Unilateral Interventionism, Perceptual Pitfalls and an Enfeebled International Law Mechanism: Will Syria be another Iraq?

War has ravaged Syria for slightly over two years now. Since the struggle began no side, either the Government or rebels, can claim decisive victory. This only leads to a bitter war of attrition; which group can hold out longer than the other. The human cost is immense and the ramification for international security grave.

In this context, international law ought to intervene in the maintenance of peace and security and the protection of human rights. However, therein lies the problem. The current system is based on a pseudo-democratic framework; that action cannot be undertaken unless there is consensus between the top five. Any action outside this framework is considered to be unilateral and an affront to international norms.

Be that as it may, some states do whatever conforms to their foreign policy objectives rather than international norms. George Orwell once wrote a book by the title “Animal Farm” wherein he depicts the inequalities of society. Therefrom the phrase ‘some animals are more equal than others’ was immortalized. The same is the case in international affairs.

One good example will suffice. The war on Iraq has been recognized by many as a mistake. US officials promised the world that they would find WMDs but that has not happened to date. Iraq was attacked nonetheless. This happened without the approval of the UNSC but some International Law scholars argue that the resolutions provided that space where Iraq does not comply with any UNSC resolution on WMD inspection.

Syria may also be in the same precarious situation, only without UNSC resolution precedents. There has been talk that chemical weapons are being used; these are banned under International Humanitarian Law as they unnecessarily aggravate pain and suffering and they lack precision thereby being indiscriminate weapons. There is enough evidence that chemical weapons are being used, the problem is determining by whom.

Like Iraq, UN inspectors have been sent into the war zone with a strict mandate. They are to determine whether chemical weapons were used. What they are not to determine speaks for itself and could determine whether western powers are to intervene militarily. The inspectors are not to determine who the perpetrators are. What would be the implications of such terms?

I foresee the UNSC being hopelessly deadlocked over the issue of culpability. Russia and China have made it clear that military intervention would only escalate chaos further and is therefore not the best solution. Russia has in fact warned of dire consequences if western powers militarily engage. It is a well known fact that Russia stands to lose billions in weapons supply contracts if Bashar’s Government falls which is seen as the most likely motivation for its stance.

If the UNSC becomes deadlocked, it could only mean that politics would take over. The western powers have already made up their minds about Assad’s Government; it is evil and it must fall. They view it with trepidation and much vexation. If the UNSC does not take any action – which many informed people think would be the case – the western powers might decide to go for it unilaterally. Therein lies two issues: that the perception of the western powers might be clouding their judgement and that international law may be inherently weak to forestall unilateralism.

On the first issue, the western powers appear to have made up their minds as to the evil nature of the Assad regime. US, UK and France all seem to agree that the Syrian Government is hell bent on obliterating the opposition and maintain its grip on power.

I argue that this perception of the Syrian regime may be obscuring sober debate on Syria’s culpability. Consider the evidence that has been presented thus far: a phone call conversation overheard by US intelligence agencies wherein a top official is allegedly captured asking on the effectiveness of a recent chemical attack on rebels held areas. This information published by the Foreign Affairs magazine has been couched as being part of a body of evidence that prove the regime’s culpability.

However certain things linger on. For one, the MI6 revealed to President Bush (jnr) that Saddam had WMD. Bush decided to go along with the intelligence but the reality was that there was no WMD. Could the Syrian case be one of history repeating itself?

More sobering is the fact that the CIA had expressed its doubts on the accuracy of MI6 intelligence but were ignored. Reason? The assumption that since the regime is bad it must have done the act that it has been accused of. Information was screened and foreign policy was made on the basis of character of a regime than hard facts on the ground. Could the Syrian Government be a victim of such a fate?

Then there is the issue of international law norms of restoration of peace and security. The present system, one in which international norms are to regulate international relations, lacks an effective system of containing unilateral use of force by a major power. In fact the bellicose nature of major powers is dissuaded by a ‘rational’ cost-benefit analysis of a foreign policy objective but often ‘regularize’ their act by arguing that their actions are within international norms. It is one of the reasons why international law and international relations are forever interlinked.

Note that I am not arguing that no crime was committed. That is a fact that the whole world watches in horror. What I am pointing to is merely that the use of chemical weapons  by the Assad regime – as assumed by the western powers – may be a pretext that western powers needed to engage militarily in the conflict and gain international support. If I am right, then trouble or help, depending on who’s side you are on, is coming to Syria.