ISIL, Syria and the Middle East: The US Perspective

By Georgia Marks

Written after Georgia attended the WCIA event ‘ISIL, Syria and the Middle East, The US Perspective’ with a talk from Thomas Williams from the US Embassy in London. 

The Middle East is one of the most controversial topics talked about today. December 2010 saw peaceful Arab Spring protests about socio-economic issues and against Arab dictatorships. In March 2011, the Syrian government used violence in retaliation against the demonstrators. Once a minority of these protesters fought back, along with some of Syria’s troops, a civil war began in Syria, which rippled across the Middle East. It led to international intervention, including by the USA.

Thomas Williams from the US Embassy talks at the Temple of Peace about ISIL, Syria and the Middle East

Thomas Williams from the US Embassy talks at the Temple of Peace about ISIL, Syria and the Middle East

On 28 April 2016, Tom Williams from the US Embassy in London spoke in Cardiff at the WCIA about the US perspective on issues in the Middle East. He stated that the US strategy in regards to the Middle East is straightforward: the achievement of real stability links to a “consistent international rule of law.” There is a right to act unilaterally, but the US do not perceive this as a sufficient method of intervention compared to diplomacy. Williams stressed the importance of historical relationships, e.g. with the UK, but also with new allies.

In my opinion, this is a sound plan, but also an inconsistent one, as Obama originally wanted to take military action and then changed his mind. This may give people in the Middle East a false hope that at some point the US may intervene militarily, which I think will only drag out the war in Syria.

Williams described the Middle East as a “region of regimes” which were disrupted by the Arab springs; they are still dealing with the consequences of political transition as a result of the protests. There are many issues facing this part of the world. Demographically there is a youth bulge and a surge of underemployment in some areas. The antiquated schooling systems result in high levels of illiteracy which increases the unemployment rates. The rule of law is particularly sketchy, with the demonstrations in 2010 and 2011 fuelled by the resentment of corruption. Additionally, political instability is one of the main issues of the Middle East, with the crisis from the civil war in Syria flowing to the surrounding countries, leading to a surge of refugees which has broad international impacts.

Williams said the top priority of the US foreign is Syria, with the crisis continuing into its 6th year, 5 million refugees are currently registered. Some are staying in camps but a large number are currently in host communities which is demanding not only on the governments of these countries, but also on the general population due to competition for housing and labour. The biggest strain is on Jordan, Turkey and the Lebanon. But all of this was inevitable- with any major political transition comes upheaval of society. So in my view the US should have anticipated and planned for before they intervened. Williams said that the strategy undertaken by the US is threefold.

  • To mobilise the partners for the campaign to fight ISIL.
  • Diplomacy to end the civil war in Syria. Talks are vital, with Williams describing current talks as the most promising initiative in years. There are sharp divisions, but there is unity to have political transition.
  • A humanitarian approach which aims to ensure that the instability does not spread beyond the borders of Syria. In particular this looks at hosting refugees.

In my opinion the first strategy creates more work for the third strategy. Fighting against ISIL will increase the need for humanitarian aid. The safety of the people in Syria is more likely to be jeopardised if there is more conflict. Therefore putting more US effort into diplomacy will be more effective; if the country is more stable because of peace negotiations then the need for humanitarian aid will decrease.

A member of the audience questioned the changing stance of the USA. At the beginning of the civil war the US, UK and others made it clear that Assad must go. However, after the emergence of large terrorist organisations such as ISIL, the attitude towards Assad became much more positive. Is it not defeating the point of original intervention if the Assad regime stays? The evolution of views, Williams said, reflects the change in circumstances. He explained that after the protests in Syria, Assad lost legitimacy; ultimately the situation with Assad will have to be negotiated with the Syrian government because America’s underpinning policy is unchanged.

The US have also been focusing on political and economic issues, with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank working together to build the economy. A member of the audience questioned how helpful economic institutions like the IMF really are in this region.

The speaker answered arguing that humanitarian efforts are not always effective in particularly violent areas. Experience in Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted the difficulties in humanitarian progress as it is hard to give evidence that the US has actually helped. So a potentially more effective alternative is stabilisation of the economy. I think this point is well thought out as the stabilisation of the economy will in turn aid society if there is something to support the people. But a reliance on westernised systems may cause the Middle East to become too dependent on the west. The US should help to stabilise the economy, but without constant economic support so that these countries can survive by themselves economically.

