(More) UK intervention in Syria: some additional questions

On the face of it last week was a good week for scrutinising power in that questions from the UK Parliament did ultimately derail the stated desire of the UK government to partake in an imminent attack on Syria (in effect a further intervention given the existing levels of UK support for the rebels). Among those who  deserve credit for making the attack untenable are the many who protested and challenged untruths about the US-UK invasion of Iraq. Perhaps MPs were conscious of the fate of the belligerent Aznar government in Spain, which went to war with little more than a similar 10% of public support, before agreeing to an attack to proceed in their name.[i]

One question that got a fair airing was that of seeking to verify the facts of what has actually taken place and who is culpable for it (although  some MPs treated the accusations as established fact).  The questions are not surprising given the UK and US history of selective presentation of facts, staged events and untruths to justify interventions goes well beyond Iraq.

Another question subject to scrutiny was as to the likely form and outcome of the proposed military intervention, which would undoubtedly lead  to the killing of more people in a week the US cancelled meetings for a peace conference to negotiate a settlement.  As the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez put it, in response to the US ‘war on terror’ and specifically the children who had been killed by US bombs in Afghanistan “you shouldn’t tackle terrorism, with more terrorism.” (The International Criminal Court is of course the forum at which ultimately war crimes are to be tried.)

Although I did not see the whole debate – there were two further questions in particular that seemed to be beyond the pale of the mythological national narrative- but would merit asking:

1: Why would UK/US be involved in a humanitarian intervention? There is no great track record of either state being involved in a genuine humanitarian intervention. Any such cases would surely be the exception rather than the rule. The pattern of intervention tends to mirror the traditional role of imperial powers – intervening to promote a world order compliant to their interests – through military intervention or supporting / engineering coups in non-compliant ‘rouge’ states (including democracies). Any claim of the moral high ground should be treated with considerable scepticism. The argument intervention is humanitarian is of course regularly advanced, even belatedly as the ‘third lie’ in the case of  Iraq- once the first two explanations (WMD and links to Al Qaeda) had fallen apart.

2:  Why would UK/US be concerned about the use of chemical weapons and other WMD? Whilst the horror of such weapons may well concern the rest of us it would appear a departure for the US and UK – who have manufactured, supplied and used such weapons. From the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam to the recent use of Depleted Uranium in Iraq, such weapons have and continue to cause long term suffering. When chemical weapons were used by Iraq in the recent past (by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s rather than use of gas by Winston Churchill decades earlier) the UK actually responded by increasing its military support to Saddam Hussein.

An alternative and more convincing explanation of the motivation for intervening in Syria now, a reported 100,000 deaths and many atrocities into the conflict, are provided  by Robert Fisk in last week’s Independent (in short Assad has now begun to get the upper hand in the civil war and the UK/US objective is ultimately regime change in Syria and Iran).

Nevertheless the UK’s published legal justification for a military attack on Syria without a resolution from the UN Security Council argues that intervention is permitted under the legal doctrine of “humanitarian intervention.” It sets out three criteria to be met for the legal threshold of humanitarian intervention.[ii] However neither this doctrine nor the three criteria appear anywhere in the UN Charter, nor is it made clear how the UK feels it can derive such a position from customary international law.

Unsurprisingly there has already been some interesting commentary on the same.  Jack Goldsmith of Harvard writing on Lawfare  argues the UKs published position does not contain legal analysis nor explain how the doctrine is consistent with the UN Charter.  Another  commentator on the same site, John Bellinger notes that three criteria appear to have been developed by the UK itself in relation to justifying a previous intervention in Kosovo. In the Guardian Philippe Sands QC argues the case does not set out a persuasive legal argument drawing  attention to the argument being premised on factual assumptions and the non-exhaustion of other options. Nevertheless the potential lawfulness of such a position is not ruled out altogether, a BBC piece does set out the views of those who feel there is an emerging legal framework to support  such a positionOthers however do not feel that such a position can be derived from the practice of states.

This is not to say that in principle there should not be a doctrine of humanitarian intervention in international law. But what has just taken place in relation to Syria is only likely to strengthen the hands of critics who argue if such a doctrine was explicitly provided for it will simply be used as cover for other agendas.


[i] Aznar’s Popular Party (PP) lost power in the 2004 general election which followed several days after the Madrid train bombings which killed almost 200 people.  A last minute electoral swing to the Spanish Socialist Worker Party (PSOE) followed Aznar seeking to claim that the bombings were the work of ETA and not an act in retaliation for Spain’s involvement in the Iraq war. Protestors who surrounded the PP headquarters chanting “your war, our dead” did not agree.

[ii] (i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief; (ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and (iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).