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Back at the beginning of August 1914, Europe was on the cusp of collective suicide yet it failed to grasp the severity of the situation in time to prevent disaster.
In the years preceding WWI, European nations had engaged in intense coalition-building. France, along with Great-Britain and Russia had forged the Triple-Entente while the Central Powers (Germany, Austria and Turkey) had ended up forming their own security-compact: The Triple-Alliance.
Barbara Tuchman’s writings describe in great details how the intricate interlocking of opposing military alliances paved the road to Europe’s annihilation and its subsequent fading from History.
We are now at the beginning of August 2015. The NATO Alliance now stands on deck as it readies itself to increase its operations in the Middle East. This time however, and for the first time since the end of the Cold War, it is confronted by an equally formidable array of potential adversaries who are determined to protect their own respective interests in the Levant.
The recent declarations bearing on the establishing of a « Islamic State-free zone” some 25 miles into Syrian territory are constitutive of a direct violation of the UN Charter’s article 2(4) provisions: Not only the UN Security Council did not authorize this measure, such policy could hardly be deemed to fall within the ambit of the doctrine of self-defense.
Failing to fit within these two exceptions to the UN Charter’s general prohibition on the use of force, the establishing of a de facto No Fly Zone over Syria could very well stand as a prelude to a major escalation of violence which could lead to a global conflagration.
It also bears to note that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad repeatedly offered to engage NATO countries in a joint venture aimed at confronting ISIS, but these overtures have found no echoes.
It is thus without permission from Syria’s elected Head of State that NATO is readying to barge in and set-up shop in Syrian airspace.
The Humanitarian Argument is Wearing Thin
It would not be an understatement to say that the legal status of humanitarian intervention enshrined in Chapter VII of the UN Charter has failed to gather consensus since it was first put into practice during the Kosovo Air Campaign in 1999.
Indeed, Thomas M. Frank and Nigel S. Rodley, (both legal scholars writing on the Humanitarian Use of Force) once demurred that “in very few, if any, instances has the right of humanitarian intervention been asserted under circumstances that appears more humanitarian than self-interested and power-serving”. *
John Kirby, a senior US Pentagon official, recently claimed that NATO involvement over Syrian territory would be aimed at establishing “a ISIL-free zone and ensure greater security and stability along Turkey’s border in Syria”.
One can however recall how the use of No-Fly Zones helped in fact to pave the way for regime change in Iraq but also in Libya.
In Iraq, the No-Fly Zone was initially set up with the intent to protect Iraqi Kurds living in the north of the country from being targeted by Saddam Hussein’s fighter jets.
At the time, the idea made sense since the late President of Iraq had once used his aviation as a means of dispersal of chemical agents in order to “punish” those that he deemed as opposing his authority but the language of the resolution reflected the lack of a clearly-defined mandate
Over time, the No-Fly Zone over Kurdistan de facto allowed for the establishing of an autonomous region which came to supersede Iraqi central legal authority.
While it should be highlighted that this No-Fly Zone had duly been authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 688 and enjoyed some measure of public support, the humanitarian objectives of the operation underwent a resolutely stark evolution to include the creation of a de facto launching pad to be used for incursions into Baghdad-controlled airspace.
These incursions eventually helped providing the United States and its “Coalition of the Willing” some crucial intelligence pertaining to Iraq’s defenses and capability to counter airstrikes prior to the initiation of the 2003 conflict which led to the removal of the Baathist government at an enormous cost to the legal rights to live in physical security and not in fear to millions living in Iraq to this day.
In the Libyan case back in 2011, Russia and China were cajoled into abstaining from vetoing the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, thus allowing for a No-Fly Zone to be set-up over the eastern portion of the country, including the provincial capital of Benghazi, so as to purportedly prevent civilian protesters from being targeted by Gadhafi’s military aircrafts.
Here again, the original humanitarian impetus that had insufflated the debate leading up to the adoption of the resolution started deviating its course from genuine concerns for the protection of civilians lives until it adopted a policy of expanding the scope of sorties all the way to Tripoli, thus paving the way for former Al-Qeida Commander Abdel Hakim Belladj to later that year proclaim himself Military Governor of the city.
With the removal of the Gadhafi clan in October 2011, Libya turned into a failed state.
We are now at the beginning of August 2015.
Russia and China both feel that they are relying on solid precedent as they object to yet another manipulation of Chapter VII’s provisions which would be required to set-up a new No-Fly Zone this time over Syria.
Perhaps looking back in anger, Russia and China both question the “genuine” nature of NATO’s intentions in a region where so much of the balance of power hinges on Syria’s territorial integrity.
As Assad‘s most valuable ally, Russia has vested interest in retaining access to its only outlet to the Mediterranean.
Vladimir Putin has reassured Bashar El-Assad of his total support in fighting to rid the country of roaming armed groups, declaring last June: “Our fear is that Syria could plunge into the same situation as Libya and Iraq…”, adding: “We don’t want that … in Syria.”
As relates to China, the Middle Kingdom has traditionally always opposed any attempts aimed at interfering with what it unqualifiedly refers to as a State’s domestic affairs.
Not least among the opposing powers, Iran has probably the most to lose if it allows for the demise of its Alawite ally.
Tehran’s resulting amputation of its regional reach would be considered akin to a geostrategic disaster from which it would find it hard to ever recover as Syria has always been an integral part of Iran’s own security paradigm.
In the final analysis, it would require that a NATO fighter jet merely come under fire from Syrian air-defense batteries or suffer from an encounter with a patrolling Syrian airplane for the regional pressure cooker to reach critical mass.
Iran, Russia and China will this time around adamantly stand their grounds and collectively decide to reject the option of doing nothing.
Standing pat would indeed result in these States suffering unacceptable damage to their prestige over the long run but also witness an intolerable curtailing of their respective national security frameworks.
As pertains to NATO, the Alliance’s own mechanism of mutual assistance triggered in the event of an attack on one of its members, the redoubtable Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, could conceivably drag 28 nations into a no-holes barred, winner takes-all dogfight that could result in the opening of Pandora’s Box.
As we reflect on the fate of hundreds of thousands of civilian victims during this 70th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombing of Japan, there are serious reasons to worry that the world is once more sleepwalking towards annihilation.
Thomas M. Frank and Nigel S. Rodley, After Bangladesh: The Law of Humanitarian Intervention by Military Force, 67 Am. J. Int’l L. 275, 290 (1973)
Arno Develay is an international Human Rights Lawyer.