Not All Interventions are the Same.

by on 2013-08-27 in Duck- 22 Comments

It now looks almost certain that we will see a US military strike of some sort in Syria. There is a lot of angst out there about such a strike — what are its goals? What will it accomplish? and, Where will it all end? Many are asking “what the hell is the Obama administration thinking?” Many have already concluded that it will be a disaster.

This is a fair set of questions in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan. Erica Chenoweth is running a number of articles over at the Monkey Cage on what some of the political science research says when looking at the aggregate data with respect to third party intervention. It suggests that this isn’t going to end well. Maybe. But, there is a broader analysis and context that are also likely influencing President Obama’s decision.

First, not every intervention is the same — time to dust off that copy of Schelling. The use of force is one of many instruments of statecraft. It’s utility is often linked to the overall strategic objective(s), the degree to which ends and means are tied, and the overall legitimacy of the action. There is a tendency in many of the discussions out there to conflate the impending use of force in Syria with the American-led wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Since Iraq and Afghanistan have proven to be major disasters, we should stay out of Syria. Maybe.

Iraq clearly demonstrated the limits (and incompetence) of American power. The U.S. plowed its way into Iraq with 300k troops to remove Saddam Hussein (the core objective) without a plan for stabilizing the country once that objective was achieved. It also acted without any clear legitimating or legal authority. And, no surprise, it was a disaster.

But, other, more limited, interventions have been effective in controlling and mitigating violence — even in on-going high intensity conflicts. The American-led intervention in Bosnia in August 1995 stopped the war on a dime even though most security studies scholars, regional experts, and pundits at the time warned against American involvement. Many argued that American involvement would lead to a Vietnam-style quagmire, that the conflict was fueled by age-old ethnic hatreds about which nothing could be done. They were wrong. Eighteen years later, there are plenty of pathologies in Bosnia’s political and economic institutions but we haven’t seen any organized inter-ethnic violence since Dayton.

The use of military force in Bosnia was designed with a narrower objective than what we witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. and NATO attacks on Serb targets in the summer of 1995 were not designed to defeat the Serbs (regime change), but to change the strategic landscape and compel them to the negotiating table. The punitive strikes on the Serbs were designed to signal to them, without ambiguity, that they could not win. Indeed, the strategic design for the use of force was premised on the recognition that the end-game in Bosnia would have to be a diplomatic, not a military, solution. The strikes were thus taken simultaneous with a major diplomatic initiative to bring coherence and restraint to the Bosniak and Croat forces — both of which were internally fragmented and often fighting each other. Two-weeks after the airstrikes began, the warring factions agreed to a cease-fire and three months later signed the Dayton Accords.

Kosovo was similar in this regard. The use of force was designed to compel a Serb retreat from Kosovo — and to signal to Belgrade that it was not going to win. In Kosovo, there was a general sense that the intervention was legitimate, if not legal, because of the broad U.S. and European consensus that a major Serb attack against Kosovo was imminent. It was that imminence that gave the action international legitimacy even though there was no UN Security Council resolution authorizing the action.

The question then is — what are the informative cases for Syria? Is it closer to the Balkans or to Iraq and Afghanistan? Or something all together different? Not an easy answer.

It’s pretty clear that the primary objective here is to punish the Syrian regime and deter a future chemical weapons attack in Syria. The Obama administration is focused on a very limited strike and doesn’t want to see an outright rebel victory. The logic of this strategic objective makes sense to me. I am persuaded by Daryl Press and Jon Mercer’s respective works that precedent effects, reputation, and credibility concerns are often overstated. But, their works look at how third-party leaders infer or read other actors’ responses elsewhere — not at how actors respond to bluffs in a particular case. It seems pretty clear that if the U.S. does not punish the perpetrators of this attack, these same perpetrators almost certainly will calculate that they can act again with impunity. And, as we’ve seen in the past week, the use of chemical weapons quickly changes the international political dynamics. In other words, if there is no action now, there will almost certainly be events on the ground that provoke international action later. It’s probably not a question of whether, but when, the international use of force happens.

The secondary objective appears to be that the administration hopes that a military strike might move the conflict towards some kind international pressure on the warring factions to move toward some kind of negotiation process. To be sure, it is difficult to imagine today why, or how, the government or any of the opposition factions would join in some kind of negotiations, but there are plenty of cases in which conflicts looked intractable before something altered/shocked the war leading to negotiations. It was largely inconceivable in the spring of 1995 (or even the days immediately after Srebrenica in June 1995) to envision that we would have a negotiated, power-sharing agreement ending the war six months later.

The war in Syria is largely at a strategic stalemate. The battle has ebbed and flowed over the past year, both sides are trying to break the stalemate (and still believe they can), but it doesn’t appear that either side can. My reading of why Assad likely used chemical weapons last week is based on the pressure he is under from his own constituencies to turn the battle.

