Syria: is humanitarian intervention

By Jamie Brooke

On August 29 the British Parliament narrowly voted against a military intervention in Syria. Prime Minister David Cameron rightly allowed MPs a free vote, saying as the debate drew to a close; “I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. It is clear to me the British Parliament does not want to see British military action. I get that and the Government will act accordingly.”

President Barrack Obama’s administration has pushed forward with the process of seeking congressional approval for a military intervention in the war ravaged nation and, in the wake of the British decision, has sought further international support from the G20 nations.

The French government, which has historic colonial relations with Syria, has taken a pro-interventionist stance. Mr Obama has spoken of a ‘limited’ strike, which has received the preliminary backing of ex-serviceman Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, and Senator Lindsey Graham.

The two Republicans have stated that a no vote on military action would be ‘catastrophic‘ for the US’s reputation abroad. In the UK, though, it appears to have been the correct move politically as military intervention has such minimal public support. A humanitarian response has been suggested in its stead.

The 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol, referred to extensively in the Parliamentary debate, is a prohibition on the usage of dangerous gas. It is one of the most engrained international agreements in regards to weaponry there is, although the United States did not accede to it until 1975. Syria is, significantly, not a party to it.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, speaking on August 23, stated that “Any use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anybody, under any circumstances, would violate international law. Such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator.”

As Parliament affirmed, the importance of discovering the truth in this area should not be underplayed, but will be something of a drawn out process. The Prime Minister encouraged MPs to review the footage of the devastation – which appears more by the day to have come from Syria – a judgment call Mr Obama may wish to replicate.

It is important that decision makers on either side of the Atlantic, and around the world, do not let the disturbing nature of the footage cloud their judgment. The one grey area is lachrymose gas (tear gas), which may have a role to play in prisoner of war camps to ensure crowd control, an area which may develop in significance in the event of the crisis escalating.

This premise was established during the first Gulf War, during which the US Defence Department authorised its usage against Iraqi soldiers as part of search and rescue missions.

The establishment of no fly zones and the targeting of non-civilian infrastructure by the Americans, or any other party to the conflict, may again be a developing feature if – on balance – it is decided that military action is necessary.

Airfields serve both military and humanitarian needs. As such, deciding their status is essential if ‘hearts and minds’ support is to be maintained in the event of an intervention. It is the support of the citizenry that will decide whether or not any action will lead to further eruptions or to a settlement arrangement.

Mr Obama should bear in mind that it is not legal to launch aerial attacks against objects indispensable to the civilian population e.g. food stores, livestock, water installations or crops. Whilst the use of unarmed drones to allow the delivery of aid to remote locations is an option were landing strips to be destroyed, there is a suggestion that their usage is in part to blame for radicalisation in some parts of the Middle East, notably Yemen, a point touched on by Keith Vaz, Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee during the Parliamentary debate.

The American mood for an intervention is exceptionally limited, however, there is some support for targeted strikes on facilities storing or manufacturing chemical weapons, in keeping with the Obama administration’s ‘red line’ policy.

The question is one of interventionism versus isolationism, though with the changing nature of terrorism, when human flight is taken into account, this historic dynamic may no longer hold water. America, which is now somewhat bound to honour the commitment to its involvement, is disunited. Provisions are set out appertaining to the extent to which an occupying power can apply sanctions or coercion in the occupied state.

Acceptable targets in the event of an airstrike include military bases, lines of communication, fuel storage etc. What would otherwise be civilian buildings can become legitimate targets if they are used by enemy combatants – this does pre-necessitate a clarification as to who the enemy is. Collateral civilian damage must of course be avoided at all costs.

Mr Cameron previously considered arming the Syrian rebels, an idea which was initially dismissed in the UK. Democratic US Senator, Carl Levin, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee has maintained this stance arguing in favour of providing lethal aid to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.” This is to debase the word aid and should be acknowledged as such, however, there is growing justification in taking this particular course of action as combat continues.

A nation’s right to self-determination in genuine circumstances of national liberation should be respected. The relationship between an occupying power and the population are set out in the Civilians Convention. It is of course possible to instead enter into a Declaration of Friendly Relations. The motivation of those fighting in Syria is multifaceted and the groups dispersed.

At the very least, all parties should be able to agree that the bodies of the dead should be treated with dignity. There are provisions in international law relating to graves and burials, as well as some Islamic doctrines of note. Maintenance of graves and identifying the dead leads to a sense of closure, so past grievances may begin to be laid to rest, diminishing the residual hostility towards the Western world.

It may still be possible to make diplomatic progress with the Assad regime, as well as the country’s neighbours. President Vladimir Putin is opposed to US military action, saying any military strikes without UN approval would be ‘an aggression’. Mr Putin said that Russia would not rule out supporting a UN Security Council resolution authorising force if it was proved ‘beyond doubt’ that the Syrian government used chemical weapons.

