Since the United States, United Kingdom, and France launched missile strikes against Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons infrastructure over the weekend, many have criticised the attack. Often cited in their objections is the notion that violence cannot bring about peace.
It's an admirable sentiment, but unfortunately it's not an entirely accurate one. History is a complex field. Just as there are situations where negotiation would have been a better solution than military force, there are others where the application or threat of force has proven to be a significant factor in either bringing about peace, or at least bringing parties back to the negotiating table.
Two obvious situations where military force was required to bring about peace, or at least a cease fire, were World War Two and the Korean War respectively. Negotiation failed to appease the territorial ambitions of the Axis, and actually seems to have emboldened them. Likewise, had the West not militarily intervened in defense of South Korea from North Korea's Soviet backed invasion, then imagine the abject misery and repression millions more Koreans would have lived under at the hands of the Communist North.
On the other side of the argument, Western military intervention in Vietnam (first by the French and then largely by the United States) is a grotesque monument to how the use of force can fail, with millions of lives lost and ruined, and immeasurable suffering inflicted on the people involved. Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 also belong in this category of the sad overreach of military folly and the horrendous price people in its path pay. The West's current involvement in Afghanistan as part of the War on Terror, despite its initial success in driving back the abhorrent Taliban, now seems doomed to be added to this macabre list too.
What's notable about the above examples are that they're all situations where external powers intervening militarily have done so in a massive way. Yet military intervention is not an all or nothing equation. There's two recent examples that come to mind where a lesser use of military force has contributed to bringing about a peaceful settlement, those being the Bosnian War and the Kosovo War.
These are notable when considering current Western military intervention in Syria and Iraq in so far that the Balkans offer a somewhat similar situation. Like many of the states of the Middle East, Yugoslavia was an artificial entity, created by an amalgamation of different ethnic groups, held together only by the force of personality and mutual respect its component parts had for its leader - Tito. When Tito died in 1980, the lack of any viable succession plan, as well as the inherent pressure within the constitutional arrangements of Yugoslavia, would see the country break up and descend into war. It's also worth keeping in mind that despite the concurrent end of the Soviet Union at the start of the Bosnian War, Russia still viewed itself as having a role to play in Yugoslavia that while not completely comparable to what we see in Syria, is still instructive.
In the Bosnian War, the NATO-led operations Deny Flight and Deliberate Force became necessary as the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS) stepped up its indiscriminate targeting of civilians. In particular, Operation Deliberate Force was necessitated by the Srebrenica and second Markale massacres, as well as the ongoing horrors of the Siege of Sarajevo. The United Nations ground force (UNPROFOR) was not equipped to properly protect civilians from VRS attacks, though they did as much as they could to do so.
By using airstrikes to break the military capabilities of the VRS, Operation Deliberate Force first secured the withdrawal of VRS heavy weapons from around Sarajevo. It also and helped bring Yugoslavia to the negotiating table as they realised that their support for Republika Srpska (the nominal Bosnian Serb Republic) to continue the war was untenable in the face of NATO air power. Russia, while it had initially backed Yugoslavia in its provision of material and political support for Republika Srpska, was also dependent on Western aid as it still tried to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result of this, it joined the West in trying to pressure Slobodan Milošević into withdrawing his support for Republika Srpska. Milošević refused, and continued supporting the Bosnian Serbs, and that intransigence, combined with the growing horrors of the conflict, meant that military intervention helped bring an end to the war sooner than would have otherwise been the case.
Had NATO not intervened, it seems likely that the VRS would continued to fight on with Yugoslavian support. While it was slowly being pushed back at the time that NATO's air campaign commenced, without that added firepower it is far more likely the war would have dragged out for several more years, with increasing brutality being inflicted on civilians by the combatants on the ground. UNPROFOR, for all their attempts at protecting civilians, were ultimately unable to prevent the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of people.
A similar situation prevailed again in 1999. In response to Yugoslavian attempts to undertake a new round of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, NATO launched a bombing campaign against Milošević and his regime. While NATO initially underestimated Milošević's ability to both resist the military pressure while persisting with carrying on with the attempt to ethnically cleanse Kosovo, the threat of escalation with talk of a ground invasion (and it was largely talk, with the US and UK knowing that NATO wouldn't support such an action) caused Russia to tell Milošević that they wouldn't defend him in the event of a NATO invasion. Faced with NATO's airstrikes taking an increasing toll on the Yugoslavian military, who he'd come to rely on to stay in power in the face of growing domestic opposition since the end of the Bosnian War, Milošević was effectively bombed back to the negotiating table.
Once again, it seems likely that had NATO not intervened in Kosovo that Yugoslavian forces would have been able to complete the ethnic cleansing, much like what had happened during the Bosnian War when UNPROFOR was largely powerless to stop similar activities taking place.
