Should the Western democracies, including Canada, intervene in Syria to defend the revolution that began in March 2011? I propose to answer that question with the story of liberal interventionism: what it is and is not, where it has worked and where it has failed.

First of two parts

Should the Western democracies, including Canada, intervene in Syria to defend the revolution that began in March 2011? I propose to answer that question with the story of liberal interventionism: what it is and is not, where it has worked and where it has failed.

Syria: 2001–2016

When making the case for intervention in Syria it’s important to start with the facts. More than 470,000 Syrians, of a 2011 population of 22 million, have been killed.1 More than 6.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced. A further 4.6 million have fled, prompting a refugee crisis that threatens to overwhelm the borders and politics of the European Union and Syria’s neighbours. Of the civilian deaths in Syria, 95 per cent have been at the hands of the country’s dictator, Bashir Al-Assad, and the remaining 5 per cent at the hands of others, including the millenarian Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).2

Following the success of Tunisia’s Arab Spring, hundreds of thousands of peaceful Syrian demonstrators took to the streets. They were beaten, shot, shelled, then bombed by their government. Protests turned to resistance, then to civil war. Assad’s regime grew weaker and he lashed out, using chemical weapons. President Obama said further use of these weapons would cross a “red line” that would trigger an armed American response. Russia, Assad’s longstanding ally, said Syria would immediately surrender its chemical weapons and the West backed down. The use of chemical weapons resumed. Western democracies did nothing.

The anti-Assad opposition, originally largely affiliated into the Free Syrian Army, came to be dominated by Islamist groups. The United States and other democracies provided small levels of aid to some rebel groups, with little effect. The opposition has become increasingly Islamist in part because Islamist groups and countries, especially Saudi Arabia, provided funds that the democracies would not – a reminder that our inaction has consequences.

ISIL’s foothold in Iraq grew to include parts of Syria. In 2014 the United States and its allies began bombing ISIL; pressure mounted on Assad, and by October 2015 he controlled just 11 per cent of Syria’s territory. Fearing their ally’s collapse, the Russians began a six-month bombing campaign, targeting any group that threatened Assad.

Much of Syria has been destroyed. A generation has been deprived of an education. Millions have their lives on hold in refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. ISIL continues to occupy part of the country.

When can force be used?

The argument for intervention in Syria starts with a question: what are the conditions under which armed force should be used by one state against another? Consistent pacifists say there are no such conditions, so in posing the question in this way we are leaving them by the wayside. For the purpose of this conversation we are assuming there are conditions under which force should be used – what are they?

Most people support an armed response if their country is attacked. Neutral Switzerland and post-imperial Japan, with its clearly named Self Defense Force, sanction force in response to invasion. In addition, many countries are members of regional or ideological self-defence alliances: if any member of the alliance is attacked, the other members will treat it at as an attack on their own soil. For example, Canada’s participation in NATO commits it to war with Russia should Russia invade Lithuania. NATO’s resolve has been tested once, following Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Next consider wars of aggression: wars launched to expand territory like the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, wars fought for ideological or political reasons like the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war. Following the slaughter of the first half of the 20th century and in the face of the risk of nuclear annihilation, the United Nations and other institutions were created to reduce the chance of interstate war. In this context, countries no longer admit to waging wars of aggression even when they obviously are, and claim humanitarian motives for the most brazen aggressions. This makes arguments for humanitarian intervention more complicated, and a standard of intervention even more important to uphold.

If you believe countries have the right to use force and the right to defend themselves and their allies, humanitarian interventionism asks the next question: how should that right to intervene be defined? There is a deep well to draw upon for answers to that question. Nigel Biggar lays out six criteria from the Just War tradition: just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, last resort, proportionality and prospect of success.3 Liberal interventionism is bound by all these conditions, with special emphasis on the question of legitimate authority – not because it is more important than the others, but because in a world where national boundaries are upheld by international law, violating them requires a framework that imparts moral and political authority.

I argue that the sanctity of someone’s home is no longer a refuge for someone engaged in domestic abuse: we have decided that the right to live free from abuse is more important than the right to make your home your castle. Similarly, geographic divisions decided by long-dead kings, colonial administrators or clever generals should offer no protection to governments that abuse their people. Just as individual rights can be infringed to protect victims of abuse, the inviolability of state borders should also be qualified.