Williams expressed that the main goal within the surrounding countries of the region is to secure political stability. The USA are supporting a Tunisian democratic transition through a mutually agreed agenda, working with Tunisia to fight corruption. He argues that US intervention has helped a stronger, improved government through decentralisation, with Obama describing the country as a potential counter terrorism partner.

The USA have also been working in Libya to assist public institutions to become political institutions; the government of national court has made progress, but has yet to establish legitimacy. There has also been growing terrorist presence in Libya, which could threaten these improvements.

Additionally, the USA have looked at negotiating with Israel and Palestine where there is currently little political motivation. Williams stressed that they must stay committed to these countries. He emphasised diplomacy, using the example of its success in Iran. He suggests Iran could have chosen to create nuclear weapons but made the choice to refrain from gaining such resources because of negotiations with the US. Although the speaker still described Iran as a concern, it does go to show that patient collaboration works.

A member of the audience asked if ISIS was dealt with tomorrow, did Williams not think that the US had established alliances for the sake of it. However, the speaker highlighted that some of their allies, such as the Kurdish forces, are highly problematic in the region, but they focus on working with effective forces to fight terrorism; the regions themselves are to deal with the aftermath. They fight the shortest term challenge and then deal with other issues as they emerge.

A survey by ORB international found that 22 per cent of Syrians believe that ISIS has had a positive influence on their country.[1] In my opinion, this weakens US intervention, and suggests that there is a decreased confidence in America’s aid. All this lengthens the time it will take to progress towards political stability.

Williams concluded that military intervention is not always the best option. Real diplomacy, although hard and sometimes unsatisfactory, is fundamental. The USA needs the world in order to succeed in international intervention, but the USA is also central to the world for diplomatic intervention. International community is important.

A diplomatic approach to the Middle East, rather than military intervention is a long process, but I think the most successful option likely to achieve political stability and peace over military intervention. Due to the threat that ISIL pose on the world, military action can make the situation worse. To establish peace negotiations by Middle Eastern countries would lead to future conflicts being resolved within these regions without the need for external intervention.

The USA could have handled the beginning of their intervention more successfully, with a consistent idea of how they would intervene in the Middle East. There is a history of military intervention in this region, for example in Afghanistan. So when the USA originally decided to intervene militarily but then changed their position to an emphasis on diplomacy, it gives the people false hope that eventually the USA will use military action to fight terrorist groups. Additionally, negotiations with Assad reinforces the idea of inconsistent policies of the US. This makes it hard for the Middle East to treat US intervention as legitimate if there is never a clear stance. So if the idea of diplomacy and humanitarianism is showcased consistently, it has the potential to prevent the elongation of the civil war in Syria.


[1] ORB International. ‘ORB/IIACSS poll in Iraq and Syria gives rare insight into public opinion.’

The Realities of Peacekeeping

Ceremony for Fallen Peacekeepers of MINUSMA

The recent deaths of two Senegalese peacekeepers in the Northern Malian Town of Kidal and the on-going violence in South Sudan has brought the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations [UNDPKO], and the United Nations [UN] back into the media spotlight. The UNDPKO and particularly the UN face criticisms by academics and global figures on a regular basis. Even Thomas Weiss wrote a book called ‘What’s wrong with the United Nations and How To Fix It’.  However, after a recent visit to the UN headquarters in Geneva, I felt inspired to write this post to highlight the challenges that the UNDPKO have to overcome in an attempt to construct a securer world for us to live in. It is not easy trying to create a safe and peaceful world, it comes with many constraints and challenges that the UNDPKO face on a daily basis.

The UNDPKO was established because of the agencies importance to global security, which is at the centre of the UN mandate. The first purpose of the UN as stated in Article 1 of its Charter is to “maintain international peace and security”[1] thus making peacekeeping an integral part of the UNDPKO mandate. The agency was established in 1948 when the Security Council deployed UN military observers in the Middle East. The mission was to monitor the Armistice Agreement signed between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, later known as the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation[2]. The UNDPKO will be the first to highlight and hold responsibility for humanitarian disasters such as the highly visible and tragic failures of the UN missions in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s[3]. However, the UNDPKO are constantly trying to improve their agency through countless reports and resolutions such as the Brahimi Report in 2000 and the New Horizon Initiative in 2010. The UNDPKO recognise their mistakes and target to progression, but still face outside challenges that restrict the agency.

The approved budget for the agency for the fiscal year 2013-2014 is $7.54 billion [4]. The budgets of peacekeeping operations are based on the missions mandate from the Security Council, which is spread over various sectors within the agency, such as wages, equipment and transport. The highest amount of expenditure is  $2.8 billion, which is spent on military and police personnel costs, and $1.7 billion on civilian personnel costs[5]. The budget is created through financial contributions from donor states. The highest providers are the USA providing 28.38% of the budget, Japan contributing 10.83%, and France with 7.22%.