None of this is to say that these two military interventions in the Balkan's didn't come at a significant cost to innocent civilians. Notably, during the Kosovo War, NATO forces bombed an Albanian refugee column, mistaking it for a Yugoslavian army column, there was the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade caused by mistakes made by an intelligence officer on the ground, and there's the reality that through the use of depleted uranium munitions and cluster bombs, there's a sinister legacy of the war lurking underfoot.
Likewise, a failure to properly police Kosovo by NATO in the aftermath of the Kosovo War saw Serbs and other nationalities resident in Kosovo subject to expulsion or abuse by returning Albanians.
Yet the question that must be asked when assessing the necessity of military intervention is what would the cost have been on not taking action?
In the Bosnian War it seems apparent that Yugoslavia would have kept supporting the VRS, causing the ethnically fuelled violence of that conflict to drag on for several more years. How many more Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs would have been massacred or had other disgusting horrors inflicted on them through the brutal nature of the Bosnian War? Had the world waited and hoped for Milošević to come back to the negotiating table in 1999 through diplomatic pressure, it seems likely that Yugoslavia would have succeeded in ethnically cleansing Kosovo.
Again, and it's important to reiterate this because these issues are complex, that's not to saw that military intervention is some magic panacea to bring about peace, and that it doesn't come with its own terrible costs, but it must be weighed up against what the other possible options are, and which one will - in the long run - result in the least amount of harm being down to as few people as possible.
I've already touched on the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as being an example where negotiation and diplomatic pressure would have been far better military intervention. That particular example turned out to be the trigger for most of the problems in Syria and Iraq we see currently, specifically with the rise (and now fall) of ISIS.
In a similar note, the West's intervention in Libya in 2011 helped rebels topple Gaddafi, but by 2014 the country had again descended into civil war which rumbles away to this day.
This highlights that just as waiting and hoping that diplomatic pressure and negotiations can prolong misery in a conflict, so can military intervention. It is an impossibly difficult decision to make. But it is a far too simple take on history to say that the use of military force cannot have a role to play in bringing about peace in a conflict.
Where does this leave us over Syria? It is genuinely hard to tell? The United States was very reluctant to intervene at the start of the Syrian Civil War. In part this was because of strong Russian support for Assad by virtue of Russian military bases in Syria, but also because the US under Obama became comparatively circumspect about the role it could play by intervening in conflicts. The Obama administration debated extensively about the chances the anti-Assad forces had in overthrowing his regime, and for a while it did seem like they might manage it on their own.
Assad, unlike other dictators and strongmen whose positions were challenged by the Arab Spring, was determined to hold on and not give up his power base. Assad stalled for time through feigning enough interest in negotiations to regroup his forces and gather material support from Russia. At the same time, the rise of ISIS saw anti-Assad rebels caught between the recovering Syrian Army and ISIS fighters. As the United States begun bombing ISIS in light of the attempted genocide of the Yazidis, Assad received explicit Russian military intervention under a similar guise, though one that was targeted to benefit the stability of his regime rather than necessarily bring about the military defeat the terrorist group.
Where military intervention proven to be the course of lesser evil in the Bosnian and Kosovo Wars, in the Syrian Civil War it's much harder to judge what its success might be. Multiple peace attempts by the UN, US, Russia, France, Iran, and the Arab League have failed to produce a resolution to the conflict. In retrospect were used by Assad to buy time as he recovered from the early setbacks inflicted on his regime. Negotiations and agreement in 2013 for Assad to destroy his chemical weapon stocks have also failed. Assad has both found ways around the 2013 agreement (which didn't cover chlorine gas) and blatantly ignored it with at least two suspected sarin attacks.
Unlike the Balkans, and in light of difficulties and failures of US military interventions since then, the West simply does not have the appetite to act too far outside international law in order to intervene in Syria. Where Russia was greatly dependent on Western aid in 1995, and decided it didn't have any strategic interest in trying to prop up Milošević any longer in 1999, the Russia we see in Syria is a much different actor on the world stage.
Under Putin, Russia has embarked on territorial aggrandisement through the invasions of South Ossetia, the Crimea, and its proxy war in Eastern Ukraine. It has also sought to grow its political influence both by trying to ferment internal instability in the West, as well as being much more forthcoming in providing support for countries that it sees as belonging in its sphere of influence. Syria and Assad's regime is very much a part of that, with the Russian naval base at the Tartus, having been agreed to between the Soviet Union and Syria by Assad's father Hafez al-Assad and Leonid Brezhnev.
