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Libya, Syria, and the Future of Intervention


No country, even the most powerful, can save lives in every conflict, but if it judges itself to be able to and its conscience is sufficiently moved by the killing, it should step in.”

When talking about a country’s “national interests,” foreign policy experts have generally used that term to describe tangible or material concerns: military bases, weapons, alliances, oil supplies, and foreign investments. Interests are often considered distinct from values, the moral or ideological beliefs a country may incorporate into its foreign policy. When considering the use of military force, many experts draw a distinction between “wars of necessity” to protect interests and “wars of choice” to defend or promote values. They generally see the former as conflicts a country has no choice but to prepare for, and while they may see room for moral considerations in foreign policy, they see wars of choice as conflicts a country can fight if it wants to, but not at the expense of interests.

It would be simplistic to argue that policymakers either believe or do not believe in the efficacy of wars of choice. Few elected officials or policy analysts fall squarely into the “realist” camp of narrowly defined interests or the “idealist” camp of centering moral concerns. Indeed, both categories can be broken down further: dovish left-wingers can be idealists and so can hawkish neoconservatives. This suggests that, even if a country wants to focus most of its overseas attention on military and economic concerns, it can still have room for wars of humanitarian intervention.

The botched withdrawal from Afghanistan would seem to strengthen the case for an American foreign policy devoted to traditional security interests. What began as retaliation for a massive terrorist attack inflicted evolved into an occupation with ill-defined goals and a vague sense of moral mission. After devoting lives and resources to a country for 20 years, only to see its efforts undone in a few weeks, it is fair for Americans to ask why their country should ever allow humanitarian sentiments, however justified, to influence where it sends it troops. Why not limit the use of force to interests, not values?

Values are interests. A country’s desire to protect innocents from massacres is a moral interest, just as its desire to protect its treaty allies from invasion, or its energy supplies from disruption, is a strategic interest. While no country can protect all of its interests (strategic and moral) with equal emphasis at all times, if it can use its power for a moral purpose (and not every country has such an opportunity), it ought to do so.

Nearly halfway through America’s struggle in Afghanistan, two countries along the Mediterranean gave the United States a chance to use military force for both strategic and moral purposes, if it chose. Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria both responded to uprisings against their respective rules with violent repression, pulling each country into civil war. In Libya, the United States led an intervention that ousted the dictator and halted his massacres. In Syria, it hinted at a willingness to intervene but ultimately chose not to (although the United States later sent troops into Syria for another purpose). Learning from these two conflicts can prepare the United States for future situations in which force is justified, even if it is not in the defense of a narrowly defined strategic interest.


In February of 2011, protests against Gaddafi occurred in multiple Libyan cities, encouraged by the success of demonstrators who, in previous weeks, had ousted Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. When deadly clashes ensued between protestors and police, Gaddafi was quick to use military force. Soldiers fired on unarmed crowds, as did military aircraft. And imprisoned members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were released to attack regime opponents. As the protests turned into armed rebellion and rebels gained control of cities and towns, Libya’s dictator promised his troops would go “house by house” to kill his opponents. In mid-March, a brutal assault on rebel-held Benghazi appeared imminent.

There was reason to believe that Gaddafi was preparing to slaughter those who challenged his rule. While it was difficult to judge his precise intent, his record of brutality across 42 years of dictatorship meant leaving Libyans to their own devices was too great a humanitarian risk to take. The United States and its allies had an opportunity to prevent a massacre, and they were right to do so.

While former President Barack Obama was initially reluctant to intervene, advisors led by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convinced him to launch a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led campaign of air and missile strikes. Backed by United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for the protection of Libyans civilians, the allies degraded regime forces, allowing rebels to gain control of more and more of the country. After seven months of losing his grip on power, Gaddafi was cornered and killed.

