Las Vegas rules don’t apply in Syria

July 12, 2013

WOTR Contributing Editor John Bew wrote the cover piece for a recent issue of The New Statesman on intervention and Syria.  Like everything John writes, it is thoughtful, eloquent, and historically-grounded.  No matter what your thoughts are on the Syria crisis, I highly recommend it.

When it comes to the politics of intervention, history can obscure as much as it can advise. Even the proposition that it is now “too late” to save Syria rests on the assumption that its fate is about to follow a recognisable path, for which there is a precedent.

It was as long ago as 1859 that John Stuart Mill suggested we might try to establish “some rule or criterion whereby the justifiableness of intervening in the affairs of other countries, and (what is sometimes fully as questionable) the justifiableness of refraining from intervention, may be brought to a definite and rational test”.

A century and a half later we are no closer to establishing this rulebook for intervention, though we do find ourselves rehearsing remarkably similar dilemmas. For Mill it was justified to intervene in the case of “a protracted civil war, in which the contending parties are so equally balanced that there is no probability of speedy issue”, or if the stronger side tried to secure victory “by severities repugnant to humanity, and injurious to the permanent welfare of the country”. Syria is facing at least one of these two scenarios.

For those of us with an interest in and affinity for realism, Bew argues:

The notion that we are faced therefore with a choice between idealism and realism, or intervention and non-intervention, is the first of many false starting points. That debate is a luxury of simpler times. More than two years after the Syrian rebellion began, the only question that still matters for makers of western foreign policy is what species of interference we choose to adopt.

Read the rest here and stay tuned for next week when we will feature a provocative back-and-forth on Syria and intervention.