William Reynolds is a 2nd year undergraduate studying War Studies in the department of War Studies. From a British Armed Forces background, William follows the military capabilities of the West and the security issues in the Middle East with great interest, placing special emphasis on COIN and the experiences of individuals on the ground. William as worked as a Research Fellow for Dr Whetham in the Centre of Military Ethics and is a spammer of many articles on the King’s Middle East and North Africa Forum (MENA).
As the dust settles and the conflict draws to a close, there are those who wonder if the West did not do enough to prevent the actions that occurred within the war torn city of Aleppo. Indeed, social media is awash with calls for intervention and #SaveAleppo hashtags by, somewhat ironically, the very same people who expressed outrage when the RoE (Rules of Engagement) were extended for the RAF into Syria. Whilst the UN has placed sole responsibility for any civilian deaths on the shoulders of the SAA (Syrian Arab Army), Russia and allies in the field, the inaction of the West could easily be construed as a facilitator of possible crimes in the future. I will not be focusing too heavily on diplomatic means, as it is in this writers mind that such means have been tried and failed when it comes to Syria.
There are practically only two methods that the West could have employed to intervene in Syria; a UN mandated peacekeeping force or a coalition built force based around one of the three main power projectors in the region (the USA, France and the UK). Any action within Syria would almost certainly require a sizeable force on par with what was deployed with UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force) in Bosnia. Furthermore, any ground intervention would have to be supported by a sizeable air contingent and would therefore necessitate the involvement of the USA as only they have the amount of airframes required to provide effective coverage over Aleppo and the necessary corridors of resupply (be it by air or land).
The second method would simply be a coalition led force, again involving the USA, to act within the region. This second option would have the advantage of being immune from UN handling of the situation, which arguably hamstrung UNPROFOR in Bosnia so much it proved detrimental to operations (as mentioned by Rupert Smith in Utility of Force), and have a unified structure under a NATO led system (similar to ISAF). As with all military operations, the fewer links in the chain of command that you can have the faster and smoother actions on the ground will be.
There is here the assumption that intervention would greatly enhance the risk of military conflict with Assad. Indeed, the legality of intervening in a civil war against a sovereign nation throws up some questions that need to be answered if any military action were to occur. Furthermore, one cannot help but think that the rebels would simply use the ‘thin blue line’ of peacekeepers in the same way as the Croatians did in Yugoslavia. As a shield to protect themselves from the actions of Assad until they regroup, reorganise and counter attack. In which case, would we not be directly involving ourselves in the outcome of the civil war?
Map of Coalition Air Strikes – Focus of Capabilities to the North
Comparing to Srebrenica:
However, whilst the capability is there to deploy forces in an intervention role, one has to ask is it practical? Many have compared Aleppo to Srebrenica, often quoting the adage of ‘never again’ that was used at the time. There are multiple flaws in this comparison, indeed in comparing the two wars entirely. The Yugoslav wars were indeed a civil war, but divided along ethnic (in the cultural sense) lines. It was not simply Yugoslav versus Yugoslav, rather Croat against Serb and with Bosnia stuck in the middle. It was essentially states under a federal system, with their own histories, culture and religious communities, entirely unlike Syria. A rather haphazard comparison would be to say It would be like a civil war in the United Kingdom, but with the actors being the states that made up the union; Scotland, Wales, England and N. Ireland (sorry Cornwall, your time will come).
If we were to intervene in Syria, one would have to identify sides to place themselves between. Easier in Yugoslavia, almost impossible in Syria. The rebels have so many factions they might as well be conducting a civil war within the war they are prosecuting. Say what you wish about Assad’s regime, but at least you can identify a united front and act accordingly.
