How Did Intervention Become a Dirty Word?

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United Nations Security Council © Pete Souza

Civilians in Iraq and Syria are paying the price for Western weariness of military interventions.

The Syrian city of Aleppo now resembles an eerie ghost of Dresden or Stalingrad—burning, in ruins, decimated and helpless. Millions have been displaced across the region, hundreds of thousands dead, with the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) watching with indifference for five long, relentless, disastrous years.

The argument for military intervention, while difficult politically for the West, must never be ignored because of economics, party politics or public sentiment. To do so would be erroneous and, as in the case of Iraq and Syria, critically unforgivable.

Watching footage from the bombed-out hospitals in Aleppo must fill even the stoniest of us with helpless, gut-wrenching sadness: the endless flow of amputees, widows, orphans, the dead and the still living, spilling into every corner of the emergency departments—demonstrating further the helplessness of the situation. These halls are inundated with screams and utter horror as the war between its all-too-many participants continues to rage around them.

Left on the Ground

Thoughts turn to those left on the ground. In the east of the city, what must they think of the world—one seemingly void of humanity, haplessly watching on? Why has Syria been left behind, year after year? How has it come to this?

The opaque rhetoric pouring out of the UN and NATO must seem a small, if any, consolation to those whose lives have become a daily labor with the simple clinical objective: staying alive from dawn to dusk.

The situation in Iraq is also dire, albeit better than the current predicament of Syria. With years of sectarianism, suicide bombings, corruption and the daily threat from the so-called Islamic State (IS) from its stronghold in the north of the country. As the battle for Mosul—the last city held by IS in Iraq—is due to begin imminently, three years after IS took control, we may finally be seeing the beginning of the end of rogue state-building. But in exchange for what?

When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the IS caliphate in 2014, he did so from the newly-acquired city of Mosul. The locals threw rocks and whatever they could find at the retreating Iraqi forces who had capitulated, with many fleeing from the fight. They are only returning now, with the increased support of British, American and French forces.

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In Iraq, IS undeniably took advantage from a weak government and the early withdrawal by the newly-formed Obama administration while exploiting the revolution in Syria. History, as always, will judge the hows and whys of the civil war in Syria and the emergence of IS in Iraq, but we in the West must be our own staunchest critics regarding our undisputable hopelessness and incapability to intervene sooner in both countries. These are conflicts we have been hesitant to fully commit to, yet they have had a greater effect on global security than the wars in Afghanistan or the post-2003 chaos in Iraq itself.

Unfortunately, we have precedence here, and an all-too-recent one. It appears to be acceptable to persecute and massacre your own citizens, as long as you don’t cross a border. Europe watched as systematic ethnic cleansing was carried out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the UN remained blind to the genocide in Rwanda, where the estimates of the dead range from 500,000 to 1 million. The genocide in Darfur in 2003 cost another half a million lives. Indeed, the Halabja chemical attack against the Kurds by Saddam Hussein, the bombing and chemical attacks by Bashar al-Assad, and the relentless, barbaric crimes against humanity currently carried out by Islamic State have all been allowed to happen without serious consequence.

The tragedy is that these are not events of old, not history that we look back on and shudder at, like the horrors of the two world wars. This is modern history—a history we continue to allow to be written in our time.

Red Lines

The trouble with our sterile political state in the West is that while we have remained passive or verbally condemned—rather choosing to offer local forces air support and training—the problem in the Middle East has not only intensified drawing in multiple states each with fiercely different international visions, but the threat has moved, genuinely this time, to our doorstep. Just like Iraq, Europe and Asia have seen appalling atrocities on their streets and, most conspicuously of all in recent months, the ticking time bomb of radicalization is showing its face in America. All of these acts are built on the foundations of the war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State.

Much of the problem can be put at the feet of the UN which, when it comes to conflict, is now by all purposes surplus to requirements, weak, uncompromising and inept at any form of swift response other than condemnation. It is rather NATO that must take a lead with military action in the case of IS and Assad.


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This is not advocating for military intervention as and when we fancy, but rather a demand for simple policy. In Britain, we have become “war weary.” The 454 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan were too many to stomach in the 21st century. And yes, the Afghan campaign has serious questions about its objectives and ultimate outcomes, but what we need to be watchful of in the West is not to allow the wars post 9/11 to blur the need to reengage today.

The war in Iraq, whatever the reasons, was never meant to end in a counterinsurgency operation. Likewise, the “rebuilding” of Afghanistan was never meant to turn into, as the British found out in 2006, a daily fire-fight against the Taliban. These wars are not on the same military page of doctrine as the strategic problem both IS and the war in Syria pose. It is abundantly clear that no one is particularly good at counterinsurgency, but this should not deter strategy and policy from being adopted for military counterterrorism operations on a larger scale.

It is now too late for military intervention in Syria: The issues are far too complex and it is a case of missed opportunities by US President Barack Obama, who had a clear mandate to intervene when Assad used chemical weapons—directly convening international law. However, as we know, despite President Assad’s crossing of the “red line,” Obama’s resolve failed, allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to exploit his weakness.

Future Wars

Iraq, however, can be resolved. But it will take concerted military involvement, in conjunction with strategic long-term engagement from both Sunni and Shia communities. But why has it taken the international community such a staggeringly long time to increase military aid in Iraq?

The French and Americans have all suffered—the former with unprecedented scenes of terrorism. For three years, local Iraqi and Kurdish forces have toiled trying to defeat IS. Every day that passed claimed more civilian lives and the message of Islamic fundamentalism spread further among Muslims in the West.

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Our inaction has demonstrated that IS terrorism would not stay within its boundaries as the region is being shredded apart. The question is: what’s next?

As we have seen from long drawn-out counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are unwinnable. No one wants to return to those campaigns. The real risk now is that is exactly the direction we are headed, and the shadow from the Islamic State—long after its territory has been reclaimed—may draw out for many years and over many miles.

The conflicts have also brought other problems to the fore: the Kurds’ claim for independence; Turkish unrest and recent coup attempt; Russia seemingly ambivalent toward international law; Russian, Turkish and Iranian alliances; the rise of various Islamist groups in Syria; the Islamic State; and, of course, Assad. The future is beyond bleak.

What has been vital over the course of these conflicts is strong leadership in the West that will remain focused and, when and where necessary, compromise political party politics and go against the zeitgeist. Intervention is not a dirty word as the French proved in Mali in 2013, the British in Sierra Leone or the task force in Tora Bora that drove al-Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001.

As a public, we must learn the parameters of why we are at war, but we should also be entitled to judge from coherent, planned objectives as to why we should engage in future wars, why boots on the ground can work, and why this should undoubtedly have been contemplated at an early stage against IS and Assad. We appear fascinated with the despair on our television sets, the political discourse and complexities of the situation, yet we are unable to recognize a “just war.”

Ask the families in Aleppo and Mosul tonight if they would welcome intervention tomorrow morning, after years of persecution and death. While they would, they most likely no longer have faith in the world and those who could intervene on their behalf.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Pete Souza

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