The agency faces challenges regarding the budget, the Brahimi Report recognized the need for change within the agency, the key to the development of the agency was continued sustained funding.

 One of the obstacles the department have to overcome is partially met-funding[6]. An estimated $3.26 billion is owed to agency from the states. This responsibility falls to the individual nations to fulfil their commitments, nevertheless it shows the lack of accountability the agency has over the states. Nonetheless, it is noted that the agency is cost effective. The approved budget represents 0.4% of global military spending. Military intervention is the most-cost effective means of preventing a return to conflict in post-conflict societies[7]. Even though the agency is financially beneficial, it is still unable to hold states accountable for not fulfilling their financial contributions, which is a serious challenge that constrains the UNDPKO.

It is clear that the UNDPKO struggles to hold states accountable for their commitments. The agency finds it difficult to motivate states into action when the state has no political interest in the conflict. The UN is still not able to take the leading role with regional superpowers who find it difficult to compromise their strategic, political and economic interests for the sake of regional peace and security[8]. Therefore “UN peacekeeping depends completely on the willingness of states to offer troops and police for operations, which imposes key limitations on those operations”[9]. The agency is powerless in controlling peacekeeper contributions; with the states dictating how many peacekeepers they donate to the UNDPKO. Furthermore, the state will control which missions their troops take part in, leaving the UNDPKO powerless in governing the deployment of peacekeepers.

Overall, the UNDPKO has a unique role in fundamentally creating global security. The mandate aims to create peace through political frameworks, conducting and applying ceasefires and helping countries through the transition to peace; something that no other entity can do. Ultimately, the UNDPKO is restricted due to the lack of power it has to hold states accountable for fulfilling their financial contributions. As a result, the agency has the correct mandate and direction, but is constantly restricted by states within the UN who only participate when the situation abides to their political, social and economic interests.  These challenges highlight the difficulty the UNDPKO has to overcome regularly in an attempt to create a securer world. It seems that individual states do not make it easy for the UNDPKO to function, thus increasing the ability of individuals to criticise the agency.


 Thomas Edwards




Durch, W., Holt, V., Earle, C,.& Shanahan, M. (2003). The Brahimi Report and the Future of UN Peace Operations. Washington, USA: The Henry L. Stimson Centre.


Francis, D., Faal, M., Kabia, J., & Ramsbotham. (2005). Dangers of Co-Deployment: UN Co-Operative Peacekeeping in Africa. Aldershot, United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing.


Pitta, R. (2005). UN Forces 1948-1994. Oxford, United Kingdom: Osprey Publishing.


United Nations. (1945). Charter of the United Nations. Retrieved from:


United Nations. (2012). Civil Affairs Handbook. Retrieved from:


United Nations. (2012). United Nations Department of Public Information. Retrieved from

United Nations. (2013). Approved resources for peacekeeping operations for the period from 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2014. Retrieved from

[1] United Nations. (1945). Charter of the United Nations. Retrieved from:


[2] Pitta, R. (2005). UN Forces 1948-1994. Oxford, United Kingdom: Osprey Publishing.


[3] United Nations. (2012). United Nations Department of Public Information. Retrieved from


[4] United Nations. (2013). Approved resources for peacekeeping operations for the period from 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2014. Retrieved from


[5] United Nations. (2013). Approved resources for peacekeeping operations for the period from 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2014. Retrieved from


[6] Durch, W., Holt, V., Earle, C,.& Shanahan, M. (2003). The Brahimi Report and the Future of UN Peace Operations. Washington, USA: The Henry L. Stimson Centre.


[7] United Nations. (2012). Civil Affairs Handbook. Retrieved from:


[8] Francis, D., Faal, M., Kabia, J., & Ramsbotham. (2005). Dangers of Co-Deployment: UN Co-Operative Peacekeeping in Africa. Aldershot, United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing.


[9] Durch, W., Holt, V., Earle, C,.& Shanahan, M. (2003). The Brahimi Report and the Future of UN Peace Operations. Washington, USA: The Henry L. Stimson Centre.

 Photo: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

The World Culture of War: Subject to Change?

War Devastates City of Warsaw

The first war on record transpired in 2700 BC, and since then things have largely followed a pattern. Countless wars have occurred, each accompanied by numerous atrocities of their own. Each side chaperoned by a sense of moral high ground and military abundance.

