The problem of intervention

Image: Chris Beckett

Image: Chris Beckett

Intervention is something of a loaded term in British politics.  We have been involved in a number of them in recent years, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya. Out of these, not one can be labelled a true success; Helmand Province in Afghanistan has seen a collapse in infrastructure, Iraq is once again embroiled in war, whilst the internationally recognised government in Libya does not even control the old capital of Tripoli. Despite this list of failure, there has been a huge increase in calls for intervention by British forces in Syria to destroy the so called Islamic State.

Unfortunately, despite everyone having decided overnight that they are experts into the intricacy of the conflict, there is absolutely no consensus about what we should do. Whilst everyone is in agreement that IS need to be faced, no one can decide the answer of the most serious question around intervention. Who should we support?

First off, there are the Kurds. Historically, we have had reasonably friendly relations with the Kurds. Since the beginning of the bombing campaign in Iraq, British forces have worked with the Kurdish Peshmerga and other groups to push back Islamic State forces from Kurdish territory. Which, somewhat unfortunately considering their record for successful campaigns against IS, happens to be where the problems begin. In supporting the Kurds, we would risk greatly angering the Turkish government. This is because in supporting the Kurds, we are solidifying their hold on their own territory, a proto-Kurdistan. Supporting them as a lone force thus legitimises their cause, and shows implicit support for their campaign to have their own nation. The Turks have long feared such an eventuality, as their own sizeable Kurdish minority may then wish to be joined with this new Kurdish state. Given that the Turkish government is once again facing a Kurdish insurgency by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), and saw a decades long insurgency in the late 20th century, their fear is somewhat understandable.

The other huge issue with supporting the Kurds, surprisingly enough, is Russia. In supporting the Kurds, who have come into direct conflict with the forces of President Assad, we are directly supporting a group who are opposed to Russian interests in Syria. Russia makes use of the Syrian port of Tartus, giving it a naval presence in the Mediterranean. They run at least two electronic surveillance facilities within Syria, along with an airbase at Tadmur. If we are to launch any successful UN backed intervention in Syria, it must be with Russian consent or we risk irrevocable damage to our relations with Russia. Despite recent news cycles telling us how Russia and Iran have suddenly stepped up aid – they have been giving aid to Assad for the duration of the conflict – as well as supplying him with arms. Whilst it is unlikely for Russia to deploy ground forces to support Assad at the current time, it will do so to protect its interests, especially in the face of perceived western aggression.

Inevitably then, we must forsake the rebel forces who we have so far supported in the conflict, as it is clear that supporting anyone other than Assad’s government would anger Russia or Turkey. As well the lack of any coherent leadership amongst the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the onetime leading rebel coalition, has caused it to splinter and turn on itself time and again. Many of the moderate groups that used to exist have been wiped out, splintered or merged with more extreme groups. That western governments have now admitted that they are providing financial support to the official Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, tells us most of what we need to know about the make-up of rebel forces now.

As such, any intervention must (logically) be launched in support of the Assad government. This is the only way to avoid angering Iran and Russia who are both strong supporters of Assad. On the other hand, can we sanction supporting a government which has all but attempted to turn committing war crimes into a competitive sport? With daily reports of barrel bombs as well as the deliberate targeting of civilians, along with numerous counts of torture, if the UN or any western government were to intervene on behalf of Assad, we would be sanctioning one of the greatest cases of human rights abuses this century. Worse still, in supporting Russia in Syria, we would be brushing the war in Ukraine under the carpet, ignoring Russia’s own systemic human rights abuses and thus allowing President Putin to announce that he has once against stood up to Western governments and won. Clearly this would be less than ideal. Whilst a deal with Russia and Iran to back Assad might be a chance to protect the Kurds and could be used to bring about a Kurdish state if they fought alongside Assad against the FSA and IS, that is by no means certain.

Our last option would be to launch an intervention in the form of a peacekeeping mission, as was attempted in the former Yugoslavia. Given that it is the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre this year, we know full well that this was never a perfect model. However, if we could create safe zones within Syria itself, protected by a force with a UN mandate to use force if necessary, we might be able to create functioning areas within Syria and Iraq where the civilian populace can at least be marginally safer. The only downside to this however is that since no side seems to care about international condemnation at this point, there is every risk that these ceasefire zones would not be respected.

The final issue with intervention is that it would not bring peace. Whilst it would stop the full scale civil conflict that is currently occurring, that does not by any means bring an end to the violence. Thousands upon thousands of weapons have been pouring into Syria and Iraq, and when the conflict ends, that does not mean the weapons will vanish. Nor, for that matter, will the supporters of whichever factions lose the war. If Assad were to reconquer Syria, in order to hold it, he would have to then face decades of insurgency and terrorism, which would certainly see an increase in human rights abuses during any action to suppress it. The same would be true if any force were to win the civil war with the support of an international intervention. Before we launch an intervention of any sort, we need to establish clear cut goals and who would be conducting the fighting, because without this, all we would be doing would be guaranteeing instability in the region for decades to come.


  1. Incredibly astute paper, Sam. I have never seen the problem better explained anywhere else.

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