A Proud Day for Parliament: The Wisdom of Not Bombing Assad

March 30, 2016

In August 2013, the Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad used nerve gas to murder thousands of civilians including children. In response, Britain’s House of Commons rejected a motion to authorize military intervention, inflicting a rare and historic defeat on the government. President Barack Obama, who had threatened to strike in the event of Assad crossing a red line, then did not. Critics have leveled serious charges against this decision, branding it a shameful capitulation on the road to isolation.

A more sober review suggests that, to the contrary, Parliament’s decision was wise and had nothing to do with a collapse of internationalism. Sometimes it is prudent to choose restraint when in doubt, especially when it comes to crossing the threshold into violence. In America’s case, an embarrassing climb-down is better than a protracted struggle whose costs exceed its value and that stands a serious chance of doing more harm than good.

In making the case for intervention, proponents advanced a number of rationales. First, they argued, the West should intervene to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons capability and punish the violation of a widely held norm against the use of such instruments. By doing so, it might deter Assad and other regimes from repeating the atrocity. Coercive diplomacy would change minds.

Second, it was a matter of wider credibility, based on “past performance.” Failure to act would embolden predatory regimes across the world. This rationale took on extra force in Washington, where President Obama’s statement about red lines gave America a reputational stake in the matter. For these reasons, Anne-Marie Slaughter thought military action was a good idea, never an auspicious sign.

Parliament, however, said no. Ever since, critics have poured contempt on it. They have done so in unqualified terms, reacting as though the West’s sky had fallen. The refusal marked, allegedly, a retreat into shameful isolationism, a devastating blow to Britain’s international standing. Critics fault President Obama for failing to follow through on his claim that any use of chemical weapons would cross a red line, allegedly the signature error of his presidency and a supreme act of fecklessness. Not only was the decision misguided, it was craven and immoral.

Going further, some interpreted this single episode as a fundamental shift in foreign policy, speculating that it marked a long-term tendency. Future parliaments would not authorize action beyond territorial self-defense. That interpretation, at least, has proven false. Maybe — just maybe — the vote about bombing Syria was primarily a vote about bombing Syria.

To get a measure of the severity of the charges, along with the difficulties of intervention, consider the more conflicted recent opinion of Gen. Sir Richard Shirreff, former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe: “[T]he consequence of that failure to hold to a red line has been catastrophic in terms of moral authority and perception of strength, because that has sent off a powerful signal of utter weakness.” But then he went on: “… [M]y sense at the time was that standing off and launching Tomahawk missiles from a long distance might have felt good here to certain political leaders in Westminster or Washington or wherever, but whether it would have had any effect on the ground was a different matter altogether.”

And, right there, the difficulty of the case is revealed. Standoff airstrikes, however emotionally and instinctively compelling, might very well not have worked in this instance. And if the process went badly, the precedent being set could be weak or even perverse. What if intervention resulted not in a swift and decisive capitulation, but a protracted war beyond America’s willingness to fight? Would that not weaken, rather than strengthen, the ability to act elsewhere? Interveners had good intentions, but would their Tomahawks do good?

We have been here before. Recall President Lyndon Johnson, who escalated the commitment in Vietnam to persuade allies and enemies of America’s fortitude and reliability. Yet escalation did not have its desired effect on international audiences. “The very European leaders whose morale Johnson and [Secretary of State Dean] Rusk feared undermining if America abandoned South Vietnam — men like British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and French President Charles de Gaulle — privately urged the U.S. not to escalate the war.”

We can agree that presidents should not embarrass themselves and their people by drawing red lines they aren’t willing to enforce. It is in the national interest not to feel foolish, as an end in itself. That’s the easy part. Does it mean, though, that states should be quick to wage war for fear of embarrassment? Wading into a war and getting stuck can also humiliate, and at greater cost.

For years now, we have been treated to polemics about the U.S.-led West and its supposed retreat, and the poor state of its leadership, credibility, and reputation, with the “red line” failure center-stage in the indictment. These charges are uncluttered by actual evidence, of how others perceive inaction, or even evidence that a retreat is underway. As Obama has noted, hawkish attacks on his foreign policies have a way of tailing off when it comes to details.

Rather than examining how others actually viewed the decision to hold fire, accusers are content to assume that, because regimes behaved aggressively after the fact, whether in Crimea or the South China Sea, non-intervention helped cause this aggression, and eroded allies’ faith. Counterfactually, hawks assume that acting in 2013 may well have prevented all this. After all, they imply, the world hangs on the hegemonic leader’s every word, and others’ decisions are primarily about “us.”

A few of us are unconvinced by this evidence-free barrage. Social scientists have already demonstrated the flaws in theories of “past performance” credibility. Most states pay more attention to circumstances than reputation, to the degree of interest others have attached to a situation, and to the capability they can bring to bear. The red lines accusation restaged this issue, and so deserves some scrutiny of its own. Behind it, it turns out, is little substance and some delusion.

