On 26 March 1999, Russia and China tabled a UN Security Council resolution condemning the US-UK led intervention in Kosovo, which had been launched following the escalating massacre and ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians by Serb forces.
The resolution denounced NATO action as a flagrant breach of sovereignty and demanded its cessation. In an important moment, the motion was resoundingly defeated. By 12 votes to 3, Western and non-Western states, many of whom were not natural allies of the US, lined up against it and backed the war. Summing up the mood, the Dutch representative said:
“Today we regard it as a generally accepted rule of international law that no sovereign state has the right to terrorise its own citizens…Times have changed, and they will not change back…”
This consensus did not emerge out of nowhere. It was a norm built up throughout a decade that counted the costs of inaction in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, and particularly in Bosnia at Srebrenica. But this was not some neo-con project. The idea that, in very limited circumstances and by very strict criteria, intervention could be justified to prevent an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe was pioneered by thinkers on the centre left, where it enjoyed broad support.
Thirteen years on, Dutch pronouncements look horribly premature. Bashar Al-Assad’s militias rampage through Syria, shelling and slaughtering his own people en masse – gouging out the eyes of children while they execute them, one by one – to see that his dictatorship retains power. As UN monitors withdraw, Russia and China shield the regime from any meaningful recourse, just as with Kosovo – except this time there’s little or no will to defy them. Times have changed back.
What is striking though is how relatively little we on the mainstream left have to say about all this. I am not for a second accusing people of not caring about events. But there is little of the pressure on William Hague to help find a solution that Robin Cook or Tony Blair felt, and which played its role in the decision to confront Milosevic. There is instead a sense of paralysis, a fatalism that nothing can be done. If this silence is ever broken, it’s usually to warn of the perils of action, rather than inaction.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be like this. That’s not to argue that the model used in the Balkans or Libya will work in Syria. Ill-judged actions could easily make things even worse; each case is different with its own complexities, and should be treated as such. But there remains a host of at least plausible options far short of occupation or even air-strikes which could help make a horrendous situation in Syria a bit less so, and stem the bloodshed. One is a no-fly zone. Another, the most comprehensive, is a proposal for humanitarian safe havens (‘No Kill Zones’) put forward by Anne-Marie Slaughter in the US (here and here). These, as she outlines, could be defensively patrolled for instance by the Free Syrian Army, with the conditional logistical support of Arab League states, Turkey and the West.
Such plans may not in the end stand the test of scrutiny, though they have so far, and something like them is favoured by the French. But at the moment they are not even being countenanced by those on the centre-left in the UK; they are not even being discussed, let alone pushed for. Instead most seem to have succumbed to the gloomy assumption – until now the preserve of the far left – that all and any action involving Western power is reducible to an act of imperialism that can only end in disaster. If humanitarian intervention ever appears in our discourse, it’s rarely without inverted commas and a sneer.
What lies behind all of this, of course, is Iraq. The disastrous invasion and occupation has made it easy to tar all Western intervention with the same brush (helped further by proponents of war with Saddam cynically appropriating humanitarian language after initial rationales had been exposed). One opened the door to the other, so the argument goes. The histories of the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and lately Libya are constantly being flimsily re-written to fit this neat worldview.
But whatever you think of those wars, it is possible and necessary to separate them out from Iraq and Afghanistan – or to support one but not the other. The former were wildly different interventions, prosecuted in totally different circumstance and for totally different reasons. Iraq met few of the criteria set out under R2P, for instance, or even Blair’s own Chicago speech. Similarly, there was no oil in Pristina, and very little geo-strategic benefit to Benghazi. Life is more complex than that.
More to the point, the interventions of the mid-to-late 90s and in Libya actually worked. They were enormously imperfect, complex and bloody (and in the case of Bosnia, belated), and occasionally horrible mistakes were made in the course of them. But they ultimately helped end conflicts which at one point had promised butchery, ethnic cleansing and human misery on an infinitely worse scale. Western influence and power remains a very blunt object indeed, and people across the left are right to treat it with suspicion. It will always be selective, and of course is sometimes the author of brute realpolitic. But occasionally, it can be pressed into engineering the least worst outcome.
Again, what is possible in Syria is likely very different to before. But progressives urgently need to address this mental block to any outside action at all, which seems to have set in among many of us, because at the moment it’s leaving an eerie silence in the face of immense brutality and suffering. The situation is not simple, and as Rory Stewart has said, “we do not have a moral obligation to do what cannot be done”. But we do have a moral obligation to open our minds, and at least arrive at that conclusion honestly.