Tag Archives: humanitarian intervention

Stubborn resistance

The latest edition of the journal Ethics and International Affairs contains a number of interesting articles on international law and the ethics of war. Several of them are worth commenting on, but I want to focus on a piece by Alex Bellamy, Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at The University of Queensland, Australia. Bellamy is the author of quite a good introductory book on just war theory. As his job title would suggest, he’s something of an R2P advocate, and in his latest article he tackles the idea that during civil wars outside parties should support the state against insurgents. This idea rests on the principle that the state will probably win, and so it’s best to help it win as quickly as possible, so reducing overall bloodshed. The fact that Bellamy considers it necessary to address the idea is almost certainly a product of the situation in Syria, where government troops are the on verge on launching a final offensive to clear the country of rebel forces. The final triumph of the ‘Assad regime’ now seems so certain that even as hawkish a commentator as Max Boot has said that it would be best at this point if everybody helped Assad so as the get the war over and done with. Bellamy doesn’t like this. He calls it the ‘fatalist approach’ and in his article, entitled ‘Ending Atrocity Crimes: the False Promise of Fatalism’, he urges the likes of Boot to reconsider.

Now, I’m all for people taking on Max Boot, and would normally side with anybody who wants to do such a thing, but in this case, Boot is closer to the truth than Bellamy. For all his aggressiveness, Boot’s ultimately about the forceful pursuit of the national interest, not grandiose ideas of human rights or the international order. Liberal interventionists like Bellamy, by contrast, are all about the latter. And that’s where they go badly wrong.

In his article, Bellamy admits that the idea of helping states to defeat insurgents is not without merit, even in cases where the states in question are guilty of serious crimes. He points out that ‘when states prevail quickly over their domestic opponents, they tend to kill fewer civilians’. Wars in which the rebels prevail and which end in regime change tend, by contrast, to be very prolonged and involve much more death and destruction. Also, peace is normally more long lasting when one side or other wins decisively.

Despite this, Bellamy argues that helping states defeat their rebel enemies is a bad idea. He provides three reasons, which he calls ‘recurrence, precedence, and rights’. First (‘recurrence’), if states learn that they can employ atrocities against their citizens and get away with it, they will do so again and again. As he says, ‘Vladimir Putin came to power by employing indiscriminate violence against Chechnya to good effect in the Second Chechen War, and went on to support similar tactics in Syria.’ Second (‘precedence’), if states see that the international community turns a blind eye to criminal activity by other states, and even helps those states achieve victory, they will draw the conclusion that they can behave badly too. Again, he cites ‘the aforementioned adoption by Syrian government forces of tactics perfected by Russia during the Second Chechen War.’ And third (‘rights’), ‘Privileging order by standing aside as grave violations of rights are committed is patently inconsistent not only with the obligations of international human rights and  humanitarian law but also with the principles and purposes of the United Nations itself’. Ignoring such violations in order to bring wars to a quick end would do ‘great harm to the legitimacy of both the international legal order itself … and the compact between states and peoples.’

Bellamy remarks that his approach is a rule-consequentialist one, that is to say that he is arguing about what would be the best rule rather than what is best in any single instance. The fact that in some individual cases supporting a repressive government would bring a war to an end and so reduce suffering is not reason enough to create a rule that one should always do such a thing. If this was done all the time the negative consequences would outweigh the positive ones. One must, therefore, accept the additional suffering in this one case in order to support the rule which does the most good when applied repeatedly.

I have no problem with rule consequentialist arguments and have often used them myself. But they are very dependent upon judgements of future consequences which one cannot actually know. In this specific case, I think that Bellamy’s judgement is rather coloured by inaccurate assessments of how actions in one instance impact upon actions in another. His arguments concerning recurrence and precedence, for instance, draw on the Chechen example and claim that failure to confront Russia in Chechnya led to Russia, and Syria, committing atrocities during the Syrian civil war. But the link between Russian tactics in Chechnya and the methods used in Syria is decidedly tenuous. As I’ve said before, the tactics and level of force employed by the Russians and Syrians are not very obviously different from those employed by the United States and its various allies in places such as Fallujah, Mosul, and Raqqa. And that is for the very good reason that if you’re going to expel a heavily armed and determined enemy from a city, then you don’t have many options other than to act in that way. In short, it’s got nothing to do with recurrence or precedence.

Moreover, as I’ve also said before, the elevation of ‘rights’ over peace is contradictory because by extending war and increasing the level of violence one inevitably undermines people’s rights, in particular the right to life. It’s also wrong to claim, as Bellamy does, that it’s a mistake to prioritize order over rights, for the simple reason that order is an essential precondition of rights. Bellamy ends his article by saying that we ‘need a politics of stubborn resistance.’ I find this phrase rather scary. In the case of Syria, what could this mean but war and yet more war? After all, if we aren’t going to let Assad win, there’s only two alternatives: war without end; or a war to overthrow the government (which only be achieved at a massive cost in human life). It’s hard to see how either option would enhance Syrians’ rights.

In any case, I think that Bellamy is tilting at windmills, in that I don’t think that there are many people who are saying that it should be a general rule that in civil wars one should always support the state. After all, if it’s a war which the state is losing, the logic of ending it quickly would dictate supporting the rebels. Perhaps a better rule might be to support whichever side is most likely to win in order to enable it do so as rapidly as possible. But that also wouldn’t be a very good rule, as it’s not that easy to predict who’s going to win and people are going to get it repeatedly wrong and end up supporting the weaker side, so making things worse. For instance, based on my memories on what was being said at the time along the lines of ‘Assad is doomed’, I’m reasonably confident that when the Americans decided to get involved in the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels they were pretty confident that they were backing a winner. Instead, they backed a bunch of losers, and so prolonged the war and increased the suffering of the Syrian people.

