continue, if at all, elsewhere.