The case for military intervention in Syria
Former US ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker argues that the West should not wait for a single mass atrocity before it intervenes in Syria, as it did in Bosnia. What is the magic number of deaths that will prompt the international community to act? We've already passed 9,000.
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What was the difference between May 1993 and July 1995? In terms of Western implementation – nothing. We did in 1995 roughly what we would have done in 1993, had we acted. But in terms of human cost – tens of thousands of lives were lost.Skip to next paragraph
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And that is the key lesson. Eventually, the West was willing to act. But it took a “catalyst” of thousands of lives lost in a single massacre to convince us to do what we could have done years before. Would it not have been better to have acted sooner and saved thousands of lives?
As we look back over recent decades, there have been a surprising number of mass-murder conflicts. Bosnia, Kosovo, Saddam Hussein’s attacks on the Kurds in Iraq, and Libya, to name a few. In each case, outside powers intervened at some point to stop the killing. The results – while imperfect – nonetheless saved thousands of lives and laid the groundwork for future settlements.
And of all these recent conflicts, which is the one we regret the most? Rwanda, where some 800,000 people were killed and the West did nothing.
This is the perspective one must bring to the conflict now raging in Syria.
Nearly all the arguments against intervention in Syria have merit. It is difficult. The Syrian military is strong. Outside powers such as Iran and Russia are engaged. The local politics are complicated. What comes after intervention? Who are the people we would help? What if a revolution is hijacked?
Sound familiar? It should. These are the same arguments, with a few modifications, that were heard before the interventions in Libya, Kosovo, Kurdish-Iraq, and Bosnia. And after hearing all of them, and seeing the killing continue, we should ask ourselves, “and then what?”
Imagine that after the shelling of Homs, after the shelling of Damascus suburbs, after everything we have seen over the past year, some new slaughter takes place. Imagine 5,000 people killed in one fell swoop. Or 7,000. Or 9,000. It’s happened before. In 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father sent the military to the city of Hama to put down an armed insurrection, killing at least 10,000 people.
What is the magic number that will finally prompt the international community to act in Syria?
The moral principles arguing for intervention are already known: The Syrian government is engaged in a systematic campaign of mass murder, seeking to kill anyone who dares oppose it, in order to re-establish firm control. The state of Syria has a monopoly of force – in the military, police, intelligence services, and secret police. The people are standing up with great valor – but little capacity – to oppose such tyranny. Over 9,000 people have been killed – though over a year’s time, not at once.