In this regard, there are signs that both Assad and the main rebel factions are rational, strategic actors and aware of the strategic environment in which they operate. A military strike may alter that strategic environment by signaling that no one can win. I’m in the midst of an analysis of the battlefield trends in Syria over the past two-and-a-half years using GDELT data set and an extensive set of interview data — I’ll be presenting a preview of this analysis in a paper at this fall’s ISSS-ISAC conference in DC. My initial findings suggest that the Syria regime forces have routinely escalated and de-escalated the intensity of violence in response to U.S. and international policy initiatives in ways that are similar to what Joshua Goldstein and Jon Pevehouse found in their analysis of the conflict in Bosnia.

The key then (and something I have heard some whispering about, but have seen no real movement) is to move quickly in conjunction with the use of force to generate the requisite international diplomatic energy to push warring factions toward some end-game strategy.

Finally, this war is spilling outside of the Syrian borders and is going to get worse unless something changes the equation. As I posted last week, the spike in violence in Iraq and in Lebanon is related to the on-going violence in Syria. Jordan and Turkey are both reeling from absorbing the bulk of the 2 million Syrian refugees. With upwards of another 8 to 10 million internally displaced — we are going to see more massive waves of refugees crossing borders as the violence continues. And, the Kurds from Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria are currently discussing their own strategies in light of the on-going events. Furthermore, the upheaval throughout the region is a major contest over basic conceptions of legitimacy, authority, governance and social, religious, and political order.

Of course, there is plenty of risk and uncertainty in all of this. What happens if an initial strike does not deter the future use of chemical weapons? What happens if it doesn’t move the warring factions to the negotiating tables? Could the administration refrain from escalation if its use of force does not achieve these objectives? What kind of viable mechanism could be developed or implemented to stabilize an agreement — even if one could be reached? How to cope with various spoilers to the process that are almost certainly going to challenge any process? The administration would do well to actively deliberate all of these contingencies now rather than wait and be surprised — as happened to the Bush administration on Iraq.

International politics rarely gives policymakers clear answers to any of these questions and all of us would do well to remember that all of our analyses are probablistic. The challenge for decisionmakers is that major foreign policy disasters stem from both mistakes of commission (over-reaction) and mistakes of omission (under-reaction/passivity). Historians often have a better lens from which to determine which is which than decisionmakers who have to make decisions in real time. There are clearly limits and risks to what such limited military action can achieve, but we do have a pretty good sense of where this conflict is headed if nothing is done to alter the current trajectory. This, it seems to me, is the context in which President Obama has to make his decision.

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  • John

    I have a challenge. Name me one single thing the United States has done in the Middle East- ever, and I mean whenever you like, a hundred years ago if you want- that made anything better and did not result in someone being killed. Hard isn’t it? If you manage this I will support the ‘intervention’ that is about to unfold. Good luck.

  • Simon

    I’m not so sure that any punishment the US, or the international community as a whole, could deliver upon Assad would serve as much of a deterrent to future chemical weapons use. If this is an increasingly desperate attempt to break the stalemate – if it is an actual stalemate and not the slow attrition of one side to the strategic advantage of the other – I am not sure that the possibility of future punishment would change the calculations of another leader put in a similar position. It might deter Assad from using CW again, but it would have to hurt, and I’m not sure that’s to the interests of anyone not hoping for an outright rebel victory.

    I’m intrigued by your suggestion that it might bring both parties to the table, but from what I understand of the extent to which sectarian tensions have escalated and the geographic difficulties of an ‘Alawite cantonment with any security, I’m deeply sceptical that an intervention would have this effect.

  • SammerTime

    I hear your uncertainty towards the end of the post, but I still think this idea is oversimplified, “It seems pretty clear that if the U.S. does not punish the perpetrators of this attack, these same perpetrators almost certainly will calculate that they can act again with impunity.”

    First, who are the perpetrators of the attack? Assad? Assad and his top leadership? The Syrian Army writ large? If it’s Assad or Assad and his leadership, they are unlikely to be “punished” by U.S. action, unless that punishment comes in the form of destroying some of their facilities. But more likely, some Syrian soldiers will be killed and likely some civilians along with them, in addition to the destruction of largely equipment and facilities that doesn’t sufficiently cripple the regime.

    And maybe, in a best case scenario, Assad is persuaded to not use chemical weapons again because of the US strike, but he hasn’t hesitated to keep stacking up bodies with conventional weapons, so, really, is it significant if he realizes he can’t use chemical weapons without hesitation?

