NATO member states, and the alliance collectively, should explore alternatives to airstrikes: Dr. Ian Davis


Dr. Ian Davis is the founding director of NATO Watch and an independent human security and arms control consultant and writer. He received his Ph.D. and B.A. in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, in the United Kingdom.  He was formerly Director of Publications at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) (2014-2016), where he continues to be employed on a consultancy basis as Executive Editor of the SIPRI Yearbook.  He is an Associate Senior Fellow Armament and Disarmament at SIPRI. Read more here:

On Saturday, 14 April, three NATO member states—the United States, France and the United Kingdom—conducted airstrikes against three targets in Syria (two suspected chemical weapons storage facilities west of Homs and a research centre in Damascus), in response to allegations of a chemical weapons attack on the 7 April by the Syrian Government in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma.

[Read statements by Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron, a declassified French document on the airstrikes.]

The airstrikes were undertaken in advance of any international authorisation within the United Nations or congressional and parliamentary discussion within the three states. The airstrikes also coincided with the arrival of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Damascus to investigate the attack in Douma.

The reaction in Washington and London was largely (but not entirely) divided along party lines with Republicans and Conservatives generally supportive, and Democrats (such as Nancy Pelosi) and UK opposition parties (e.g. Labour and Scottish Nationalists) voicing criticism on the timing, legality and consequences of the strikes.  Similar criticism surfaced in France.

Although not directly involved in the airstrikes, NATO released three press statements on the day of the strikes.

First, the NATO Secretary General expressed his support for the actions taken by the three member states and argued that it “will reduce the regime’s ability to further attack the people of Syria with chemical weapons”—despite US airstrikes on Sharyrat airbase in Syria in April 2017 proving ineffective as a deterrent to further chemical weapons use in Syria.

The second press release announced that the North Atlantic Council (NAC) would meet at Ambassadorial level later that day in order for  France, the UK and the USA “to update the Council on the latest developments in Syria”.

Finally, the NAC released a statement on “Actions taken against the use of chemical weapons in Syria”, in which the three allies briefed “that a significant body of information indicated that the Syrian regime was responsible for the attack against civilians in Douma on 7 April” and “that there was no practicable alternative to the use of force”. The statement also said that “Allies expressed their full support for this action”.

The airstrikes “degraded the capabilities of Syria to conduct new attacks and at the same time send a clear message which deters further attacks”, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference after the meeting of the NAC. “We will never have a total guarantee against new attacks as long as we have regimes which are willing to use chemical weapons”, he said. “Chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity and cannot be normalised”.

The legal basis for the airstrikes has been questioned by several independent commentators. A summary of the UK Government’s legal advice on the airstrikes was published on 14 April (France and the United States have yet to provide one) and said that Britain was permitted “on an exceptional basis” to take measures to alleviate “overwhelming humanitarian suffering”.

UK Government lawyers said this required three conditions to be met:

  • convincing evidence of extreme humanitarian distress,
  • the absence of any practicable alternative to the use of force,
  • and that any force should proportionate
  • and strictly time-limited.

In a debate in the UK Parliament on 16 April, Prime Minister May said the government needed to be able to act swiftly without the consent of MPs in an emergency and said that the “humanitarian intervention” was justified under international law and cited the fact that previous prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair had used the same legal argument for action in northern Iraq and Kosovo, respectively.

However, the so-called ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle still requires action to be taken through the UN, even though a very small number of states have endorsed the principle that such intervention can be taken unilaterally.

Each of the three leaders in their statements to the public announcing the airstrikes, and the NATO statement, also argued that they were necessary to enforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.

However, the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention provides an enforcement system that the three states entirely bypassed.

The Convention provides first, for investigation by the experts from the OPCW and then, in situations of “particular gravity,” the Conference of the States Parties may bring a matter to the attention of the UN General Assembly and Security Council.

Nowhere does the Convention provide for unilateral uses of force in response to a breach of the Convention.

Finally, the airstrikes—even accepting the rationale that they were a proportionate and tightly focused attempt to deter the Assad regime from killing civilians using chemical weapons—are unlikely to change President Assad’s behaviour or make any immediate difference to the civil population of Syria. The complex war in Syria has resulted in the displacement of half the population—over 5.4 million as refugees and over 6.1 million as internally displaced persons, and although there are no reliable casualty statistics, over 400 000 Syrians are thought to have died as a result of the fighting and almost all of them as a result of conventional rather than chemical weapons. The reality is that Assad remains firmly in power thanks to the support of Russia and Iran, and a sizeable proportion of the Syrian people.

In conclusion, the airstrikes appear to be a short-sighted form of “event management”, rather than part of a well-thought out strategy to eradicate the threat to the remaining civilians resisting Assad’s regime.

There appears to have been little consideration as to how this use of force will be connected to strategies for bringing the fighting in Syria to an end (including the military action of another NATO member, Turkey) and for resetting relations between the West and Russia. According to Russian state news media, President Putin condemned the missile strikes as an “act of aggression against a sovereign state” and against the UN Charter.

Given the recognition of the failure of military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere, including Syria, the three NATO member states, and the alliance collectively, should have been exploring alternatives to airstrikes. While there are no easy solutions after seven years of conflict in Syria, an alternative package of measures might include:

(a) renewing efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria—including Western states partnering directly with Russia, Iran, Turkey and other neighbouring states to revive and strengthen local ceasefires and create a long-term plan for political transition and more inclusive governance in Syria;

(b) as part of this political process, applying a United Nations embargo on arms, military supplies, and logistical support for both Damascus and opposition forces (which would need to overcome earlier opposition by Russia and China to such a proposal);

(c) supporting local groups in the region that are pursuing peacebuilding dialogue and nonviolent solutions;

(d) with the backing of the UN Security Council, committing to bring those responsible for the chemical weapons attacks and other war crimes before the International Criminal Court (ICC), whether they are part of the Syrian regime or members of opposition forces – and in the meantime, immediately punishing such individuals with travel restrictions and targeted economic sanctions;

(e) seeking to revive the mandate of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism in Syria, which expired in November 2017 because the UN Security Council was unable to agree terms for an extension;

(f) increasing humanitarian assistance and acceptance of refugees fleeing the conflict; and

(g) expanding UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding capabilities.

Many of these measures are fraught with their own challenges, not least because of the deepening schism between the West and Russia, but nonetheless belie the claim that the only response to international lawbreaking is with military intervention. Working through institutions, like the UN, ICC and OPCW, would also strengthen them over time, and enable more effective options for dealing with future dictators who threaten to commit war crimes.

To follow this path with credibility, however, NATO member states must themselves live within the rule of law. That means, at the very least, refraining from launching airstrikes that undermine international law.