Precedents for Intervention in Syria

Assad's fate remains up in the air. But recent history shows the United States has a mixed record on humanitarian interventions.

Once again, the United States is agonizing over whether to conduct another humanitarian intervention, one with strong strategic considerations—how to get rid of Assad and hopefully end Syria’s civil war.

For the past year, the United States and its friends have tried denunciations, threats and knowingly futile diplomacy. A few countries have taken to covertly supplying some arms to his opposition. Some Americans, notably in Congress, find all that grossly inadequate. They strongly object to a policy they believe is based on the assumption that it’s only a matter of time before Assad falls. There is a small intellectual war over what might generate more robust NATO/Arab/Turkish military action to resolve the unending humanitarian disaster. Some look to past precedent: Srebrenica, with its eight thousand murdered during the Bosnian conflict, finally produced a serious military intervention. But after sixteen months with thirteen thousand dead, one hundred thousand refugees, a half million displaced and all the numbers steadily rising, Syria still waits.

Since its use in Somalia, humanitarian intervention has generated a continuing, ever-fiercer debate in Washington. Indeed, this century the international community came up with a supposed answer to prevent or cope with these man-made disasters: “the responsibility to protect.” This doctrine holds that when a government destroys or allows masses of its people to be destroyed, the international community can and must intervene—not initially militarily, but if nothing else works and a military solution is feasible, then with force. The problem, not surprisingly, is that governments have rarely implemented it.

The sad fact is there is simply no agreed basis for military intervention in terrible situations. It is hard to mobilize the “international community” for military action. The first international resort is (usually ineffective) diplomacy, while providing important humanitarian assistance to the internally displaced and refugees. Frequently, the lack of Security Council agreement is cited as a principal reason for delaying military action, except of course when the United States feels the need to act. The number killed is certainly a factor, but it’s hardly the only one—the impact of recent wars, diplomacy, domestic politics, presidential prestige, costs, strategic considerations, likely international support and sustained public advocacy also play a role. With Syria, there is also the opposition of Russia and China in the Security Council, as well as greater concern for the uncertainties of war and the law of unintended consequences.

A Mixed Record

The Cold War period had its share of humanitarian disasters: China’s Great Leap Forward cost perhaps thirty million lives, the Cultural Revolution affected large but unknown numbers, and a million people were killed in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge victory in Indochina (for which the United States bore great responsibility). Those incredible disasters never had a chance of prompting foreign intervention, and they have been left largely to the historians (except for the continuing tribunal set up to try senior Khmer Rouge leaders). It is more instructive to briefly examine the history of post–Cold War humanitarian interventions.

Somalia was the first. After much inside badgering, the elder Bush administration, in its last days in 1992, sent military forces to deal with a serious famine and stayed to try to keep the peace while the country broke apart. The Clinton administration fled after a U.S. helicopter was destroyed, and Congress hysterically called for shutting down the whole enterprise. The U.S. failure in Somalia led to unwillingness to respond quickly to prevent massive murders in Rwanda in 1994. The United States recently has returned to a badly failed Somalia with special forces, this time not for humanitarian reasons but to wipe out Al Qaeda. There is no U.S. interest in a more robust military effort there, leaving it to inadequate numbers of African forces doing their best to end the violence.

Bosnia was America’s baptism into humanitarian intervention. But it took three years, over a hundred thousand people were killed and massive ethnic cleansing took place. Initially, the United States, following the lead of the EU, promoted unserious diplomacy. A sustained public campaign for intervention and the killing of some eight thousand Bosnians in Srebrenica helped produce a military response that ultimately led to the Dayton accords. But there was a wonderful irony. Washington made peace with Slobodan Milosevic, the man who essentially caused it all. He suffered no punishment and was given an ethnically cleansed ministate to watch over. We can sup with the devil.

Kosovo, the second military intervention in the Balkans, was perhaps the most remarkable of modern humanitarian operations. While there were massive human-rights violations in Kosovo, only forty or so Kosovars were killed by Serb forces in the incident that eventually led to Western intervention—teaching us that casualty numbers are not all that matter in deciding when to intervene. U.S. diplomacy—which I strongly supported—led to war with Serbia and, once again, peace with Milosevic. This time his country was bombed, but he survived it.

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