Progress may yet be made in regards to the protection of clearly demarcated medical aircraft, for non-surveillance purposes. It is possible to become a party to the conflict rather than an occupying power. In the event of a humanitarian intervention, the only armaments legally permitted on medical aircraft are those taken from patients or light arms for the protection of the aircraft’s personnel for self-defence when the aircraft is on the ground.

The protection of children ought to be of particular concern both in the short and long term future. Every attempt should be made to limit their exposure to the conflict. Many children, as well as adults, will be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

If the local organisations are not adequately prepared to handle the number of orphans or children who have been separated from their families, there is obviously room for a co-ordinated international humanitarian response, especially considering the number of countries to which people have fled. Occupying powers are responsible for preserving local customs, education, religion and language.

Amnesty International wrote on August 22; “The international community has been given one last chance to turn the corner on its ineffectual response to the long litany of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Syria – which have left more than 100,000 dead, millions displaced and forced almost 2 million refugees to flee.”

The decision to wage war is, though, a monumental act for any nation. The tragedy of war and the standard of the British Parliamentary debate have prompted members of Congress to sign a letter rejecting military action without the explicit permission of Congress.

The sectarian element of both the Syrian conflict and the region as a whole, when considered alongside the long history of instability as well as a lack of signatories to commonly accepted treaties, makes diplomacy difficult.

Overlap with Islamic customs such as those set out in the Khadduri would be preferable, where appropriate and where human rights are ensured, and may help prevent the persecution of religious minorities – specifically, but not limited to, foreign aid workers.

America has, since 1863, had its own customs relating to warfare – some of which appear to have deteriorated over the years. The growing crisis in Syria is one of the largest humanitarian tragedies of our times. That the Western world would therefore wish to intervene is far from incomprehensible.

The Coalition government has, so far, been singing roughly from the same hymn sheet on Syria. Ed Miliband has, whilst not going overboard electioneering, at least been attuned towards debate. Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said before the Parliament reached its decision; “We are not prepared to issue a blank cheque to the Prime Minister.” This is again something of a change of tune from the Labour Party.

Whilst only a small amount felt like it was resolved – and won’t be until a more coherent American response is given – the session was, on the whole, a laudable triumph of democracy in the face of tyranny. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, made a worthy contribution to proceedings, as did some of the minority parties – including regional representatives.

That a debate primarily focussing on humanitarian considerations was non-confrontational is meritorious – and it can only be hoped the American debate goes down just as smoothly. Neutrality is an option still open to Britain regardless of the route America takes, and is in keeping with the Prime Minister’s commitment to diplomacy and peace talks.

There are circumstances in which a neutral party may offer a minimal level of assistance on the basis of benevolent neutrality ascribed by the Treaty on the Renunciation of War 1928, and mutual assistance may also be contemplated.

It is possible for an occupying power to stop the circulation of the local currency, the Syrian pound, and to issue its own currency. This may, from a diplomatic standpoint, best be that of another more stable Middle Eastern state. It is important that, if this route is taken, the local currency is not debased or that the occupying power does not confer gain from the changing economic climate.

Diplomacy goes hand in hand with economic stability, but it is possible fighting will erupt again if any economic intervention is perceived as rigging the local market. Any financial institution that engages in the area will of course have a fiduciary duty to its clients, whilst micro-financing and philanthropy remain viable options.

The standard still before Parliament is for a legal humanitarian intervention under the developing concept within international law of the Responsibility to Protect. If the use of chemical weapons, conventional weapons and the dispersal of humanitarian aid can be separated the response is likely to be better understood by the public, whose safety is ultimately at stake.

It was refreshing to hear Mr Cameron, who has lost some political capital over his steps towards censorship, acknowledge the correlation between the actions of government abroad and the potential for domestic repercussions.

The Syria debate has blurred party lines, facilitated in part by the high quality discourse and proper utilisation of parliamentary privilege. It has also gone some way to atone for past mishandling of other conflicts. The use of chemical weapons is indeed disturbing, but as is the usage of any unnecessary force.

It is essential the floods of refugees and asylum seekers in the area are offered whatever protection Britain can reasonably muster. The use of chemical weapons, if proven, is clearly a grave breach of international law, however, whether military action from any party is genuinely the best avenue for redress or not in this instance, remains to be seen.

From a diplomatic standpoint, it may still be possible to establish an agreement between the respective parties for the recognition of hospital zones to protect the wounded and sick as well as ensuring aid channels remain open.

Relief workers have objected to a gung-ho performance of the responsibility to protect, which ought to cause power brokers to question the reason that is so. President Obama confirmed that he ‘fully respected’ the approach the Prime Minister has taken over Syria, and his commitment to preserving the long established friendship between the two nations, though it is possible something of a diplomatic rift may occur.

It is easy for the public to panic somewhat when they are not given proper knowledge of a situation. However, patience and foresight are great British characteristics that are worth sharing, where possible. Mr Cameron did a good job at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions after what was, to be fair, a surprise result in Parliament. The public mood remains largely upbeat as discussion continues, feeling like the situation may be closer to being resolved and that the facts are starting to come to light.