Fighting is everywhere. Some have argued it is a mind-set, a human condition that one can do nothing about. From that bloke down the pub that is missing a few teeth to two kids in the playground jumping on each other, it is largely a world in which there is little respite from violence.

This is indeed reflected by international relations past and present.  With so many countries, and indeed leaders, striving to be the alpha male, conflict was always going to occur. It is perfectly natural, or so it seems, to desire power. Since the dawn of time imperialism has been the sole aim of many countries. One would assume this reflects the supposed inhibition of man.

But can this be changed? Can this condition be rebuffed and refined? Indeed, it seems it’s very possible. Partially helped by two world wars, and the subsequent creation of the United Nations, countries and indeed people are changing their views on the rather destructive interventionist policy.

This has been most evident recently, and confirmation of this shift in thought was provided by the vote of British Parliament to avoid intervention in Syria. I can’t say, yet, if this decision is a good or a bad thing in terms of the Syrian situation, however, it is certainly significant that a democratic, and indeed peaceful, choice of action was reached.

Indeed, the world leaders – America – have also taken a democratic stance. Obama’s decision to take the issue of intervention to Congress shows his reservations concerning interventionism.  Military action, for example in Iraq and Afghanistan, has somewhat failed the US of late, causing a change of worldview for many citizens and indeed for the government as many now fear the consequences of war.

Even Russia has been reasonable. Its peace plan shows a somewhat new, diplomatic side to Russian foreign policy. After the Snowden controversy, the US and Russia have something over which they can talk and hopefully produce a resolution. The Cold War bitterness may have finally worn off, as Russia decides not to completely oppose the Americans and take the decision to the UN.

All these states’ foreign policies seem to be changing. Becoming more reasonable, and although fighting in North Africa continues, as the West leads the rest will surely follow.

I will, then, finish with an example of what forward-thinking countries should be aiming towards. Switzerland has effectively been neutral since 1515, with this being formally recognised in 1815. Switzerland is effectually the longest standing neutral country in the world. But how has this long lasting peace been maintained?  The Swiss Constitution states that foreign policy is to have five objectives:

  • “promote respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of the law
  • Further the peaceful coexistence of nations
  • Promote Swiss economic interests abroad;
  • Alleviate need and poverty in the world;
  • Promote preservation of natural resources.”

Indeed, this is the type of sustainable foreign policy that more countries should be trying to emulate. “Peaceful coexistence” is the end, but war is not the means. It, of course, is occasionally necessary – but only very occasionally, and only when considered just. A diplomatically, economically and environmentally sustainable state of world affairs is exactly what is needed, and hopefully events in Syria, coupled with countless wars over the past few hundred years, have – bizarrely- brought us one step closer to that.


Ewan Morgan


Sources used:


What is International Law Anyway?

Russian Leader Welcomes US President at G-20 Summit, St. Petersburg

Thousands dead, millions displaced and not much ground gained for either side. You could be forgiven for thinking I am describing the battle of the Somme, but this is in fact the reality of Syria. Like a tragic saga unfolding, the Americans and the Russians have been thrust into the starring roles, but seem to have two separate scripts to the play.

On August 21st the chemical attack launched in Syrian towns, killed at least 1,000 people and was almost immediately blamed on the Assad government by the US and the UK. However after the attack, the Syrian Army strenuously denied responsibility, blaming it on the opposition rebel forces, with the backing of western powers. Parliament was recalled and we seemed to be hurtling headlong into a weekend of bombing without any regard for Security Council sanctions or International law.

The United Nations is often accused of being inept and useless at preventing or solving conflict in present times. And Syria is the latest glowing example of just why this is. I don’t sit on the fence, my mentality tells me to question how military strikes against Assad could do anything other than adding more chaos to an already anarchic situation.  Breathing a sigh of relief when Parliament voted against military intervention alongside the US, I couldn’t help but also feel frustrated by military action being the ‘politics by other means’ of our generation.

The world is war weary just as they were in the post WWI climate, and the vast majority of people have clearly indicated that they do not want, nor see how strikes can help the already reeling country of Syria.  Barack Obama is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner who stated that the US could strike Syria even before the UN weapons report came in. Then following the defeat in parliament of David Cameron, Obama agreed to take it to Congress but admitted again that, strikes would still not be ruled out even if Congress said no! Luckily John Kerry suggested a solution  involving Syria’s chemical weapons being handed over to the International community, and although he dismissed it as an option that ‘would not happen’ – the Russians saw a potential beacon of light in this dark situation. When Obama addressed the nation on Syria, he spoke of American exceptionalism as a good thing, it’s “what makes Americans different, it’s what makes us exceptional”, he declared. With this thought in mind, it can be mentioned that when polls were taken in Egypt, in 2010, a staggering 80 percent of the population believed the US and Israel to be the biggest threats they face. Is the US actually becoming increasingly aggressive rather than exceptional?

