01/04/2012 06:57 am ET Updated Mar 04, 2012

The West Has a Duty Not to 'Intervene' in Syria

In an early First World War letter attributed to Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German emperor wrote (to Austrian Kaiser Franz Joseph):

"My soul is torn, but everything must be put to fire and sword; men, women and children and old men must be slaughtered and not a tree or house be left standing. With these methods of terrorism, which are alone capable of affecting a people as degenerate as the French, the war will be over in two months, whereas if I admit considerations of humanity it will be prolonged for years. In spite of my repugnance I have therefore been obliged to choose the former system."

The Kaiser's argument for barbarism and destruction is not uncommon. He must commit atrocities, so the (clearly sophistic) argument goes, only to end the war sooner and reduce the level of suffering. One might say that the Kaiser's letter represents a humanitarian argument against peace.

Similar arguments are still with us, though receive considerably more esteem and prominence in our intellectual culture than does the Kaiser's. The strongest recent example is afforded by The Observer in the form of Nick Cohen's recent article the west has a duty to intervene in Syria.

Cohen presents an argument based, (very) loosely, on the International Affairs doctrine 'Responsibility to Protect' (R2P). "The 'international community', so vigorous in its declarations of support for human rights," Cohen begins, "does nothing to protect" Syria. This 'international community' is rightly placed in scare-quotes, for it rarely includes the people of the word, though sometimes their 'representatives' and, more often, the Washington consensus.

Cohen suggests 'protecting' Syria via a method in which "American, British and French air power might combine with Turkish ground forces to create a safe haven in northern Syria, where mutinous troops from the Syrian army could build a fighting force." This is, apart from being ludicrously vague - especially in Michael Weiss's original report, from which it is culled - a deeply impractical idea, even supposing one took it seriously.

Cohen's preferred military action rests on 'real divisions' within Syria. That is to say: "the region is a mess of competing sectarian and ethnic interests". While a fair observer would not overstate this, there are certainly religious and ethnic divisions in Syria; the population is around 75% Sunni, 12% Shi'ah and 10% Christian, with Alawi and Druze minorities. But Cohen's assessment of an Alawite "apartheid state" is unsophisticated, to say the least. That he correctly describes Bashar al-Assad's sanguinary use of these divisions to maintain control, also confirms for us that he is familiar enough with divide and rule strategy to recognise the implications for military action based on "mutinous troops".

Furthermore, though Cohen and Weiss may very well have forgotten that this hypothetical military alliance is composed of the same four countries loathed by the Syrian population for a history of brutal imperialism, Syrians themselves obviously haven't. Syria and "the region" can be described as "a mess" of religious and ethnic divisions largely because of the British/French 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and the Ottoman Empire. To think that an alliance of these four countries taking control of part of Northern Syria would encourage "mutiny" rather than unite disparate groups within Syria with the devil they know, is nothing short of delusional.

The fact that Cohen doesn't explicitly make his case from R2P is itself significant. Cohen knows there would never be a security council resolution for such a project. Gareth Evans' original document argues that military action could be taken without the security council "within area of jurisdiction by regional or sub-regional organizations under Chapter VIII of the Charter, subject to their seeking subsequent authorization from the Security Council" (4.E.II). This point has been hotly refuted by the 'Global South', who have raised legitimate fears about its use. In order to appeal R2P directly, Cohen would have to argue that NATO's 'area of jurisdiction' is global - precisely the fear of vulnerable countries. This risks dragging R2P into disrepute (no doubt a loss for the future), and is therefore avoided.

Cohen's 'intervention' - the euphemism itself should prompt caution - has failed to demonstrate anything like the coherence necessary to balance the "vast risks" that military action in Syria carries, which Cohen radically underestimates. It also fails to recognise Turkey's commitment against military intervention in Syria, which their diplomatic office recently described as "out of the question". The inherent unpredictability of military action, and the specific risk of starting a wider regional war, which could well include Iran and Saudi Arabia, should make anyone interested in responsible policy towards Syria condemn so called intervention out of hand.

Bothering to pull on the hanging threads of the loosely woven Cohen argument, however, gives it rather more credit than it deserves. This is belied by the article itself, which is draped over the same predictable scarecrows we come to expect in such contexts. Assad's "failed state", Cohen says, will be "a nest for terrorism" on the Mediterranean. Again, the subtext is clear. If you aren't convinced by the gewgaw that is humanitarian rhetoric, you can always be afraid that Syrians will be a danger to you, that is if 'we' don't strike first.

In a similar vein, Cohen invokes the memory of World War Two, in which "Britain and France preached non-intervention while Hitler and Mussolini sent arms and men to help Franco's fascists". This shoddy comparison, which casts anyone who doesn't think we should invade Syria as an appeasing Chamberlain type and Cohen, presumably, with Churchill, should be rejected by serious people.

Even the old favourite al-Qaeda is dragged out, who Cohen concedes "are not in Syria to fight back against the regime", but apparently will be more likely to be so than if 'the West' invades. That this is precisely the opposite of what happened in Iraq in 2004 is obviously irrelevant. That those who actually study the topic have protested, for some time, against the idea that al-Qaeda is a command-based organization which deploys 'terrorists', rather than a loose funding "network" (in the words of Professor Scott Atran) based around the Durand line, is again irrelevant. The facts don't fit the fear argument, and are therefore considered useless.

Another reason that we should not take Cohen seriously is the quite impressive degree of hypocrisy. The argument for an invasion of Syria is built on "responsibility"; if responsibility means anything it surely means focusing on one's own actions first.

In November 2011, The President of Not For Sale, David Batstone, estimated that the world's approximately 27 million slaves - many of whom live in the UK - could be freed should funding for anti-slavery campaigns reach $10 billion. The cost to the UK of just one year of military deployment in Afghanistan - a war that, along with Iraq, Cohen supports - is estimated by the MoD at around £4.5 billion (or $7 billion). Were Cohen serious about responsible humanitarian action for the prevention of world suffering, one might expect the liberation of 27 million slaves to merit more attention than cheer-leading and defending aggressive war.

One might very well make the same argument for Bahrain, a government backed by the UK. Any argument based on responsibility would surely recommend the end to diplomatic and military support for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain's al-Khalifa monarchy, a policy which requires no military action with 'vast risks' and would end UK support for two extreme authoritarian governments, which have killed fewer of their own people only because of the remarkable brutality with which they put down their own protest movements.

These cases should be of particular concern in the UK, as Saudi forces used to crush the protest movement in Bahrain were armed and trained by British special forces. These are actions for which we clearly have direct responsibility. They go unmentioned, and will continue to go unmentioned. That this limited action, which is easy to implement and carries none of the same risks in death and destruction that invading Syria does, is not considered a 'responsibility' has, I'm sure, nothing to do with the material interests of the UK and US governments.

Cohen concludes by setting up a false dichotomy between invasion and "doing nothing". Those who argue against invasion, he writes, "also have blood on their hands". Doing nothing is never an option, and those who care about responsible action might consider some of the suggestions raised here along with any diplomatic solutions which do not entail putting everything "to fire and sword". The thrust of the entire case for an invasion of Syria is precisely that of the Kaiser, expressed with the same torn soul. We must invade Syria, because not to do so would make us culpable for violence, just as we must terrorize France as not to do so would prolong the war. There will always be those who will claim savagery is preferable to humanity under the guise of care for their victims, but they need not be listened to.

This post has been modified since its original publication.