The UK has tabled a resolution to the UN Security Council ‘authorising necessary measures to protect civilians’ in Syria, joining a number of Western nations who have declared themselves ready to support military intervention in the country. This position is based on the allegation that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against civilians on 21st August. The UK Government has also stated that, in the event that the resolution is blocked, the principle of humanitarian intervention will provide a legal basis for action against the Syrian regime.

The UK parliament voted last night against military action in Syria, but the issue may go to a parliamentary vote again after the report of the UN weapons inspectors is presented to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon over the weekend.

Although it is clear that the use of chemical weapons constitutes a grave violation of international law, previous experience has demonstrated the need for evidence of such abuses to come to light as a precursor to proposing military action. Given that measures for gathering this evidence are currently underway by the UN, and given the unease in Parliament about taking action before this work is complete, we believe that it is wise for the Government to await the results of the UN findings before tabling another vote. Furthermore, we believe that any plan for military action must take into account the extremely delicate position of Western powers in relation to the Syrian conflict, and the difficulty of predicting the outcome of any such intervention.

Both the decision to act and the decision not to act carry considerable risks for the nations proposing intervention. The decision not to act would effectively mean that dictator Bashar al-Assad would have succeeded in destroying the ‘red line’ principle on the use of chemical weapons, potentially encouraging the perpetration of further such attacks. In a region in which a number of countries rely on US support for providing security, a failure to act would entail considerable damage to its image and therefore national security.

The decision to act poses a number of questions which have yet to be addressed, in particular around the potential consequences of such intervention. Firstly, there is a need to define precisely the target and objective of potential intervention: whether it is it to topple the regime, or to destroy its military capability, or simply a punitive reaction. If the objective is to topple the regime, this potentially paves the way for jihadist groups to take power. If the objective is to destroy its military capability, this raises the threat that the regime may lose the ability to control its chemical weapons and that they may fall into the hands of opposition groups. If punitive measures are taken against the military machine of the regime only, these should include disabling its ability to launch further air or chemical strikes.

The effect of potential military intervention on jihadist groups currently engaged in fighting against the regime also needs to be considered. In this case both action and inaction on the part of foreign powers is likely to continue to be used as propaganda, by either conforming to a narrative of crusader intervention in ‘Muslim lands’, or to one of tacit Western support for Assad in crushing the rebels by refusing to act in a time of need. This could increase the appeal of some extremist groups fighting on the ground, who will loudly proclaim their isolationist position that nobody cares for the Syrian people apart from them, and the foreign jihadists coming to their aid. An internationally agreed basis for intervention and the support of neighbouring countries in the region will be crucial in offsetting such propaganda.

The consequences of military action must be evaluated on strategic, operational and tactical levels. On each of these levels it must be determined to what extent intervention can reduce the capability of the regime, without aiding the jihadists, and while strengthening the position of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, whom the Government have identified as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

With these issues in mind, there are a number of factors that should be considered for any military action to be credible:

  • Any action should be based on evidence that the use of chemical weapons against civilians has taken place by the regime.
  • If the resolution in the Security Council is blocked, the applicability of the legal principle of humanitarian intervention must be identified.
  • Steps must be taken to ensure that intervention does not benefit jihadist groups operating in Syria, by working closely with the National Coalition as the sole local partner.
  • The chemical weapons arsenal of the regime must be secured and prevented from falling into the hands of extremist groups as a key objective of any action.
  • There should be support and participation of regional countries for intervention.

The results of military intervention which is not well calculated could further exacerbate an already desperate humanitarian situation in Syria. Previous poorly conceived actions have reduced the credibility of the International Community in dealing with instances of human rights abuse and use of illegal weapons. Demonstration that due process has been carried out, and potential outcomes considered on the part of nations engaging in military action, will help to ensure that the principle of humanitarian intervention is not further tarnished by action in Syria.