Let’s put aside, for a moment, supersized ideas about credibility and leadership, and return to some prosaic facts. Parliament’s inaction, and Obama’s caution, did not simply result in empty words. Obama’s about-turn was not a renunciation of force, but a decision to submit the matter before Congress. Then, the suggestion that the United States might intervene, along with a signal by Secretary of State John Kerry, triggered a diplomatic process with Russian involvement, resulting in the regime giving up much (though reportedly not all) of its declared stockpile under the terms of a U.N. Security Council resolution. Without an actual military intervention, he gave up 1,300 metric tons of weapons-grade materials. Hardly a perfect outcome, but not a case of empty words and zero returns.

Now, let us suppose that the word is out, however unfairly, that the West simply lost its nerve and failed to enforce red lines. Has this caused allies to fear abandonment more than they usually do? Not according to Daniel Sneider, the associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. Having met privately with dozens of civilian and military leaders from Japan and South Korea, he reported to Fred Kaplan that “I’ve never heard any of them say a word about the ‘redline’ in Syria.”

Also note that after the red line moment, the Philippines still signed an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement with the United States in 2014, and Britain and Japan have just announced that they are tightening security cooperation. The indications are that America’s Asian allies are not tilting towards Beijing as the United States is closer than ever with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Is this what discredited isolation looks like?

We don’t know what China’s rulers made of the decision not to bomb. We do know that its latest wave of assertiveness dates back to 2009, four years before the “red line” failure. China’s ever-increasing confrontational fleet exercises, territorial disputes and seizures were well underway before the Syrian civil war even began. Obama’s military inaction in Syria had nothing to do with it, working on the simple principle that things that happen after other things are not causes of them. From Beijing’s perspective, Obama’s willingness to bomb a country 4,000 miles away was probably less pressing than the Asia pivot, increasing neighborhood rivalry, and what it sees as encirclement.

In the Middle East, what critics see as American weakness over Syria did not dissuade Iran from agreeing to reduce its uranium enrichment program and submit to inspections in an interim agreement, after Obama led an international coalition in a sustained assault on the Iranian economy with serious sanctions. The Iranian regime does not infer that unwillingness to enter one crisis means that the United States is a paper tiger everywhere else. Contrary to the clichés of Western-centric globalization theory, everything is not always connected.

Did the red lines failure entice aggressors to pounce? Julia Ioffe took the trouble to ask a Russian official from the Foreign Ministry whether Moscow interpreted non-intervention in Syria as a green light for its campaign in the Ukraine. The response was this: “Wow, it’s kind of a revelation what you just said. … It’s not tied to any kind of reality. These things are not connected to each other in any way.” Other sources close to the Kremlin echoed that reaction in speaking with Ioffe.

This is not to defend Obama tout court. Before the Ukraine crisis, both his administration and the British government failed to take Russia seriously as a geopolitical force. Rather, we should question the wishful belief that bombing Syria would have cowed major states from pursuing their core interests as they defined them.

Consider also the pattern of Russian behavior. Even if the West had bombed Syria, would Putin be less likely to assert Russian power in Ukraine, or to respond passively to its shift into the Euro-Atlantic sphere? If there is one thing successive Russian regimes have been consistent about, it is that this country and the wider Black Sea region represent a vital security and prestige interest.

When a more belligerent president occupied the White House in 2008, with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and a commitment to a missile defense shield, recall that the same Russian regime struck hard in Georgia to tighten its dominance and freeze NATO enlargement. If a hard-line American statecraft then was not enough to prevent Russian aggression, it is ambitious indeed to suppose that a limited airstrike campaign by a more cautious American president would have done the job. Russia, it seems, distinguishes itself, its capabilities and its interests from lesser states like Syria, understanding that willingness (or not) to attack Assad offers little commentary on the dangers of escalating against a major nuclear power.

Did airstrikes have a decent chance of deterring future chemical weapons attacks? One of the arguments at the time was that it was worth doing, at least to complicate the calculations of others with chemical arsenals. This cannot be ruled out. At best, it is however a weak expectation. Punishing regimes for persecuting civilians has proven to be a weak deterrent against other regimes that commit atrocities somewhere else.

Only a few years before Assad unleashed nerve gas, Libya’s Col. Gaddafi had been stopped, overthrown, and executed in grisly violence after threatening to slaughter, in terms reminiscent of Rwanda, the “rats” and “cockroaches” who were defying him. This did not deter Assad. Gaddafi’s fate could just as easily be taken by beleaguered regimes as a lesson in the need to retain WMD capabilities instead of peacefully giving them up, as Gaddafi had.

At the same time, atrocities that go unpunished do not necessarily result in a cascade of similar atrocities. The last time a ruler resorted to chemical warfare was Saddam Hussein in 1988. A wave of chemical weapons attacks did not follow. Indeed, the international community since then has made great strides in banning chemical weapons, and making chemical warfare a rarity, despite the fact that it went unpunished then.