Did a sleeping giant wake with the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions, does America now see itself as self-designated policeman of the international community? Take Iraq and the mythical weapons of Mass Destruction that were never found. Or Afghanistan, presumed likely to slide into civil war when international forces leave. At the time of writing, the Taliban has just claimed responsibility for a bomb attack on the US consulate in the country. Is it the mess which is Libya that shows the failing of the UN so well? The Russians believe they were sold out and are determined to not make the same mistake with Syria, with the main objective of the offensive becoming regime change. And who can blame them, it’s happened before. I share in Vladimir Putin’s worry that, “military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States”.

The League of Nations failed because national interests were stronger than a desire for true world peace and equality. It lacked any real credibility especially when the US did not become a signatory. The UN is in real danger of falling down the same wayside. One thing that does seem apparent is the need to modify and strengthen it as a tool of international law. If it can be bypassed and sidestepped at will, to suit the powerful, we have indeed, already lost it. The words peace and equality seem as moribund as ever, diplomacy is another relative limping sadly behind the big guns of our modern times. That there was a chemical attack is not in dispute, but what happens next, is in my view just as important as the choices of whether to bomb or not to bomb Iraq ten years ago…

Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue and diplomacy to be the only way forward on Syria. Speaking with the echo of many countries, citizens and even the Pope behind their statement, they categorically state that they ‘do not protect the Syrian government, but international law’. Anything other than self-defence or a decision taken by the Security Council is not in accordance with international law, and is seen as an ‘act of aggression’. We could break the mould; renew the lack of trust in Western policy towards the Middle East. I guess we have to ask ourselves, what kind of world do we want to live in, and how do we want to achieve peace in these turbulent times?

How Does R2P Apply in Syria?

Law, Morality and Red Lines

by Peter Sutch, Professor of Political and International Theory at Cardiff University and Chairman of UNA Wales

Despite UNA-UK’s support for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and despite the multiple (and mostly welcome) claims that R2P applies to the tragic situation in Syria, the most recent claims in the wake of the use of chemical weapons are troubling to say the least. The BBC’s legal correspondent Clive Coleman, recognising that the argument is contested, argued that, “In these situations, according to one view, R2P provides a legal framework for the international community to use military force as a last resort – either by way of a regional coalition or a so-called ‘coalition of the willing’.”

This claim (and similar claims) added to the argument, first made over a year ago by President Obama and repeated often in the days since the attack, that the use of chemical weapons is the ‘red line’ between intervention and diplomacy which has been the basis for urgent talks on unilateral military action to be taken against the Assad regime in the immediate future.

The arguments are flawed and those who believe the international community does have a responsibility to the peoples of Syria have to think about these claims in more detail. Let’s go through them.

R2P provides a legal framework for intervention without the consent of the UN Security Council (UNSC).

No it does not. R2P is not a legal framework in itself – at best it is a reminder to international actors of their existing obligations under the UN Charter, Human Rights and humanitarian law (all of which deny the right to use force outside of the UNSC framework to address violations of those norms). The definitive text is paragraph 139 of the 1995 World Summit Outcome Document that reads:

The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Even this much is contested and there has been significant criticism of the doctrine so that, as Dapo Akande demonstrates, the claim that customary international law may have developed beyond this position is untenable. Some illustrious commentators (including Geoffrey Robertson QC) have argued that even without R2P there are legal grounds for unilateral intervention. However, to make this case, one would have to ignore the normatively superior status of the UN Charter which under article 103 states ;

In the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Members of the United Nations under the present Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail.

And there is the jus cogens status of article 2.4 prohibiting the use of force. There is no treaty or customary law that allows unilateral intervention so let us not permit ourselves the luxury of thinking that, should we use force in response to the atrocities in Syria, we are obeying the law.

So why the confusion? Moral rather than legal imperatives to intervene

If we choose to violate the settled law of nations because we believe our moral responsibility to the peoples of Syria outweighs those obligations, we need to be very clear about our decision.

