Small Wars Journal

Is Atlanticist Interventionism Empirical?

Is Atlanticist Interventionism Empirical?

Why Russia’s answer to the Syrian civil war is not within NATO’s reach.

Miguel Nunes Silva and Tiago Ferreira Lopes

The Syrian civil war has been raging for 5 years. During that time the civil society’s pressure on the Obama administration to intervene against the Assad regime has subsided. The failure of the Arab Spring to bring about a liberal-democratic outcome in Egypt, the chaotic aftermath of the NATO intervention in Libya and the emergence of the Islamic State from the rubble of military interventions such as Iraq, have all contributed to elevate the public opinion’s skepticism.

There is however a hawkish minority on the fringes of the political debate that still advocates for just such an intervention. The most salient arguments put forth have been Assad’s violation of the Obama administration’s ‘red lines’ on WMD use and the emergence of ISIS as a result if inaction.

The latest iteration of the intervention argument is somewhat more intricate: over at the Atlantic Council, Frederic C. Hof makes the case that since Russia’s own military intervention in the Middle East, on the side of the Assad regime and Iran, is succeeding in defeating the rebellion, that proves unequivocally that there is a “military solution” to the conflict and the Obama administration’s stance against just such a solution is bankrupt.

In our view the case for intervention as laid out by Hof and others is not sound.

The first problem that interventionists face is that of a casus belli. Syria’s regime has not attacked the West nor is it interfering with vital Western interests in the region. Any domestic violations of international law within Syria that might justify invoking the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine or warranting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute, would necessarily depend on a UN Security Council authorization which would put Western efforts back into Russian hands.

This leads to the issue of just how successful a unilateral intervention by Western powers could be and the heart of our counter-argument that Transatlantic interventions are empirically ill advised.

Unlike what Hof and other hawks claim, Obama’s red lines were very much enforced and the deterrent value of structures such as NATO is certainly not diminished. The regime of Bashar al-Assad paid a heavy price for its use of chemical weapons since it was subsequently forced to surrender its WMD arsenal and thus its own deterrence. While mediated by Russia, this solution left the Assad regime more vulnerable. It was precisely due to this weakness along with the credible threat of NATO intervention – spurred on by states such as Turkey – that Russia eventually decided to intervene itself.

Turkey is potentially the trickiest player in the game. Despite its NATO membership, Erdogan has been more concerned with internal politics than with regional dynamics. The fact that Erdogan stated that he will continue to bomb Kurds and that Washington declined to challenge such a policy only hampers the chances of a NATO intervention. Russia’s own intervention depends on President Putin’s willingness to go to war.  NATO’s intervention is subjected to agreement and diplomatic games between the members of the Alliance.

These developments transmit facts which are currently being ignored by advocates of ‘peacemaking’: that the Assad regime is far from isolated and that intervention would be far costlier militarily and diplomatically than they believe. The Obama White House possesses a high degree of influence over the conflict but influence does not equate preponderance. With only minor financial and technical assistance from Syria, Iran and some Gulf donors, the insurgency in Iraq required a trillion dollars, thousands of Coalition lives and far more in civilian collateral damage, to overcome. Conversely, Syria’s regime would be able to count on ample Russian and Iranian assistance – if not outright alliance with all the risks involved – and NATO states are in 2016 far more war weary than the Coalition members in 2003.

The other factor to consider regarding a unilateral intervention is that of peacekeeping or post-conflict state-building. Hof claims “there is a military solution, and Russia is trying unashamedly to achieve it” and Russia’s strategy consists in “neutralizing the armed nationalist opposition in order to create for the West (…) the horror of a binary choice between Bashar the Barrel Bomber and Baghdadi the False Caliph”. Yet, while Mr. Hof mentions some actors by name (the Assad regime and ISIS) he stops short of being specific about the ‘nationalist opposition’. This concept is problematic for two reasons: because some of the most effective rebels such as the Kurds are not very ‘nationalist’ and because entities such as the Free Syrian Army which the Obama government attempted to train and arm, have proven incompetent and, more importantly, stupendously permeable to al-Qaeda/Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. What can be described as Kurdish nationalism falls into what Henry Hale (2008) categorizes as pre-rational behavior to reduce uncertainty in highly complex spaces. Kurds are fighting to defend only a partial territory that they perceive as theirs but not necessarily with the end-game of building a Kurdish State – either way not the most reliable ally.

What is particularly flawed about Hof’s argument is the belief that the West could easily replicate Russia’s intervention model. This is folly since not only does the West lack a reliable client in the same manner that Moscow has Assad but because Transatlantic counter-insurgency – which would be required to stabilize Syria after overpowering the regime – is limited by ideology. According to NATO’s website the alliance is a “promoter of human rights” and is guided by “(…) individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law”. The Kremlin on the other hand believes in its chances of victory because theirs is a tested model: the Chechen or Sri Lankan cases prove that modern insurgencies can be defeated and territory controlled with the correct application of military force. The Chechen case provides evidence even for the possibility of reversing an insurgency into a co-opted occupation garrison. Mr. Kadyrov’s latest public interventions (himself the son of a rebel that fought against Russia) in defense of the Kremlin regime, is a clear sign of that.

For the West though, because legitimacy for intervention hinges on moral high-ground, propping up an oppressive regime is out of the question and occupying land indefinitely for nation-building purposes is prohibitive for the heavily indebted economies in the West. Even the attempt to use democracy by claiming that the “sin that presently unites all rogue and pariah states is their undemocratic nature” (Hobson, 2008) has been unable to mobilize domestic public opinions and international organizations.

Atlanticist interventionism has created power vacuums in the past; in the present, democratic governments are rhetorically entrapped against negotiating pragmatic solutions.