With Putin's Russia effectively operating with all the hallmarks of being Russia's take on fascism, it seems extremely unlikely that Putin will do as his predecessor Boris Yeltsin did. Where Yeltsin withdraw support Milošević in as international outcry grew and NATO military pressure increased, Putin seems much more determined to stay the course with Assad, no matter the reaction of the international community to flagrant breaches of international law and the 2013 deal with the Syrian regime continuing to use chemical weapons on civilians.
Interestingly, the support of Putin's Russia for Assad's regime wasn't always as explicit as it is now. In the early days of the civil war when Assad's position seemed less assured, the Russians being less vocal about the necessity of Assad remaining in power as a condition of any peace agreement. It was a preferred option, but the firming of that position to outright support of Assad only came about as his regime regained the initiative in the civil war.
Which brings us to the strikes in April of the past two years. In doing so, the US and its allies have had to weigh up the reality that regardless of what they do, Assad is likely to remain in power. It also appears that so long as Russian support remains in place, and something unforeseen doesn't happen to Assad personally such as an unexpected demise via death or palace coup, he seems likely to be able to slowly, but surely, grind out a victory over the rebels and reclaim control of his country.
The question then becomes, accepting that Assad is going to win, what action, if any, is available to be taken to stop Assad from inflicting the indiscriminate misery of chemical warfare on civilians? Negotiations didn't work, and Assad is already virtually cut off from any external support that isn't coming from Russia or Iran. Russia is already subject to wide ranging sanctions, meaning it's hard to gain leverage over Assad's main backer via diplomatic pressure. While any attempts to put pressure on Iran via diplomatic channels may well undo the good work that seems to have been done via the Iran Nuclear Deal.
In this situation, it would appear that the Coalition's decision to launch military intervention in the form of very limited air strikes was the only viable option available to them. Condemnation hadn't stopped Assad from using chemical weapons, negotiation and deals hadn't worked, Russian continues to protect Syria from any United Nations action via use of the veto - rendering that path a dead end, and options to put diplomatic pressure on Russia and Iran to deter Assad are extremely limited, if plausible at all. It's also since emerged that Russia has denied OPCW inspectors from even accessing the site of the recent chemical attack in Douma without a UN permit, which of course the Russians have prevented in the UN!
All of this adds up to make the strikes we saw in 2017 and in the past week as the only option that could potentially send some sort of message to Assad, or somehow impact his ability to produce and use chemical weapons. That both these sets of strikes have been executed as much as possible to avoid casualties is indicative of the very difficult balancing act the Coalition has had to undertake in this situation.
Sitting in the background of this too is the reality that if nothing is done to punish Assad while he is in the act of using chemical weapons (versus waiting for a hypothetical future day when it might be possible to put him on trial), is that other dictators may feel less restrained in their use of them on domestic opposition too. The fact that the Coalition undertook a military strike in the face of the significant political and legal issues in this situation, serve a wider geo-political message to at reinforcing the broader status quo about not using chemical weapons.
Of course, it's not a perfect option by any stretch of the imagination, and the West is hardly innocent with regards to the use of deplorable chemical weapon agents over the years (most notably Agent Orange in Vietnam, or the use of armour piercing depleted uranium munitions more recently). While it's also worth noting that the last reports I saw suggested the weekend's strikes were carried out with no military or civilian causalities, that wasn't the case in 2017 when military personnel, and civilians in a nearby village were killed.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dexter Filkins essentially makes this same point in the New Yorker. Filkins argues that if the strikes deter Assad from making even just one chemical attack, then they've delivered a good result. Though Filkins' admits that it won't deter Assad in the longer term, but that the West is very limited in what it can do in response given the situation on the ground.
Filkins, in many respects, cuts to the heart of the problem with Syria more broadly. There simply isn't any practical solution to the ongoing civil war that doesn't see it play out in an orgy of violence, death, and destruction for years to come. Russia and Iran are impervious to diplomatic efforts to pressure on Assad to come to the negotiating table. Even if that pressure could be exercised, Assad appears unwilling to consider any solution which isn't him militarily wiping out his opposition (an endgame which suits Assad as it will strengthen his hold on any post-war Syria), and removing Assad is not an option because it seems that such a move will see Syria collapse much like Iraq did after the 2003 invasion.
The sad reality of Syria, and the Coalition strikes, is that they were the least bad option of a whole range of bad options and scenarios. What's more, is that unless there is a fundamental (and highly unlikely) change in the underlying dynamics of the conflict, it seems that everyone involved is doomed to repeat this vicious cycle until Assad has ground out a terrible victory in the ruins of Syria.
On that note, Assad's gamble to use chemical weapons to bring an end to the five year siege of Eastern Ghouta appears to have worked. The Syrian Army has announced that Eastern Ghouta is now free of militants. The question now is whether the Coalition's willingness to strike Assad will deter him from using chemical weapons to crush resistance elsewhere....