Intervening in the Arab world vs. the duty to do no harm

Should we have intervened in Syria earlier, and saved Syria and Syrians from this nightmare?

H.A. Hellyer

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Yesterday, a video was released via social media containing proof that ISIS had killed Abdul Rahman Kassig – also known as Peter Kassig - in Syria. The video contained rather startling footage of ISIS brutality, in perhaps the most explicit video the group has ever posted as part of its propaganda. In the minds of many, as they heard the news, was simply: could we have done anything to prevent this? Should we have intervened in Syria earlier on? Did we not have the “right to protect”?

Those questions are minefields, fraught with complexities and pitfalls. Early in the Syrian conflict it became clear that Bashar al-Assad would go to great lengths to avoid the end of his regime. That end could have been fairly simple and could have been brought about with minimal, if any, bloodshed – Assad could have reformed the system in response to those early, peaceful protests rather than answering them with bullets. Instead, his regime not only killed mercilessly, but released radicals from jail who would later take prominent roles in the resistance against Assad and eventually change it tremendously. Should we have intervened in Syria earlier, and saved Syria and Syrians from this nightmare?

It is good to be cautious about intervention because intervention can, indeed, make a very bad situation worse

H.A. Hellyer

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Who is the “we,” in that statement? Is it the West? The Arabs? The international community at large? Who? When we mention “intervention” what do we mean? There was an “intervention” in Iraq in 2003 but that didn’t work out too well, to put it mildly.

Being cautious

It is, one must admit, terribly easy to come up with very good objections to the idea that states should intervene in others, like Syria. It is good to be cautious about intervention, because intervention can, indeed, make a very bad situation worse. But it must also be admitted that doing nothing is not, actually, doing nothing. Inaction is a choice – passive or active though it may be – and it is a choice with very real consequences.

Let’s go back to 2011, but further to the southwest. In Libya, Qaddafi’s forces were headed towards Benghazi, which had risen up in rebellion against a tyrannical dictator. There was really no doubt that had those forces reached Benghazi, there would have been a massive massacre. The people of Benghazi called for help and NATO responded. Benghazi was saved from that massacre.

At the time, there were many that opposed the NATO intervention, although they were not supportive of the regime in Tripoli – but the fact remained that the people of Benghazi called out for help against a certain massacre, and to do nothing would have been to desert them. That represents a right – indeed, a duty – to protect.

Duty to do no harm

But there is always a corresponding duty to do no harm and one imagines that if Libya 2014 had turned out more like, for example, Tunisia 2014, there would be little discussion about intervention. Because it turned out like this, however, you have a number on the anti-war left turn around and basically saying “see? We told you so.” Except, that same anti-war left’s alternative was, effectively, to let Benghazi get massacred in 2011. That’s hardly a wonderful substitute option.

We ask “who” is doing the intervention and “what” the intervention ought to be precisely – and that is appropriate and well placed. At times, we also ought to ask – “who” is arguing against the intervention and “what” is their alternative intervention?
When Stop the War Coalition, for example, argue against intervening in Syria, the question ought to be asked: “who” are they? Are they simply pacifists, who reject the use of force in any circumstances? That’s not particularly accurate. When Russia’s Putin intervened in Ukraine, resulting in a secession of that country via Crimea, the Stop the War Coalition could hardly be described as in opposition to the military action. On the contrary, it blamed the crisis in Ukraine on the West – not Russia, which had actually invaded Ukraine.

There are catastrophes that follow intervention from the West. We’ve seen them many a time – in the Arab world and elsewhere – but we’ve also seen catastrophes when foreign interventions are taken off the table. We’ve seen the Bosnian genocide in 1995 – a genocide that could have been prevented. We have seen the Rwandan genocide a year earlier – another catastrophe that could have been thwarted if the international community had been willing to engage.

The Rwandan case is an interesting one because even many non-interventionists today would argue that Rwanda was a prime example of where the international community should have intervened and didn’t. In that regard, many will point out the international community’s – and particularly the West’s – hypocrite selectivity. They wouldn’t be wrong to point that out. It is a fact of the 20th and 21st centuries that more often than not, the big powers of the world are deeply selective for reasons that have less to do with ethics or morals, and more to do with their perceptions of national interest. That’s a given.

Strategically smart interventions

What is also a given, however, is that leaving certain situations alone may result in far more harm than to intervene in a strategically smart fashion. Indeed, had the international community intervened in Rwanda, it is certain the intervention wouldn’t have been simple and clean. Military interventions seldom are. And had there been an intervention, we probably would see anti-war campaigners noting all the failings that followed in Rwanda, as a way to delegitimize the intervention. Such is the way of the world, one supposes.

But while there are many reasons to oppose the notion of the “right to protect,” there are far more to support it – if it genuinely takes into account the “duty to do no harm.” There will always be unplanned and inadvertent effects to any intervention of any sort –that much is clear. A knee jerk desire to be the world’s police man is hardly positive – but nor is a reactionary “if ever we intervene, we make things worse” particularly useful.

There were many in the UK who were happy when the House of Commons last year voted against intervening in Syria, after Bashar al-Assad’s regime was accused of using chemical weapons on his own people. The joy, however, was not accompanied by an alternative course of action – except, of course, to do pretty much nothing. Doing nothing is not neutral – it is, indeed, an act of omission with grave repercussions. Ask the people of Syria. If it was wrong to intervene in Syria in one kind of forceful and forthright fashion, it was even more wrong to simply leave it the way it is. It still is wrong and history will stand in judgment over the international community for how it let Iraq go through an intervention and how it let Syria go without one.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

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