  • Anita Kellogg

    Your point is well taken. On the other hand, what does punishment in this context truly mean? It is certainly not a concept that I am familiar with the international relations scholarship. Furthermore, not only is it not clear how relevant actions in Bosnia and Kosovo are to the Syria problem, but I definitely have some concerns about using them as unqualified “success stories.” Although, they probably do represent the best possible outcome, they also raise questions about military interventions for humanitarian reasons. For example, you have the Srebrenica massacre which occurred as Dutch soldiers simply observed. The Dutch peacekeepers presence may have even discouraged resistance by providing a false sense of security.

  • Jon Western

    It appears the administration is looking at targets that are of some significant military value to the regime — something that hurts them by their loss. I share your views — and those articulated by Press and Mercer — that US strikes are probably not going to have direct deterrent effects on others beyond Syria in future conflicts. The idea is to deter this regime from future chemical attacks. You all are right that the conflict has produced mass civilian casualties — so why punish for chemical attacks? I think there are several reasons, but perhaps most salient for the conversation here is that if the regime felt there were no penalty for their use, it could probably win this conflict in a matter of weeks (or a few months) by escalating with the more frequent use of chemical weapons. But, this would almost certainly kill many more people and at a much faster rate than we’ve seen thus far. I don’t know if Assad would go that far, but I think that possibility is a factor driving the Obama administration’s deliberations.

  • Andrew

    Much of the above may be true, but by that logic we should be pressing for UN peacekeepers rather than US intervention. I know the UN is dragging its feet, but it seems to me that there is a risk of falling into “We must do something, this is something, therefore we must do it” logic. And my memory of Bosnia is that atrocities increased post-intervention, though I’m open to being corrected

  • Tony Lang

    Thanks Jon for this piece, and looking forward to reading more on this. I think the question of punitive intervention is crucial to understand. Jon cited Schelling, who, along with others, helped develop various strategic notions of punitive uses of force. International legal scholars have avoided the notion of punishment because they are bound by a positivist logic in which punishment is not allowed without a sovereign authority. But, as I have argued elsewhere, punishment is ever present in international affairs – sanctions, intervention, counter terrorism policy – but it is rarely just ( It can be made more just by changes in the international legal and political order, some of which are already happening. In this case, the use of targeted strikes to hurt the Assad regime is justified. In answer to what it would it would accomplish, it is is important to clarify that this is not about 1) creating Jeffersonian democracy in Syria; 2) creating good guys and bad guys (there are none here) 3) deterring Assad in particular or even those who surround him. The logic of punishment can be deterrent and/or retributive, neither of which is the same as revenge or necessarily creating a new society. We punish both to deter and to indicate to society the value of the rule of law. So, in this case, punishment would be undertaken to indicate that the international community is not going to allow the use of chemical weapons, a clear moral statement. I also think there are targets in Syria that could be hit, though the trick is not to alienate too many in the regime. So, I would say that Jon’s strategic logic here, coupled with what I would call a normative logic, supports a limited use of military force.

  • John

    You say there are no good guys here? I beg to disagree. The women arrested and tortured for preaching peace in Hamadiyeh, the protestors shot in Daraa, Homs, Aleppo, Sham, the defectors who refused to shoot their own people? Please remember how this started.

    “We punish both to deter and to indicate to society the value of the rule of law.” Let us translate this sentence with attention paid to history: “We punish both to deter [kill] and to indicate to subaltern societies the values of the rule of law that we ourselves do not follow, this clause does not apply to any powerful state, or allies thereof who are permitted to kill, including the use of chemical weapons, at whim.”

  • John II

    Camp David, 1979.

  • Tony Lang

    A good point about the problems of legal consistency and the colonial heritage of international law. At the same time, if moral or legal consistency was the only standard by which we decided whether or not to act either in international affairs or even daily life, I’m not sure anything would ever happen.

    And, not so sure I get your point about good guys and bad guys. My point is that if an intervention is framed as supporting the morally right side, there are none; the Syrian opposition is riddled with unsavory characters. I agree that those who engaged in peaceful protest and civilian populations deserve our attention. But, in the end, we need to develop some strategy rather than sitting on our hands and doing nothing. Striking at or even threatening to strike at the regime might pull some away from support for Assad and force them to negotiate an alternative future for Syria.

  • John

    I understand this perspective but I feel the logic behind it is rather odd, to (inappropriately) use Zizek what is required here is a refusal of choice; no to intervention and no to Asad. The pro-intervention perspective should really, really consider whether after bombing Iraq to pieces, allowing Israel to bomb Gaza to pieces, supporting a coup and thus massacre in Egypt, to mention only the most recent disasters, that its ‘intervention’ is in any way desired by the people actually concerned. I know the Guardian et al occasionally like to quote a Syrian ‘begging’ for the U.S. to intervene, but if you look just a little more closely the abject fear of such an intervention of most people in the region is palpable. The Middle East would be a better place if the U.S. and its allies never set foot there again. Now, an alternative argument can be constructed based on U.S. ‘interests’ but to then couch that argument in any form of legal or moral garb is almost grotesque given the crimes of those states in the region.

