If we are to intervene in Syria or Libya, we must learn from past failures

by Paul Lynch

To most people, there will be only one international story in the news this week. The horror of the refugee crisis, the complete cowardice of the response of many nations, and the possible solutions are on everyone’s minds, and in every conversation.

It’s a common refrain that a solution to the refugee crisis is stabilisation of Syria, Iraq, Libya and other disrupted regions, and that the best option to ensure this is military action.

If you sincerely think that, good on you; I’m minded to agree. But military action is not the easy fix that many people consider it to be. Past failures of foreign policy have shown that any decision to use military force must be taken after deep thought, conference and without emotional input. This decision must be taken coldly, rationally and with the full facts taken into account.

In my opinion, as a progressive, internationalist Labour Party, humanitarian intervention can only ever go ahead following these four points.

1) A UN resolution, and full commitment from the permanent members of the Security Council.

Yes, that does mean action from the US, France, the UK, Russia and China. Humanitarian intervention is not and can never be a power play. Nations cannot play the Great Game anymore, and use proxies to advance their own petty goals. If we talk about humanitarian intervention it must be only for humanitarian reasons, and therefore international collaboration between the world powers. Furthermore, we must work with and support local leaders to ensure regional peace and prosperity. Finally, we internationalists base our idealism on the rule of law; we cannot lecture to others on what we do not do ourselves

2) Overwhelming force.

That’s not hyperbole. If experts believe the job can be done properly with 200,000 troops, for example, we send 400,000. When military action is not prosecuted fully, we may well have never acted at all.

3) An explicit commitment to nation-building.

This is not imposing democratic ideals. Democracy must come from the ground up, and that is the responsibility and the agency of the citizen. But in order to stabilise a nation, we must make a clear commitment to developing infrastructure, an economy and basic security, creating the conditions in which liberal values develop organically.

4) Finally, an acceptance that any action is not a quick fix; If a stabilisation operation is ordered, it is likely that troops will be there for 10,15, even 20 years in order to do the job properly. Refusal to accept this idea causes fundamental damage to the strategy of any intervention.

If we can’t meet these four points, military action should be off the table. That may be cold, but as I said, these decisions must be taken rationally and mindful of the responsibility and consequences.

Paul Lynch is a Labour councillor in St Helens, Merseyside

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16 Responses to “If we are to intervene in Syria or Libya, we must learn from past failures”

  1. Bob says:

    Point 1. The UN can’t manage its own bowels so it can’t manage a crisis. Look at Ebola crisis in Africa, the UN (WHO) knew it was happening and did nothing.

    Point 2. Who is going to provide the armed forces, who commands them and who pays for them. The UN certainly will not and the USA will not allow her forces to be commanded by anyone but a American officer. Same I suspect with the Russians.

    Point 3. Will never happen due to lines drawn on maps and the kleptocracies of Africa and Asia. Liberal values can get you shot for not following the words of Mao ‘power comes from the point of a gun’. Also when you have FGM and suppression of women’s rights and rape as a punishment you do not standard chance of having liberal values.

    Point 4. Cost again and why should our young men and women be placed at risk and even die for your liberal ideals, sometimes you need to stay away and let them kill each other.

    Too many of our armed forces have been killed and gravely injured trying to bring liberal values and democracy to far flung hell holes, time to stop but will it be your son or daughter at risk?

  2. Robert says:

    I agree with most of this. People saying that we should drop bombs on Syria to make us feel better are rather irritating (I want this to get past the moderators).

  3. Jimmy says:

    In this context of course security council approval means in effect asking the permission of Bashar al Assad. The rest is spot on.

  4. Madasafish says:

    Basically Paul’s article says : practical military involvement is not going to happen.

    There is no way China and Russia will give UN approval.

  5. Forlornehope says:

    If you look at the history of the middle east over millennia the only times that peace reigned among all the disparate cultures was when an imperial power had its heel firmly on their windpipe. After the collapse of the Ottoman empire and its very short-lived replacement by the British and French in the region, the only answer that worked was ruthless autocracy; sad but true.

  6. Eric Clyne says:

    There should be commitment to providing a safe zone in Syria so that refugees can return to rebuild. Commitment to democracy should wait until later.

  7. Jeff Fletcher says:

    the first problem is to get some degree of UN agreement and that is a real challenge. The UN “Police Action” in Korea was only possible because:
    1) The Russians were sulking and not attending
    2) China’s security council representation was still Taiwan, effectively a U.S. puppet at the time.