Furthermore, we must not forget that there were peacekeepers in Srebrenica in 1995. Much like Aleppo, the city was in a state of siege and despite the blue helmet presence, the Serbs refused to demilitarise around the city. Fewer convoys got through and eventually an evacuation ordered simply to avoid genocide via starvation. Even with UN support, the city fell and the massacre occurred. One should not judge the Dutch peacekeepers too harshly, their RoE was too constrained which led to them being unable to affect any change in their situation. Indeed, coupled with limited air support, the peacekeepers had no option but to leave.
If this happened in Srebrenica, where the West had air superiority and the capability to supply via air, what would be so different with Aleppo, where the Russians and Syrians control the skies?
A thin blue line of Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica
The Political Will:
One must not discount the domestic issues that are faced by Western leaders when it comes to military intervention. Both Afghanistan and the 2nd Gulf War have left large scars on the societies of both the US and UK. Both the population and the military are exhausted from two protracted counter insurgency wars in the middle east, and the prospect of involving ourselves in another would amount to political suicide for the PM and President of the US. President Obama was elected with a mandate to pull US troops out of Afghanistan (for better or worse) and indeed, in 2013 David Cameron brought to the House of Commons a motion to allow military action against Assad if chemical weapons were deployed. Whilst legally he did not actually require a vote on this matter, the need for a mandate, and therefore multiple bodies to share in the blame if the action went ploin shaped, was paramount. He promptly lost the vote and Britain’s capability to intervene was severely hampered. Furthermore, one cannot forget the outcry that was caused by the notion of increasing the area of operations of RAF strikes against ISIS into Syria. If such commotion was caused by the prospect of committing violence against ISIS, one cannot image what action against Assad would entail.
An intervention would further the narrative of the West involving itself in Middle Eastern affairs. The concept of ‘white men with guns’ is prevalent in the psyche of many and again it seems to be those who protested the invasion of Iraq (and the attempted democratisation of the state) who are calling for intervention against Assad and his government. Is this not hypocritical?
War Exhaustion has infected both the public and the military in the UK
The elephant (or bear quite possibly) in the room is of course Russia’s involvement in the conflict. Arguably, the West has only itself to blame for being outmanoeuvred by the Russians in this regard. Obama had the opportunity to stake his claim in the Syrian conflict with the ‘red-line’ speech in 2012. However, when chemical weapons were deployed and US military might failed to materialise, not only did Obama lose his foot in the door but all credibility of US intervention was lost and arguably gave the green light for Putin to involve himself without threat of US involvement. Much like in the days of imperialism, Russia filled the void that had been left by the US and now that they are entirely entrenched in the area the West cannot intervene in the conflict without the threat of escalating the situation with Russia. Russian warplanes and advisers operate regularly in Syria and the fog of war could quite easily result in a military action between the US and Russia by accident.
So as to whether the West could have done something about Aleppo the answer is not clear. Multiple opportunities were present in the past, but the appetite for military intervention was just not there. As for whether it’s practical, a war with Syria would be winnable by the West, but the deployment of an intervention force deep into Syrian territory to block further violence would be a logistical nightmare and would greatly enhance the risk of conflict elsewhere with Russia. Practical politics, or realpolitik, always leaves a bitter taste in the Western liberal system. But sometimes the practicality of ones actions simply cannot afford to accommodate the morality of the situation, despite how right and good it may be.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23892783 – 2013 UK vote on Syrian intervention
https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/12/02/analysis-sharp-fall-support-air-strikes-syria/ – Current YouGov opinion polls on airstrikes
http://edition.cnn.com/2012/08/20/world/meast/syria-unrest/ – Obama’s ‘Red-Line’ speech
http://web.stanford.edu/class/e297a/United%20Nations%20Peacekeeping%20Operations.pdf – UN Peacekeeping Operations
Smith, Rupert (2006), The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, (London: Penguin Books)
http://syria.mil.ru/en/index/syria.htm – Numerous updates on Russian Operations in Syria from the Russian Federation Ministry of Defence
https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/daesh/about – UK actions against ISIS
https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmdfence/106/106.pdf – House of Commons Defence Committee: UK military operations in Syria and Iraq