  • LFC

    Of course not every intervention is the same. This is such a basic, obvious point that it’s sad, in a way, that a political scientist feels that he has to make it so explicitly, based on his reading of the “discussions out there.”

    Analogies are always tricky and often misleading. For ex., there were some good reasons to oppose the Afghan surge ordered in Dec. ’09, but “Afghanistan is Vietnam” was not one of them. Is Syria “more like” Iraq/Afghanistan or “more like” Bosnia? I suspect not much like either.

    The Dayton agreement was a kind of partition. Is there any evidence that the Syrian warring parties are willing to accept something like this? If not, ISTM the Bosnia analogy weakens and the Goldstein/Pevehouse event-data paper is of somewhat limited applicability. The question, ISTM, is not whether Assad responds to intl intervention by using less force temporarily, but whether the parties would rather fight indefinitely than settle.

  • Jon Western

    LFC, I agree, probably shouldn’t need to be stated…. It should also be clear that analogies can be misleading. I’m analyzing the trends in violence over the past two-and-a-half years Syria for that reason — what are the patterns? Do we see any strategic logics? To what extent are regime or opposition actions correlated with international policy debates, initiatives, UN vetoes, arms flows, etc…, and are there ways to discern causality? Right now we have a lot of speculation and anecdotes about what the regime and the various opposition forces want and how they are acting on a daily basis, but not much by way of systematic analysis. I wish there was a stronger body of research on this conflict out there — I know more is coming and will give us more insights. As for your last question, better analyses could give us some insights, but probably no clear answers — the inherent uncertainty and complexity in international politics in which we all have to work.

  • LFC

    Thank you for the response. I’ll try to attend your presentation in October. (I generally don’t travel to go to conferences these days, but since the conference you mention is in D.C. I won’t have to travel.)

  • Anita Kellogg

    The aspect of your argument I am having trouble grasping is the effectiveness of chemical weapons. My understanding is that they do not confer an advantage beyond conventional weapons nor are the casualties any worse in horror or scale.

    You seem to also imply there is a strategic interest for the U.S. here, but I am unable to see it. Also, the U.S. has failed to explain when the ban against chemical weapons became a norm and why we need to take action now.

    Larger questions about ad hoc actions of “coalitions of the willing” to punish without any international or legal framework to guide what is punishable, how punishment is decided etc remain troubling. If you are anyone else is interested, I provide a brief examination of these questions here:

  • Jon Western

    Thanks Anita. Depending on the types of chemical agents, the delivery systems, the targets, and the manner in which they are deployed, chemical weapons generally are more lethal, and indiscriminate, than most conventional weapons. Launching chemical munitions indiscriminately in a densely populated urban environment — as appears to have been the case last week — will almost certainly kill and harm more people than conventional weapons. I’d recommend Richard Price’s book The Chemical Weapons Taboo, as a great place to start for more info on the technology and on the evolution of the norm against their use.

  • Anita Kellogg

    I will definitely be reading Price’s book in the coming days. Thanks for the suggestion and the conversation!

  • Jon Western

    Thanks Tony. This is a really good statement. I think Charli is going to post something further on this in the next day or so and I’d love to see more of your comments. I wonder if you can unpack the prudential element here for my own enlightenment — punishment is just as long as “there are targets that could be hit.” What if there weren’t?

  • Tony Lang

    My assumption is that US military intelligence has developed a list of targets that are dear to the regime. Of course, the regime may well do things such as put civilians nearby, so there is certainly risks involved. Further, I would hope that military JAGs are involved to ensure the strikes are as legally sound as possible. So, here is where prudence does come in – the forces undertaking strikes need to use their judgment to find targets that are both strategically sound and legally justified.

    I’ve got a piece I’ve written that will, I think, end up on the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs website in the next day or so where I lay out the arguments a bit more clearly. I’ll let you know if and when it appears.

  • John

    Ah yes, Camp David, 1979. That brilliant event in which the U.S. brokered a deal with the famously liberal Anwar Sadat, who simply wanted the Sinai back, and who thus abandoned the rights of Palestinians across the Middle East… it was a very popular move! It was also famously successful for inaugurating the U.S.-policy of ‘we will (let you) do anything as long as you pretend to stay friends with israel’ our international law flouting best buddy! It also resulted in Sadat himself being killed. Oh, and nobody being able to defend Gaza from war crimes. It was followed, of course, some decades later by the peace agreement with Jordan but, those with an eye to history will note, the authoritarian Jordan and Israel have been allied since 1948…

  • John
  • Tony Lang

    Touche! The Onion always speaks the truth, so I stand (semi)-corrected.