32.1 Should the West intervene in Syria to protect the people there from Islamic State?

1. Can forcible intervention save lives in Syria?

  • Those who argue for this claim have emphasized that the use of Western airpower to support local anti-Islamic State forces has stemmed and partially reversed Islamic State advances in Iraq. It is argued that this is pivotal not only in the protection of the Kurdish peoples, but also serves to protect the distant populations from terrorism, where increasing numbers of recent attacks have been linked to Islamic State activity.
  • Against this stance, others argue that rather than save civilians, airpower against Islamic State will cause more civilian devastation. This argument may be particularly crucial when one includes the notion of human security as a means of suffering. Arguably, any larger scale war, particularly conducted through airstrikes, will cause larger damage to social and economic infrastructure. This is inevitably associated with a loss of human security. The crucial question to ask might therefore be: what does the 'saving of lives' entail? And at what cost is 'saving' really saving?

2. Is there a secure legal basis for military intervention?

  • Those who claim that there is legal basis for military intervention stress that the UNSC Resolution 2249 called on states with adequate capacities to use “all necessary measures” to “prevent and suppress terrorist acts” by the Islamic State. Though not explicitly stated, this is interpreted as authorization to use force against Islamic State in Syrian territory. No UNSC member has indicated that this should be a false interpretation.
  • Another way in which legal grounds may be sought to justify intervention is to refer to the notion of Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). As we have seen in the chapter, this has also been adopted by the UNSC. This is particularly the case, given that the UN has assessed that Islamic State is violating human rights on a mass scale, and has perpetrated genocide against the Yazidis. Under the Genocide Convention, all states have legal responsibility to prevent genocide and to punish perpetrators.
  • However others have stressed that there is no legal basis upon which intervention in Syria can be premised. Thus, these voices emphasize that UNSC Resolution 2249 does not reference Chapter VII of the UN Charter (concerning enforcement). Further, the Resolution does not specifically authorize the use of military force.
  • Moreover, it is argued that while Syria consented to Russian military intervention in the form of airstrikes, the same consent was NOT offered to the USA and its allies.

3. Would intervention destabilize the region?

  • Those in favour of intervention, draw predominantly on the protection of human rights and populations as an argument which would restore peace in the long term and thus stabilize the region as a whole.
  • Those who speak against Western intervention have often stressed that such conducts would only increase instability in the region. Thus, such voices emphasize that western intervention will only serve to allow Islamic State to cast the conflict as one targeted against Western-backed infidels and apostates. Further, it is argued that Western intervention would facilitate the flow of foreign fighters in Syria and increase the risk of terrorism at home. In sum, they argue that Western interventions in the Middle East have only ever made matters worse. They argue that Syria would be no exception, and intervention would thus lead to more rather than less global instability.