Humanitarian or liberal intervention broadly means taking action, up to and including the use of force, when a state is engaged in, or fails to prevent, mass atrocities against its own or other people. It is a new concept, though with roots that go back to the Augustinian concept of Just War and Marxian ideals of internationalism. The idea is radical, and challenges the nation-state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force. It is idealistic, while constrained by the paradoxical reality that only existing states can prevent other states from committing evil acts. Coalitions, and even the United Nations, still rely on Westphalian states as their component parts.

Critics of humanitarian intervention cite many examples, notably the invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) and the American-backed struggle against Communism in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Vietnam and other countries. In many of these conflicts, a moral justification was cited for war. However, none of these were humanitarian interventions. Making a country safe for American – or Soviet – exports is not the same as an intervention in pursuit of protecting universal human rights. Queen Victoria spoke strongly of the “humanitarian” drive behind the vicious British suppression of the 1857 Indian Mutiny. If humanitarian intervention transcends the primacy of nation-states, that applies as much to the intervenor as to the intervened. Engaging in intervention does not render a state virtuous. At the same time, the fact that an intervening country has engaged in past aggressions does not disqualify its intervention from being humanitarian. Nations, like people, can change and progress.

There is a tendency to reject or ignore evidence that intervention works because factors other than humanitarianism come into play. For example, it can be argued that the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by the British Empire in 1807, and subsequent military action by the British against countries and companies that continued the trade, helped British commercial interests in an increasingly competitive world economy. However, that in no way invalidates the humanitarian aspect of the British action.

Similarly, the Allied defeat of Hitler during World War II stands as an example of liberal intervention: France and Britain declared war on Germany despite there being no immediate threat to their borders or interests. Few would say the Allies acted too soon. Tolerance for the domestic and international excesses of Nazi Germany in the period of 1933 to 1939 does not invalidate the resolve that led to the declaration of war in September 1939.

Modern liberal interventionism

The birth of humanitarian interventionism followed the end of the Cold War. With two superpowers controlling their respective spheres of influence, there was little room for protecting the vulnerable. Excesses were defended as byproducts of a global ideological struggle.

The comfortable United Nations peacekeeping missions that had marked the pragmatic humanitarianism of the postwar era fell apart in the former Yugoslavia in 1992. Instead of monitoring static front lines in Cyprus or the Sinai, where missions lasted for years, the United Nations confronted an aggressively nationalist Serbia, intent on consuming as much of the former Yugoslavia as possible. Peacekeepers were used as human shields and sometimes killed. United Nations “safe havens” were overrun by the Serbs. In Srebrenica, more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were killed between July 13 and 15, 1995.

The massacre pushed the international community to act. A bombing campaign in August and September turned the tide of the war and pushed the Serbs to the negotiating table, and the Dayton Accords in November 1995 ended the first war in mainland Europe since 1945. Memories of the recent horrors of Rwanda were fresh: a complex civil war had spilled across national frontiers, with former colonial powers taking sides and tolerating genocide while a large United Nations force was rendered ineffective. World leaders looked to the Balkans and saw that a short military campaign had ended the war where four years of diplomacy and sanctions had not.

Four years later the Serbs were at it again, attempting to maintain control of Kosovo and ethnically cleanse its Albanian population. NATO again undertook an air campaign against the Serbs, which lasted from March to June 1999. In April then–British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had convinced President Bill Clinton to join the air campaign, spoke to the Chicago Economic Club. He laid out five questions that should be asked, and answered, before any country considered humanitarian intervention:

  1. Are we sure of our case?
  2. Have we exhausted all diplomatic options?
  3. Are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?
  4. Are we prepared for the long term?
  5. Do we have national interests involved?

Blair’s doctrine proposed something new: that war could be started purely because people were oppressed by an illegitimate government. This harked back to the early days of international Communism, when global revolution was justified to displace capitalism. Blair’s standard would replace economics with human rights and the rule of law, but it was still a step beyond the world of the nation-state.