Studies have shown very clearly that, absent foreign intervention, civil wars generally finish fairly rapidly. Foreign intervention is strongly correlated with longer wars and increased suffering. If I may turn Bellamy’s rule consequentialist logic against him, then it is clear that if one is looking for the rule which over time does the least harm, then it isn’t one which says intervene on behalf of the state in civil wars, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf of the rebels, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf the side most likely to win. Rather, it’s one which says ‘Don’t intervene at all!’ For sure, that would require us to refrain from intervening in the few instances when intervention might do some good, but it would also force us to refrain in the far more numerous instances when it would do harm. Overall, the world would be much better off as a result. The dogmatic pursuit of human rights may make people feel virtuous, but in the end morality has to rest on practical realities, and those dictate that the strategy of ‘stubborn resistance’ is deeply counterproductive.

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Unprecedented destruction

In October last year, troops of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, with the assistance of the US Air Force, finally captured the city of Raqqa, which had previously been the capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On 1 April this year, an inter-agency team from the United Nations (UN) entered Raqqa in what was the first UN visit to the city since ISIS’s defeat. According to the website of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR:

The UN team entering Raqqa city were shocked by the level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before. A cascade of rubble lies along the streets with hardly a single building intact.

It’s worth repeating some of that again. The UN team found a

level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.

That’s quite something. There have been a fair number of destructive wars in recent years, including some which have done quite a lot of damage to urban infrastructure (e.g. the various wars in Iraq, the war in Libya, and so on). Yet Raqqa exceeds them all. Specifically, the UN reports that in Raqqa:

With nearly the entire infrastructure totally destroyed, public services barely exist and no safe water or electricity. The widespread presence of explosive hazards, including unexploded ordnance, landmines and improvised explosive devices, particularly in those neighborhoods of the city that were the stronghold of ISIS towards the end of hostilities, pose a significant threat to civilians; some 130 civilians having been killed and a further 658 injured in blasts since the city was retaken from ISIS in October 2017.

In addition to unexploded ordnance, the UNHCR protection team on the mission, who met with women, men and the youth, identified numerous protection and other challenges, risks and threats, ranging from criminality, early marriages and other SGBV [sexual and gender based violence] concerns, to lack of safe water, electricity, healthcare and education services. But these are just a few of the many challenges preventing people from regaining their dignified life.

I mention all this because throughout the civil war in Syria, and particularly since the Russian Federation became involved, we have bombarded with complaints about the particularly barbaric methods of war used by the Syrian Arab Army and the Russians. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, for instance, ranted about the ‘flagrant disregard for human life’ displayed by the Syrian government during the battle for East Aleppo.  Former American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, accused Russia of ‘barbarism’ in Syria.  ‘Russia is abetting mass murder in Syria’ shouted the headline of a recent article in The Atlantic magazine. And so on. There’s far too many such statements to count.

Accompanying these complaints are repeated claims that ‘something must be done’. This normally means something military. The aforementioned Atlantic article, for instance, claims that,

Military force and deterrence may also be the key to ending the Syrian war. … The war in Syria will only end when the aggressors know America is serious—about diplomacy, about sanctioning the aggressors, and about using military force not just to fight isis, but to protect Syrians. Continued failure to take these steps will only make America an accessory to evil.

And yet, if we are to believe the UN report I began with, the United States and its allies have been more destructive than the Syrian government and the Russians. Raqqa is not a unique case either. Patrick Cockburn of The Independent newspaper, for instance, has described the ‘mass slaughter’ of civilians in Mosul, with ‘appalling damage inflicted by continuing artillery and rocket fire aimed over a five-month period at a confined area jam-packed with civilians who were unable to escape.’ Despite this, there seems to be an extraordinary lack of indignation over such matters, let alone any calls to ‘do something’ to stop the Americans and their allies from killing civilians.

Of course, none of this excuses any excesses committed by the Syrians and the Russians, or means that they have been particularly mindful of civilian casualties during their military operations. It also shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that the Americans are worse than the Russians. In my view, they’re one and the same. The massive destruction one can see in places such as Raqqa, Mosul, and Aleppo is simply an inevitable consequence of urban warfare. There is no way that you can destroy an enemy who is in a city and who is determined to stand and fight without destroying much of the city in the process. And if a lot of civilians are present (perhaps because the defenders won’t let them leave), there’s no way that you can do it without killing large numbers of civilians as well. This is reality, and the fact that both Americans and Russians end up doing much the same thing is a reflection of it.

In short, the problem isn’t that either the Russians or the Americans are particularly barbaric, it’s that war itself is brutal, and there is no getting around it. This is a message that the ‘something must be done’ crowd seem unwilling to learn. They seem to believe that there is some simple, cheap, and relatively benign way of applying force, which will solve all sorts of problems without killing a lot of innocent people along the way. This is (99 percent of the time) a myth.

Yes indeed, the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad is hardly a shining example of liberal democratic values. Yes, it would be nice if it could be replaced by something which was. But how exactly do the would-be intervenors imagine that Assad could be overthrown? Their problem is that they don’t have a plan. Well, let me tell them what their plan would have to be if they were serious about ‘regime change’. They couldn’t just drop a few bombs or fly in a few rockets, and expect that to do the job. It wouldn’t. They’d have to create a land army, and support it over a prolonged period of time as it ground its way slowly forward taking government-held cities one by one: Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, and others, and ultimately Damascus. And every time, they’d have to do to them what they did to Raqqa.

So, I have a simple question to our armchair humanitarian warriors: How on earth would that help save the lives of innocents?