What kind of conflict could interveners expect to be entering in 2013? The most alarming conceit of the pro-war argument was the apparent notion that the United States and its allies could intercede in the hostilities without joining the conflict or empowering the more objectionable groups of rebels. That is, the suspect claim that intervention would be a discrete act, conducted purely on its own convenient terms, as punishment and deterrence from the skies. In the words of Secretary of State Kerry, it would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” Unease with this kind of wish-thinking led some of us to argue that if we must hit Assad in a clash that was bound to escalate, make it a punch, not a slap.

Intervention in 2013 would have meant war. Assad’s atrocity was not an isolated crime but part of a civil conflict. He gassed a civilian population as part of an effort to clear and recapture northeastern suburbs in Damascus, no doubt also to terrorize. Militarily successful airstrikes would likely have degraded his war machine and weakened his ability to recapture ground, objectively assisting Syrian rebels, including Islamists regarded by al Qaeda as overly zealous.

Even allowing for the dismal fact that Assad has a long history of complicity with the Islamists that he also battles, it is not agents of Syria’s Alawite regime that are assaulting trains, airports, and cafes in Western capitals. It is Sunni jihadists. Back in 2013, before the Islamic State seized ground in Iraq, we already knew they were a major part of the struggle. Presented with competing evils, it is legitimate to judge which is the greater, and to ensure against becoming the Islamic State’s air force.

Bombing can be effective as a policy instrument when used well as part of a symphony. Indeed, there is impressive evidence that it is contributing to the gradual strangulation of the Islamic State. How effective and predictable should we expect it to be, though, as a way of shocking a regime into compliance, and signaling and striking a pose to impress third parties?

Unlike London or Washington, Assad and the Alawite community have an existential stake in the conflict. The regime has proven committed to survival, against the hopeful expectation that sometime soon, he or his regime would abdicate. They also probably wish to appear strong, credible and committed, to their own side as well as the many powers involved in the conflict.

Had Assad met the “unbelievably small” campaign of airstrikes not with capitulation but defiance, and continued atrocities carried out by conventional or chemical weapons, quickly the intervening powers would be presented with further credibility problems. As Stephen Biddle warned, “the more we invest and the more we commit the prestige and reputation of the U.S. military to the war, the greater the escalatory pressure we will face if that commitment is limited and falls short.” Or as one Republican senator asked, “What happens on the day we’re done and he crawls out of his hole and stands up and says, ‘That all you’ve got?’ “ What indeed.

To serve as a precedent that would deter future atrocities, the intervention would need to succeed at tolerable cost without major unintended consequences. Should intervention have deepened, going beyond the stakes involved and the costs and risks that interveners were willing to bear, it is doubtful that this would create a precedent to deter other aggressors in future.

If protracted involvement that assisted Sunni jihadists created a precedent, it would demonstrate not the ease but the difficulty of using force as a precise instrument to make a point. It would serve to discourage future governments from repeating the experiment. It might even encourage others in the confidence that the West wouldn’t try it again. In this sense, the notion of military action as a form of global “signaling,” as opposed to defense or deterrence, should be handled with caution. It presumes a smooth course that military action rarely takes.

It may be that the skeptical case I have sketched here is overstated. Counterfactually, it may be that striking Assad had a much better chance of succeeding both militarily and psychologically, degrading the regime’s capacity to inflict WMD atrocities and shocking it into compliance. Maybe the intervention would have stood as a discrete act, without implicating the United States and its allies in the Syrian civil war. In turn, maybe the airstrikes stood a better chance of impressing third parties, persuading the international audience that there is a red line, that the international community will enforce it — strengthening deterrence and thereby upholding the norm — and that oppressors would think twice about nerve-gassing children in future. It is hard to say, because ultimately these questions rely on unverifiable counterfactuals.

It is absurd, however, to judge reluctant policymakers against the standard of what is an ambitious, best-case scenario, with each optimal result relying upon a preceding optimal result. Given the doubtful quality of the issue, British MPs understandably decided that, on balance, joining the Syrian civil war in that way was a bad idea, and would likely serve neither humanitarian justice nor the cause of ultimate peace.

Neither was this decision symptomatic of a general collapse of internationalism on the part of Britain’s political class. After all, Britain with consistent parliamentary support still allocates a higher percentage of national wealth to NATO than most members, it still ring-fences more funding for foreign aid than most states, trades vigorously all over the world, and has taken part in almost all other American military campaigns since 2001. There is no inconsistency between active internationalism in general and a prudent caution about military action in particular moments. These are matters for detailed judgement, not vapid slogans.

It’s a basic point, but easily forgotten. Dropping bombs is a grave act, not least because even the most accurate munitions have political effects that are too imprecise to forecast confidently. While bombing to damage capabilities and divert resources can be done, bombing to coerce and change others’ minds is harder. Waging war to impress and persuade third parties is harder still. Sometimes, it makes sense to stay back and conserve resources for another day. In Britain in 2013, there was sense in the judgment that the case had not been made beyond reasonable doubt. There was honor in it. As ever in questions of war and peace, neither side had a monopoly on moral discernment.


Professor Patrick Porter is the academic director of the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter.  He is the author of The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power.


Photo credit: Corporal Mike Jones, UK MOD