    The whole idea of the veto held by the permanent members is a nonsense and relates to the “winners” of WW2 and later possession of nuclear weapons

    If we are to intervene then Paul’s points are key, too often we’ve gone in without knowing how long we expected to stay or what a successful endgame would look like. We have to avoid that mistake at all costs and to understand that many traditional approaches may not work, the days of “Butcher and Bolt” (Description often applied to the British colonial method) are past.

  8. Tafia says:

    Bob – Point 2. Who is going to provide the armed forces, who commands them and who pays for them. The UN certainly will not and the USA will not allow her forces to be commanded by anyone but a American officer.

    Ot’s actua;ly even more fundemental than that. Not only do they insist on copmmanding their own forces, but they also insist they remain American forces under total American control, answering only to Washington and not wear UN ‘blue helmets’

  9. swatantra says:

    Basically, the Security Council will refuse to send in UN Troops because of vetos by the Communists and Russians. A pity, because the Russians should be wise enough to know that these islamofacists will be knocking very soon on their doorsteps, and they’d better do something about it pretty quick; there is still unrest in Chechnya.
    We have to take these islamofacists it one by one if it comes to it by assassinations.

  10. Bob says:


    I had forgotten that point about the U.S. chain of command and not wearing ‘blue berets’.


    Some nations need a dictatorial despot to control them, Iraq, Saddam may have been evil but he stopped the factions killing each other by slaughtering them when required, same happened in Syria and Libya. Nasty I know but we had ‘peace’ to an extent. Yugoslavia was less homicidal under Tito but he could ask the Russians to give you a winter holiday if you caused trouble. After he died in 1981 it slowly dissolved into utter carnage on religious grounds.


    Sometimes butchering people is the only thing they respect and or fear, sitting them round a table as Corbyn would have you do does not work.

  11. Bob says:


    Only way to cure this in the end is for a couple of MIRVd Trident D5 missiles across the area, using Paveway 4s Brimstone and Hellfires would take too long. I suspect the Russians and Chinese would support such an idea as they have their own islamofaciat terrorists to contend with. Then peace may reign, overwhelming power sometimes is the one and only option.

    You try talking to ISIL, but would that be before they behead you, put you in. Cage and immolate you or just throw you from a high building, please pick anyone from three.

  12. swatantra says:

    There are some really naïve people around who believe that you can talk and negotiate with islamofacists like Al Quida IS the Taliban and Boko Haram and Al Shabab. The fact is you can’t. The only message they understand comes from the barrrel of a gun pointing at their heads. When they are defeated a firing squad is the punishment they deserve, and we can forget about any preliminary trial.
    Its a brutal war out here and we have to respond in kind.

  13. Tafia says:

    Swatantra, It may come as a shock to you (but not to anyone who watches and reads the news) but both ourselves and the Americans have been regularly negotiating with representatives of the Taleban.

    And wshould we get involved in Syria and refuse to acknowledge either Assad or IS, then that only leaves the FSA – who are in loose alliance with al Queda, so we’ll be negotiating with them as well.

  14. swatantra says:

    I have no doubts at all that it’ll come to negotiations in the end. But we are a long way off from that And from past Wars, you have to defeat the enemy, or retreat as the Yanks did in Saigon., before negotiations with compliant Parties can begin. it’ll take a whole generation to restore Syria to the glory that it once was. very few of the refugees who fled will return, because that is the pattern of things.
    Yes we should recognise Assad and work with him as we did with that ruthless dictator Stalin, but no to negotiations with the IS gangsters, they have to be completely and utterly destroyed like the Nazis of old. There can be no reconciliation or accommodation with them.

  15. Tafia says:

    Sat, we were negotiating with the Taleban 2 years ago right up until we left. The yanks negotiated with the North Vietnamese long before they retreated from Vietnam and Saigin fell.>

    As for recognising Assad, we did years ago – he happens to be the legally recognised president of Syria and it’s his appointed man that sits at the UN.

    And as for IS, the west already has informal lines of communication with them via a third party arab state

  16. Thefutureisbright, the future is... says:

    This article is weak. It’s one of the reasons that both politics and Labour in this country has been stagnant. No definitive solutions or ideas. No personality in our potential elected officials whatsoever. No new ideas. This allows characters such as Corbyn success as shown yesterday.

    I’ll ask the question of the author if he wishes to reply. Why should we intervene in Syria? What are your views on how the humanitarian crisis was allowed to gain momentum and grow in the first place?

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