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Syria fuels intervention debate at MSC

Michael KniggeFebruary 14, 2016

A debate on the plight of people caught up in conflicts was dominated by calls to consider military intervention as a last resort in places such as Syria. Sunday was the final day of the Munich Security Conference.

Deutschland 52. Sicherheitskonferenz Moshe Yaalon in München
Image: Reuters/M. Dalder

Not surprisingly, the ongoing suffering experienced by people in besieged areas of Syria framed the debate about human security as the Munich Security Conference slowly wound down on Sunday.

And, if there was one stark lesson that emerged from the conversation, it was this: Military intervention can be a legitimate and appropriate tool to change events on the ground to prevent or mitigate humanitarian catastrophes.

For Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide, Syria is a prime example.

"Military means are needed to change the situation on the ground," Soreide said. "Appetite for a political solution is diminishing by the minute from Assad's perspective," she added, referring to the Syrian president, who has been bolstered by a sustained bombing campaign conducted by Russia.

She was seconded by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning at the US State Department under President Barack Obama and now head of the New America Foundation in Washington.

"Human security is not a humanitarian issue," Slaughter said. "It is a security issue."

John McCain
Earlier Sunday, US Senator John McCain noted that Russia had intervened in Syria's civil warImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schrader

'We have overlearned'

Financial Times deputy editor Roula Khalef offered a concrete explanation for the perceived reluctance by many nations to play a more decisive role in Syria's nearly five-year civil war.

"We have overlearned the lesson of the Iraq War," Khalef said. That war had been started under false pretenses, was not a humanitarian intervention and ended up in a disaster that still haunted the region now.

The more recent intervention in Libya, which Khalef called "intervention-lite," also did not produce an encouraging outcome.

Such negative experiences, Khalef said, have made many leaders - and President Obama in particular - deeply skeptical of military intervention.

"In reality," Khalef said, "Syria is not Iraq and not Libya."

Khalef called the first Iraq War, launched by US President George H.W. Bush in 1990, a successful military intervention, as the no-fly zone initiated there protected Kurds from attacks by Saddam Hussein.

There was general agreement by the panelists that the cost of inaction in a conflict such as Syria's can be greater than that of action.

Looking back at the international response to Syria's civil war, both Slaughter and debate moderator Jane Harman, a former US lawmaker and now president of the Wilson Center for International Scholars, said the United States should have responded very differently early on.

Slaughter and Harman agreed that the United States should have bombed regime forces when they crossed Obama's "red line" by launching chemical attacks in 2013.

"Unless you act early, you will reap a whirlwind," Slaughter said.

Nearly three years later, Khalef said, the situation in Syria has gotten much bleaker.

"I cannot think of a scenario that could be worse than what is happening now," Khalef said.