The image is as iconic in the history of international relations as Adlai Stevenson‘s at the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Colin Powell, the former American Secretary of State, providing proof that Iraq is storing and ready to use CBRNs during a UN Security Council meeting in February 2003.
Stevenson’s moment helped strengthen U.S. credibility at the height of the Cold War. It reinforced the American soft power and its image as a righteous country. Colin Powell’s moment started a decade in which the international credibility and soft power capabilities of the United States plummeted and have yet to recover. It led to the two-state invasion of Iraq, the removal of Saddam Hussein from power and the beginning of a civil war that still rages on.
We are now ten and a half years removed from this moment and the United States are once again confronted with the possibility of invading a country without the consent of international organisations and only one major supporter, France. As such, a potential intervention in Syria looks very much like what happened in Iraq in 2003.
Obviously, the situation in Syria and the region is much different than a decade ago. Syria is in the midst of a brutal civil war in which numerous transnational actors are involved, and the region itself, in the wake of the Arab Spring, is torn by instability and polarising views. The alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government on August 21, apparently not for the first time, created an uproar in the Western world that caused many to ask for international intervention, to be led as usual by the United States.
A decade ago, intervening may have been a no-brainer, or at the very least, easier to justify. Now international intervention, despite the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), is near impossible, because the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 changed the game.
The modern concept of humanitarian intervention was developed to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust were never reproduced. This is why it was incorporated in the UN Charter as its now famous Article 42. Rarely evoked during the Cold War, the precedent for humanitarian intervention was only truly set in 1988 when the Soviet Union allowed foreign groups to enter the country to provide relief for the victims of the Spitak earthquake that occurred in Armenia. On a side note, this is the same year chemical weapons were used by the Iraqi government on Kurds and in the war with Iran.
The 1990s established what could have been the blueprint for a possible intervention in Syria in 2013, with the humanitarian missions in Africa (under the UN flag) and the more controversial but tolerated NATO missions in Ex-Yugoslavia, including Kosovo in 1999. Considering the size and horror of the conflicts in the Balkans and numerous African regions, interventions on humanitarian grounds, though not always successful, were increasing and appeared to become the raison d’être of multinational organizations like the United Nations or NATO.
The tendency was strong enough to lead to the development of the concept of Responsibility to Protect, an idea that diluted the sacred principle of state sovereignty in order to accommodate potential intervention on four grounds: Genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Because the use of chemical weapons is considered a war crime, an intervention in Syria based on the proof that the Assad government used such weapons would be legal and legitimate, both politically and morally. So why are states, beyond realist reasons, so reluctant to intervene in Syria?
Because of the shadow cast by the unilateral and unfounded invasion of Iraq in 2003. The American and British governments provided false information in order to invade the country and destroyed their credibility and soft-power in the process. This means that any proof put forth by these governments – regardless of the political changes that occurred in the mean time – is met with doubt and disbelief. This is visible in the reactions of ally states such as Britain, which may be aware of the precarious position it is in, and Germany which refuse to be part of a unilateral operation, while Russia – supporter of the Assad government – requires categorical proof that chemical weapons were used in Syria, which the U.S. has yet to provide. By crying wolf ten years ago, the United States and the United Kingdom not only abused the tolerance for humanitarian interventions, hindering any possible international mission in Syria, but also sapped soft-power credentials essential for such delicate issues.
I am well aware of the counter-argument that the UN operation in Libya in 2011 (resolution 1973) demonstrated that the invasion of Iraq was the exception and not the norm. But considering how coalition forces – led by the U.S. – supported the Libyan rebels with air strikes rather than respect the mandate of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, it is not difficult to understand why countries and regional organisations that passively or actively supported the intervention felt betrayed. The parameters set by the international community were not respected, and unfortunately merely compounded the loss of diplomatic credibility and soft power capabilities the United States sustained with the Iraqi debacle.
Paradoxically, the invasion of Iraq is also the blueprint for intervention in Syria. When the United States and the United Kingdom unilaterally invaded Iraq in 2003, unopposed by the international community, it validated the argument that it is possible to invade a state on pre-emptive or humanitarian grounds with total impunity. Therefore, the necessity of obtaining international approval for intervention may no longer be a pre-requisite for the legitimacy of multinational humanitarian missions. World powers now get to set the rules for intervention as they see fit, and may argue precedence when required. The invasion of Iraq changed the rules of humanitarian intervention to accommodate national interests, which is what we may see in Syria.
If this is truly the case, a U.S. led mission in Syria will not be based on moral reasons but rather geopolitical and strategic ones: the instability of the Middle-East region; the proximity to Iran; the spill-over effect it may have in other countries like Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and Turkey; oil; relationships with China and Russia; and the effect an intervention will have on terrorist and para-military groups in the region that could benefit from it, as witnessed in Iraq. All of them delicate and highly volatile issues to consider in the short- and long-term planning of such an operation.
If the allegations of chemical weapon use in Syria are correct, there is indeed a moral obligation to intervene, and there are enough legal and political tools available to states to legitimize a humanitarian intervention. But if the pattern for intervention set ten years ago in Iraq is allowed to be validated by a second unilateral operation, we will be forced to question the need and relevance of the United Nations. The symbolic and legal legitimacy the organization has provided for nearly 70 years will then carry the same weight as its predecessor, the League of Nations, creating a huge geopolitical imbalance in the process.