After almost a decade of Balkan wars, one of us wrote an Adelphi book on the lessons of NATO’s interventions. One of those lessons, regarding the Bosnian war, stemmed from the reality that: ‘In practice, overcoming paralysis in the face of a war that threatened values, but not – directly – core security, required a substantial convergence of outrage and determination among the key Western allies.’ This experience suggested

a final conclusion…[that] is perhaps the most frustrating for analysts and planners. Mutual paralysis – even in the face of great evil – is in the nature of a democratic alliance. This suggests that crises must truly ‘ripen’ before outside powers can come together to address them. Once they have ripened, however, much of the opportunity for an effective intervention will have been lost.

There are many who make the case that an early intervention on the side of Syrian rebel groups most palatable to the West could have ensured a preferred outcome with less bloodshed. The case is arguable, though obviously speculative, and it is anyway at odds with the inherent constraints described above. It now appears, however, that at least three Western allies – the United States, the United Kingdom and France – will take military action to retaliate for Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. They will do so without authorisation from the UN Security Council, and in the face of considerable scepticism – including, apparently, President Obama’s – that military action will influence the Syrian civil war in a positive direction.

In contemplating any such military action, key questions include: first, can it be justified, both legally and morally; second, will it, in practical terms, do any good? These are not altogether separate questions, but for the purpose of analysis we should try to think about them separately.

NATO’s military intervention in Bosnia was controversial at the time, but its legality, at least in retrospect, is easy to defend. Bosnia–Herzegovina was a recognised member of the United Nations, even if the Serbs disputed its statehood and borders, so the Western allies could reasonably claim that they were aiding a sovereign Bosnia in its inherent right to self-defence. Moreover, NATO was working with the United Nations to enforce UN-mandated safe areas and a no-fly-zone, even if the UN–NATO ‘dual-key’ arrangement for authorising specific military actions had to be stretched at times by NATO capitals and commanders in order to get anything done. In any event, the UN resolutions were clear, as were the repeated Serb violations – including, most egregiously, in the Serb-captured ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica, where the massacre of some 8,000 men and boys was later judged by an international court as constituting ‘genocide’.

The Kosovo intervention was another matter because Kosovo was recognised as part of rump Yugoslavia; the UN Security Council was never going to authorise the intervention, given that China and especially Russia considered it a dangerous violation of state sovereignty. In the end, NATO appealed to a higher law of humanitarian protection against an imminent humanitarian outrage. There were arguable legal theories as to why this appeal trumped UNSC authorisation, and it might also be argued that they were legitimised ex post facto when the UN General Assembly enacted a somewhat vague ‘responsibility to protect.’ In any event, the NATO allies were driven to wage war over Kosovo by a strong conviction that they had seen this movie before – in Bosnia – starring many of the same Serb players, and it was necessary this time to act before a potential genocide became an accomplished fact.

We supported the NATO’s Balkan interventions at the time (when one of us served in the Clinton administration); we still think they were strategically, morally and, probably, legally justified. We would not pretend, however, that ignoring the UN Security Council, in the case of Kosovo, was cost-free in terms of fraying international order and consensus. The costs and the fraying were even greater, four years later, when the United States and its allies went around the Security Council to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein.

If, as seems likely, Western powers launch missile or air strikes to punish the Bashar al-Assad regime for a mass use of chemical weapons against civilians, the powers will again pay some price in deepened mistrust and tensions with Moscow, rendering the Security Council even less effective and manageable. But that price will have to be paid. It is fair to conclude that the costs to international order of allowing the use to go unpunished would be greater.

The practical consequences of Western military action – whether it will bend Syria’s civil war in a more agreeable direction – are more difficult to calculate. In Bosnia and Kosovo, strategic coherence was only possible when the Western powers more or less definitively took sides – and applied air power and other support – to tip the balance in civil conflicts. In thus taking sides the West was not, in every respect, taking the sides of angels, but it was at least choosing a lesser evil, and that choice led to a political settlement that the West could live with.

The Obama administration has been reluctant to choose a similar course in Syria, not least because it is sceptical about finding an ally among the rebels that is both effective and palatable. The regime’s reckless brutality is forcing its hand, but the Western allies insist they are contemplating only limited action tied to the use of chemical weapons, rather than wholesale intervention on the side of the rebels. The missile strikes under consideration are meant not so much as strategic inputs as strong international signals in the service of non-proliferation norms. This purpose suggests that they will need to be related to the offence, and proportionate. That means, for example, that units that have used the weapons can be attacked to prevent them from using the weapons again, and to deter the regime from authorising such use again.

Yet military action for the purposes of a non-proliferation gesture is problematic when the gesture is difficult to envisage as linked to a political resolution of the conflict. If the Assad regime suddenly turns savvy, it will absorb the attack and desist from the behaviour that provoked the attack. But it hasn’t been savvy so far, and its behaviour could yet lead to the Western intervention that could turn into a real quagmire. Chemical weapons are truly frightening and their use is properly forbidden under international law, but they are not necessarily more destructive of life than high-power conventional explosives. If Syrian forces now conduct a comparable massacre with conventional weapons, there could be overwhelming pressure on the administration and other allied governments not to shrug away crimes that were considered intolerable using different tools.

Dana Allin is Editor of Survival and Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs. Steven Simon is Executive Director of the IISS–US and Corresponding Director of IISS–Middle East. 

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