The Blair Doctrine contains an inherent, politically necessary, hypocrisy. The fifth test trod a careful line between the old approach to international politics and a new one not yet fully formed. Previously, only national interests were acceptable justifications for war. Defenders of the doctrine will argue national interests are still central, because in a globalized world suffering and conflict have consequences that transcend borders and regions: look no further than the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. But Blair included the fifth test in part because support for international military action is hard for democratic politicians to gain and maintain even in the face of reasonably clear threats.

Blair addressed this collision of idealism and pragmatism when asked in 2002 why, as he favoured intervening in Iraq and Afghanistan, he didn’t support invading Zimbabwe, where President Mugabe presided over a famine of his own creation. He said he did favour intervening in Zimbabwe, but he lacked support from the UK and Zimbabwe’s neighbours.

You can easily argue that North Korea, nuclear-armed and allied with China, is a worse place than friendless and impoverished Afghanistan was under the brutal Taliban. The North Korean regime may be more worthy of displacement. The Afghan regime was displaceable. Creating a scale against which governments should be measured is not something any government has yet had the courage, or foolhardiness, to try. That does not remove the need for such a scale, if humanitarian intervention is to develop into anything more than a new form of justification for traditional war.

Recognizing that the wars of the 1990s and 2000s had exposed a glaring hole in the international order, the United Nations might have been expected to take the lead in developing such a scale. In 2005 the UN adopted the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). Conceived in response to the failure of the international community to act in the face of the Rwandan genocide, then the Srebrenica massacre, then killings in Darfur by the government of Sudan, then the Serbian attack on Kosovo, R2P defined the conditions under which retaliation, up to and clearly including military force, could be used against abusive governments.
Where the Blair Doctrine was a checklist for democratic leaders, the Responsibility to Protect is a statement of aspiration, typical of the United Nations. It says:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

The language is clear – and its failure equally clear. For anyone who says the use of force in Syria must be sanctioned by the United Nations, here is the mandate.

Some liberal interventionist successes

Liberal interventionism had its first clear test months after the success of the Kosovo intervention, which saw Kosovo freed and the subsequent fall of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević to a domestic protest movement. Blair applied his test to a country in a region that had for a decade been a synonym for endless war: West Africa.

In 2000, Sierra Leone was part of a regional conflict that included Liberia and Nigeria. Endless peace accords were broken as warring groups fought to control the lucrative mineral trade. In May of that year, following the collapse of another peace agreement, the British military intervened to assist in the evacuation of the international community and then fanned out to stabilize the country. By September the mission was completed and, for 16 years now, the country has been at peace. Institutional support continued after military operations ended and, despite persistent problems of corruption, Sierra Leone survived the recent Ebola outbreak with its central government intact. Blair remains a hero in the country and the case offers an example of how liberal interventionism can succeed in practice in a part of the world that was considered as unstable as today’s Middle East.

Other reasonably clear success stories can be identified. In Mali in 2013, a force backed by France and the European Union worked with the government to displace Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In early 2015, the African Union authorized a military force that turned the tide when Nigeria’s military, riddled with corruption, was unable to deal with the rise of Boko Haram.

It is often hard to measure the success of disasters averted and deaths prevented. The above examples offer compelling case studies: ongoing wars ended quickly. Lives were lost in the process but it is hard to disagree that more were saved. Importantly, domestic support from the intervening countries was easier to maintain because the conflicts were short and victory decisive. Long-term support was relatively inexpensive and low-profile enough that support or opposition was not a significant factor in the domestic politics of the intervening countries.

Failures and the future (to come)

In part 2 of this article, which will appear in the Winter/Spring 2017 isssue of Inroads, I will look at the experience of interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya before making the argument for liberal intervention in Syria – an argument unlikely to be heeded. I will look at the potentially devastating consequences of the West’s newfound suspicion of its power and our lack of confidence in our capacity to evolve. My hope is that my article will be redundant and that by the time the next issue of this journal goes to press the Syrian people will be freed of the twin afflictions of Assad and ISIL. I am not optimistic.


1 Anne Barnard, “Death Toll From War in Syria Now 470,000, Group Finds,” New York Times, February 11, 2016, retrieved here.

2 The Syria Campaign, Syria: The Facts & Figures, September 23, 2015, retrieved here.

3 Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2013).