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The Shadow of Iraq?


Credit: james_gordon_losangeles/CC by 2.0

Credit: james_gordon_losangeles/CC by 2.0

After one week of progressive securitization of the Syrian problem by the US, Britain and France, it appears that the members of the Euro-Atlantic community were getting ready to build a coalition of the willing in order to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. The United Nations recently sent UN inspectors on the ground, whom have concluded that chemical weapons – sarin gas – had effectively been used. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, confirmed such information after announcing that the tests conducted were positive for the nerve agent sarin.

However, the real surprise was not about the confirmation of the use of sarin gas, but the rejection by the House of Commons on August 29 to intervene militarily in Syria. British Prime Minister David Cameron lost the vote by 285 to 272. Many have expressed that the rejection to follow the US into Syria would mark the end of the special relationship. I would tend to disagree, as the special relationship seems to have already declined since the arrival of606x341_237140_uk-votes-against-syria-military-action Obama and Cameron into power. The US has remained close to its British ally, but some differences have emerged, especially on the future of Britain within the Union. On the Syrian question, the real blow is to Cameron’s domestic legitimacy. Such rejection demonstrates that Cameron completely misread the signs and has no understanding of the current political allegiance to his premiership. Why would Cameron call back all the MPs early from their vacations if he expected a rejection? In the US, Kerry has been trying to undermine the domestic blow to Cameron by saying that “I think parliament has spoken” ruling out any British assistance for the use of force. Cameron clearly understands the message and has ruled out any rerun of the Syria vote.

Andrew Cowie / AFP/ Getty Images / August 29, 2013

Andrew Cowie / AFP/ Getty Images / August 29, 2013

Thus, with no real option in solving Syria, the House of Commons refused to grant support to David Cameron; the UK is out of the race for any military intervention in Syria. Despite London’s decision, what are the positions of the two other US allies: Germany and France. In the case of Germany, the odds are not good for Chancellor Merkel in the middle of an election. As per Judy Dempsey, “Merkel is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.” If Merkel decides to join the coalition for military action, she will most likely be penalized by German public opinion opposed to a foreign intervention in Syria. If Merkel does not join the coalition, then the West may lose faith in Germany as a contributor to global security. For instance the German abstention to join the NATO coalition in Libya in 2011 did damage Germany’s credibility as a reliable ally in promoting international security.

The last man standing may be France. France is still committed to going to Syria. In a recent interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, President Hollande, has shared his thoughts on the Syrian dilemma and the French position. Here are some segments:

[…] I’m not in favour of an international intervention aimed at ‘liberating’ Syria or overthrowing the dictator, but I believe the regime must be stopped from committing the irreparable against its population. […]

Q. – What are the goals of war?

THE PRESIDENT – I wouldn’t talk about a war but about punishing a monstrous human rights violation. It will act as a deterrent. Not acting would mean letting it happen. […]

End British greatness? Will such decision by London have any  impact on the special relationship? Most likely not. […]

Q. – What countries would be led to intervene? 

THE PRESIDENT – If the Security Council is prevented from acting, a coalition will be formed. It will have to be as broad as possible. It will draw on the Arab League, which has condemned the crime and alerted the international community. […]

Q. – Are you assured of the public’s support?

THE PRESIDENT – […] There’s no question of dragging our country into a risky venture. But what is the greater danger: punishing a country that has used chemical weapons or letting a beleaguered clan do as it pleases, when it may be tempted to start again? Chemical weapons are a danger for humanity. […]

Obama’s reaction to the British rejection to be part of the military intervention was to ask Congress to vote on it. According to POLITICO, a senior House Democrat declared that “Not only is [Obama’s] credibility on the line but the country’s credibility is on the line, so he is rolling the dice by taking this to Congress.” Alternatively, Secretary Kerry argued that the US would only gain legitimacy if the Congress approves the use of force.  However, such political move by the White House has nothing to do with these statements or the respect of the Constitution.

Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

So, why would Obama ask Congress, especially when the entire political system has been unable to function since 2008 and particularly if Obama cares about the specific policy/issue? (The relationship between Congress and the White House has been fraught on all the issues that Obama deeply cared about such as the reforms of health care, gun law, immigration, financial, and fiscal.) Since the end of the Cold War there have been many precedents wherein US Presidents have used unilateral actions without Congressional approval. I would argue that President Obama’s move holds two rationales: either he is hoping for a similar situation that occurred in London; or in case military intervention is granted and the situation in Syria worsens the blame would fall on the legislature. With elections coming up in 2014, some members of Congress may be reluctant to grant authorization to use military force in Syria considering some of the reticence of the US public opinion to go to war in the Middle East once again.

Many have talked of the ghosts of Iraq on explaining the decision by the House of Commons and even the slow process in the US. President Hollande of France addressed such concern by declaring:

In Iraq, the intervention was carried out when no proof had been provided regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction. In Syria, unfortunately, chemical weapons have been used. In fact, the operation in Iraq was aimed at overthrowing the regime. No such thing for the response envisaged in Syria. Since the beginning of the civil war, France has stubbornly been seeking a political solution. What has changed since 21 August is the chemical massacre. It’s a red line defined a year ago, which has undeniably been crossed.

Nevertheless, the comparison with Iraq may be on some degree a little far stretched. In the case of 2003 Iraq, the US and UK did not wait for the UN to do its job. Thus, the US made its case before the UN Security Council by using fake

Source: abcnews

Source: abcnews

evidence and manipulating the world. In the case of Syria, the UN has been on the ground and the inspectors seem to validate the use of chemical weapons. Nevertheless, the ghosts of Iraq are still present in the mind of British public opinion and MPs. Iraq opened the doors of over a decade of military involvement in the Middle East with absolutely no end in sight, even today. Furthermore, the coalition of the willing waged war again Iraq without international legitimacy as the UN Security Council rejected to grant a Resolution. Syria is a very similar situation. Not in terms of manipulation of evidence, but with the lack of international legitimacy as once again the UN Security Council most likely won’t approve the use of force. It is a lose-lose situation with no good options. In case of regime change, who will lead Syria? With al-Assad gone, the chances of the worsening of the civil war may spill-over to the whole region. In case of an al-Assad survival even after ‘the punishment,’ the West won’t have any leverage over the course of events; its only option being to arm one group of rebels with only limited long term influence. Libya is a clear illustration of such scenario. Either way there is no good option.

The Syrian crisis is probably one of the worst foreign policy issues handled by the Euro-Atlantic community along with the 1994 Rwanda. Both crises are at the intersection between morality and national interests. The members of the Euro-Atlantic are dragging their feet as the civil war has been going on for two years, so far costing the lives of over 100,000 civilians and flooding the region with over 1,700,000 refugees (the Financial Times posted a valuable interactive map illustrating the situation on the ground). Punishing al-Assad does not give any credential to the West, but instead weakens Paris and D.C. as well as the UN. Punishing al-Assad has nothing to do with enforcing the 1925 Geneva Protocol, it is only about the credibility of the West.

Once the West has clearly agreed on either launching a military strike or not, it would be time to identify their interests and strategies. A list of issues remains to be reflected prior any missile strikes:

–       Would these strikes be enough to punish al-Assad?

–       What would be Bashar al-Assad’s reactions? Would he keep challenging the West by using chemical weapons forcing for a ground intervention?

–       How will Iran and Russia respond to such strikes?

–       Would the strikes lead to a longer Western involvement in the region?

–       Would these strikes have any influence on the course of events in Syria?

–       Does the West have any good options/strategy in Syria?


As a side note, the two figures below illustrate the Western forces in the region and the situation on the ground in Syria. BBC News  has developed a very insightful chart illustrating the Western military forces in the region, which could be utilized in order to launch either missiles from warships or airplanes. The second figure, published by the Economist, put into perspective the current situation on the ground in Syria.

Figure 1: Western forces in the region

BBC/Global Security/Stratfor

BBC/Global Security/Stratfor


Figure 2: the Syrian crisis



Maxime H.A. Larivé

Maxime Larivé holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and European Politics from the University of Miami (USA). He is currently working at the EU Center of Excellence at the University of Miami as a Research Associate. His research focus on the questions of the European Union, foreign policy analysis, security studies, and European security and defense policy. Maxime has published several articles in the Journal of European Security, Perceptions, and European Union Miami Analysis as well as World Politics Review.