The Financial Times unaccountably published, prominently, an article on 8 December 2012 provocatively headed: The West must intervene to finish the Assad régime. Its author was Ambassador James Francis Dobbins, Jr., according to Wikipedia an American diplomat and former United States Ambassador to the European Union (1991–93) and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (from 2001, the first year of the presidency of George W. Bush). He has served as US envoy to Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia, and is head of international and security policy for the RAND corporation.
Ambassador Dobbins advanced several predictable and familiar arguments for western military action against President Assad’s admittedly odious régime. He acknowledged that such intervention would be most unlikely to be authorised by the UN, as required by the Charter, because of Russian and Chinese objections (he might have added, but didn’t, that those objections would be reinforced by their experience of the way NATO abused and exploited the limited UN authority granted, with Russian and Chinese acquiescence, for intervention against Gaddafi in Libya).
Mr Dobbins argued, however, that western military intervention in Syria could be legitimate under international law, even without the authority of the UN Security Council, on the basis that: a. western powers could recognise one of the insurgent factions in Syria as its government and then respond to its appeal for help under its right to self-defence, as recognised by the Charter; or b. they could cite the precedent of Kosovo (where NATO bombed Yugoslavia for months without UN authority); and, apparently in the same breath, c. they could ”assert what is now an internationally recognised responsibility to protect a population from abuse by its own government.” (The ambassador wisely refrained from capitalising the term of art, Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, which has a very specific and well defined meaning as a new principle of international law.) The Dobbins article also d. made a glancing reference to Libya.
These proposed arguments for the alleged legitimacy of military intervention in Syria without UN authority were all breathtakingly phoney, as should have been obvious to anyone with the most superficial knowledge of international law in general and the Charter of the United Nations in particular. I submitted the following letter to the FT:
Sir, As a former US envoy to Kosovo, Ambassador Dobbins (The West must intervene to finish the Assad régime, 8 December) must know that –
- it was US-Russian-Finnish quiet diplomacy, not the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, that ended Serbian control of Kosovo; that the NATO bombing, never authorised by the UN Security Council, contravened the Charter and was technically a war crime, whatever its motives, and can’t therefore be quoted as a precedent to legitimise western intervention in Syria without UN authority;
- and that the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) put forward by Ambassador Dobbins as an alternative source of legitimacy for a Syrian intervention itself requires action in the Security Council under the agreement at the 2005 UN World Summit which approved the R2P principles, some of which don’t apply to the Syrian situation anyway.
- The suggestion that we should legitimise intervention by “recognising” one of the Syrian opposition factions as the government and then responding to its appeal for help under the right to self-defence would entail twisting the criteria for recognition and provide a precedent for similarly slippery behaviour by others anywhere in the world (anyway Britain recognises countries, not governments).**
- Finally, Libya is not a helpful precedent, since the bombing had UN authority (however much NATO then abused it), which the Ambassador rightly recognises would not be available for a Syrian intervention; anyway the Libyan intervention has hardly proved to have the outcome we sought.
The unavoidable conclusion must be that armed intervention in Syria, necessarily without Security Council authority, would be illegal in international law and thus a war crime. The closest parallel would be Iraq, the one recent intervention that Ambassador Dobbins understandably doesn’t mention.
Brian Barder (HM Diplomatic Service, 1965-1994)
8 December 2012
The FT subsequently published two letters rebutting different aspects of Ambassador Dobbins’s case, but mine was not one of them. I think, though, that the gaping holes in all his arguments for claiming international legality for yet another western military intervention in the middle east, after the disastrous failures of all such interventions in living memory (and Suez is within mine) deserve to be placed on the record. Hence this post.
When an experienced senior diplomat, occupying a prestigious post in a distinguished American think-tank, can publicly advance such a shabby case for a course of action in Syria so likely to be doomed to failure and ignominy, we should cease to wonder how the catastrophic and criminal enterprise of the invasion and occupation of Iraq came about, even though (as we now know) the experts in international law in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office warned in advance that it would contravene the UN Charter and amount to the crime of aggression.
**A very senior retired British ambassador privately commented to me on the suggestion that the western powers could “recognise” a Syrian opposition faction and then respond to its appeal for help under its “right to self-defence”:
An argument used mutatis mutandis by scoundrels regularly. eg the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
“Scoundrels” looks about right.