Here the argument turns on the legitimacy of unilateral action where the UNSC is deadlocked (as it is now with Russia and China opposing military action). When NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1998 without the agreement of the UNSC, the argument that military action was essential to provide humanitarian protection to civilians was enough to see the intervention described as illegal yet legitimate by the Independent Commission on Kosovo. This conclusion recognised that diplomatic efforts had been exhausted and that the levels of humanitarian suffering were so great that morally, if not legally, action could be legitimate.

Moving the argument from a legal to a moral framework recognises that the imperatives of humanitarianism are as important as the traditional rights of sovereign states. This is to be welcomed but with caution. Unlike law, moral judgment does not rely on the consensual and institutional framework of the international legal order. We are all aware of the challenges the institutions of the UN present to humanitarian protection, but rules that structure diplomatic dialogue and decision making protect the sovereignty of states and provide a mechanism to keep members talking in the absence of consensus. Moving outside this framework (flawed as it may be) requires care if it is not to lead to the breakdown of multilateral diplomatic relations that have been the foundation of contemporary international relations. That said, the moral imperative to prevent and to respond to gross humanitarian atrocities is itself an achievement of contemporary diplomacy even if we have to walk the high wire of global affairs without the institutional framework to support and modify our judgments.

Moral imperatives and just war principles

If we accept, as I believe we should, that R2P does express a moral imperative to prevent gross violations of humanitarian law and protect victims of such atrocities, there are other, vitally important, checks and balances on our decision making. Here our decisions are not checked by the will of other states in the UNSC but by the age old reasoning of Just War Theory.

Just War Theory has, for thousands of years, explored the morality of going to war (Jus ad Bello) and of conducting wars (Jus in Bello). Its principles have stood the tests of time remarkably well and its tenets ask the central questions we must all answer before believing that war is justified. The questions ask whether war is a last resort, whether the war is to be fought for the right intention, whether it is ordered by a rightful authority, whether the ends of the conflict can be achieved with only a reasonable or proportionate loss of innocent lives, and whether there is a reasonable chance of success. Using this simple framework we can think through the argument that the use of chemical weapons is the red line between diplomacy and military intervention. Not all of these thresholds have to be passed but we must give strong reasons if, as has been suggested, we are to ignore right authority (the UNSC) in favour of considerations of last resort or right intention (saving civilians).

The red line between diplomacy and military intervention

Even if we accept that our moral responsibility to the peoples of Syria outweighs our obligations under the UN Charter, is unilateral action now justified because of the use of chemical weapons?

The atrocities in Syria have been evident for nearly two years with the sorts of war crimes and crimes against humanity that concern R2P perpetrated without the need for chemical weapons. It therefore seems to me that the ‘just cause’ threshold was passed long ago. The use of chemical weapons is another example of such gross violations of humanitarian law but it is not more heinous (or legally significant) than the massacres that have been a constant part of this tragic civil war. On this basis I do not think the just cause or last resort arguments have changed.

The issues holding the international community back (apart from opposition of Russia and China in the UNSC) concern 1) the question of whether there is a reasonable chance of success, and 2) whether such success could be achieved without a disproportionate toll on innocent Syrian civilians. Again I cannot see how the deployment of chemical weapons alters the judgments made thus far (unless there is compelling evidence that tells us not just that the Assad regime has used chemicals in this attack but that they are likely to significantly increase their use of such weapons – to engage in genocide etc.).

It is interesting that most experienced military commentators have urged caution, worrying about the unclear objectives and unintended consequences of any use of force. If these experienced military planners and leaders cannot see the end-game or the goals of war then we should take note. If we are not clear about the precise objectives of a military strike or about the potential consequences of such a strike (to Syria, its neighbours, to the coalition of the willing in the case of a military response, to the relations between the Permanent 5 members of the UNSC), we should be cautious. The less certain we are about these questions, the less certain we can be that any ‘collateral damage’ (by which I mean the unintended deaths and injuries to innocents in Syria and beyond) can be morally justified. Here then the moral and the legal arguments for military intervention are not clear cut in favour of unilateral action.

None of this denies the fact that gross humanitarian crimes have been and continue to be perpetrated in Syria. The impotence of the UN and of powerful and secure states in the face of this moral and legal outrage is profoundly disturbing, but restraint in the face of the legal, moral and instrumental arguments against intervention at this point seems essential. Our leaders have the responsibility to make these decisions. But we in UNA Wales, as supportive as we have proven to be on the basic tenets of R2P, need a voice in the public debate and we need to be clear about our ground.

Peter Sutch’s new book (with Edwin Egede) The Politics of International Law and International Justice is published by EUP this August.