Intervention, Syria and Liberals


The Liberal Democrats, and their predecessor party the Liberals, have long been animated proponents of what we might call humanitarian or liberal interventionism; that is, the idea that one can use force in an unsolicited manner to alleviate the suffering of individuals within the territory of another state. From Jeremy Thorpe’s call to bomb the rail lines into Rhodesia to tighten sanctions on the Smith regime to Paddy Ashdown’s tough stance on intervention in Bosnia in the early 1990s, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats have been more often the advocates of the use of force, I would contend, than its opponents.

With regards to Syria, therefore, I would consider it perfectly natural for the party more widely to be more open to intervention on humanitarian grounds than either of the two other main parties, whose record on these issues is rather less consistent. However, I would like to make three requests of advocates of the use of force in this matter; if followed through, they make minds such as my own less uncomfortable with a form of war whose moral value is not yet entirely settled.

  1. War; Let me be absolutely clear – whilst I have used the terms ‘use of force’ and ‘intervention’ above, ultimately what is being discussed here is a matter of war. Advocates of such an intervention in Syria seem skittish about this, but there can be no denying that what they are proposing is that we make war on another country. We should be mindful of that timeless Clausewitzian phrase; “war is a continuation of politics by other means”. There is nothing to be ashamed of in a recognition of that fundamental nature of war; our policy as a party is to “build and safeguard a fair, free and open society”, and in this instance we believe a war will, ultimately, have that effect. A clear-minded recognition and acknowledgement that we are proposing war as our policy means helps us particularly with the third point; but it also grounds us firmly in the scale and gravity of the task at hand.
  2. Law; I again wish to be clear – we must, in the best traditions of the Liberal and Liberal Democratic parties, insist that the war be legal. That means that it must be prosecuted under the UN Charter; either Articles 51 (self-defence) or 42 (authorised use of force by the Security Council). We must not fall into the trap of believing that some states automatically have the right to wage war on others for humanitarian reasons; I do not believe that such a doctrine has reached legal maturity. I am aware of instances where it has seemed to be so – Kosovo, for example – but I remain wary of the implications for all of us for drilling such large holes in the UN Charter and expecting only states we like to take advantage of these new rules. One might consider the Russia-Georgia conflict of a few years ago as a clear example of how such a rule may be abused by less than savoury states. We must press for the Security Council to be the font of legal authority for a war with Syria; and that will mean we have to change the way we talk to the Russians.
  3. Post-conflict; We must be brutally honest about what a post-conflict Syria will be like – hellish. There are ethnic and religious tensions already boiling over, powerful neighbours waiting to either take advantage of a vacuum or use extraordinary means to prevent one from forming. After a war to remove Assad, we must be prepared to commit blood and treasure of our own to help heal Syria – building bridges, policing streets and everything else that comes with the post-war world. We must remember the lessons of Iraq; democracy, liberty and the rest do not appear overnight, they must be nurtured, protected and paid for – in blood and treasure. If we can convince the world we have a plan to help Syria transit from a war-zone into a stable, safe place in the Middle East (as far as can be expected), then we are much further down the road to getting the war.

As I noted above, I differ from my party somewhat on the issue of humanitarian intervention. But I have above noted three ways that those more in favour of such a use of war can help build their case. I have seen those who think flooding Syria with arms will work – as though the guns will share our morality and our vision of what Syria should look like. I also see those who think we can simply swamp the country with troops, and pretend it is not a war. We are discussing a war, we must not be shy about that – and if we are bold enough to talk in terms of statesmen then we may well yet become statesmen.

War is all hell, said William Sherman. I would say, if you are at least honest that you are sending men to hell, they out there and we at home, are better prepared for the horrors that will follow and, I would hope, the end result will seem even better in comparison.

Tim Oliver is a Liberal Democrat member and PhD student at the University of Hull, writing on Britain as a Great Power under the Coalition

This article is solely the views of the author, and should not be taken to represent the views of the Liberal Democrat party, Liberal Youth, nor the editorship of the Libertine



2 thoughts on “Intervention, Syria and Liberals

  1. Syria is a total mess and armed intervention from outside will just make it worse. Some problems are insoluble, and the least worst approach is to keep out. Try everything diplomatically because although that is unlikely to work, at least there is no downside. The big question for me is whether the Lib Dems will support an Israeli attack on Iran. According to our manifesto no, but what are the consequences for the Coalition if the Tories say yes? I am suprised Liberal Youth have not looked into this, or have I missed it?

  2. I would have thought by now everyone can see military neo-imperialist adventures provide no solutions. Westerners are deeply disliked in that part of the world if the events in Middle East and North Africa in the last few days aren’t enough to provide evidence of this.
    Western calls for the removal of Assad have stymied attempts of a diplomatic solution and it is difficult to see a way out of the morass.

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