The anti-Gaddafi uprising should be viewed separately from the civil war Libya endured from 2014 to 2020. In his 2016 book Alter Egos, which chronicles President Obama’s struggles with Clinton over foreign policy, Mark Landler notes, “Despite the initial complications in the military operation, Libya was a success story for much of 2011 and even into 2012—one that bore Clinton’s stamp every step of the way.” The Secretary of State coordinated a 38-country Contact Group to bring political and financial support to the post-Gaddafi government. Libya’s 2012 legislative election saw a turnout of more than 60% of eligible voters. The more recent civil war, in which Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army tried to overthrow the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), is not a direct result of NATO’s intervention and was never guaranteed to happen.

Haftar received support from many countries, mostly but not entirely autocratic: Egypt, France, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and more. Each has its own reason for wanting to overthrow the GNA, but in backing Haftar, all concluded that Libya’s young democracy was a threat to its interests and could not be allowed to continue. Notably, while Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has severely damaged democracy in his own country, he has played an important role in making continued democracy possible in Libya. It was the Turkish force, particularly its use of drones, that kept Haftar’s army from conquering the capital city of Tripoli.

The flow of refugees from Libya to Southern Europe, such as those who were part of the 2015 surge in migration across the Mediterranean, should also not be blamed on Gaddafi’s ouster. An assessment by the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies found that, “Libyan migrants do not even rank among the top ten nationalities that reached Italy by sea in 2014 and 2015.” Eritrea was by far the number one source of migrants to Italy in the middle of 2015, followed by Nigeria and Somalia. Had these refugees, some of them fleeing conflicts in their own countries, arrived in Libya under Gaddafi’s rule, he could easily have weaponized them for his own purposes, threatening to unleash them on European countries unless he got something he wanted from them.

In 2016, Brookings Institution scholar Shadi Hamid made what is probably the most cogent defense of the Libya intervention since Gaddafi was killed. The apt comparison, he argues, is not between Libya after Gaddafi’s ouster and some ideal state but, rather, between Libya with Gaddafi’s ouster and what the country would have looked like had Gaddafi been allowed to continue his massacres. Had NATO not intervened, Libya would have been yet another example of an Arab country where any hope of accountable, decent governance was quashed militarily. As it stands, while Libya’s democracy is fragile, it has a chance to survive.


Like Gaddafi, Assad showed no willingness to compromise with those who opposed his authoritarian rule. When protests arose in Syria in March 2011, the regime was quick to respond violently, shooting demonstrators and torturing children. However, Assad underestimated Syrians’ willingness to resist his crackdown. About 10,000 of his soldiers defected to the opposition, and two years into the uprising, as many as 50,000 fighters belonged to the armed resistance that comprised the Free Syrian Army.

As the Free Syrian Army (FSA) held its own against Assad, President Obama, perhaps emboldened by NATO’s success in Libya, seemed confident in the rebels’ ability to defeat the dictator. In August of 2011, he called for Assad to relinquish power. When the strongman refused to weaken himself, American officials, including Secretary Clinton and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director David Petraeus, began considering plans to arm and train the rebels. President Obama refused, out of fear that the weapons could end up in the hands of al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

President Obama also showed no enthusiasm for intervening militarily to help the FSA, despite the success of American-led intervention in Libya. As well as fears of inadvertently empowering jihadists, he wanted his legacy to be one of extracting the United States from conflict in the Middle East. To this point, by December of 2011, he had withdrawn the last American soldiers from Iraq. In August of 2012, however, President Obama hinted that he might bring American military power to bear, when he declared that use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line” for him. While this did not explicitly commit the United States to using force against Assad if he used such weapons, it gave the FSA hope that America would come to its aid.

A year after his statement, President Obama was forced to show the world what he meant. On August 21, 2013, Assad’s forces launched chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta. A preliminary United States intelligence assessment judged that the attacks had killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. By then, President Obama had reversed his decision not to arm the opposition and had begun to give them military aid. On August 31st, he announced that he was seeking authorization from Congress for strikes against the regime. He was going to Congress, he said, even though he believed he had “the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization” to ensure strong domestic support for the use of force.

Despite President Obama’s understandable worries, he should have ordered strikes. The United States had pinpointed regime command and control locations, as well as bases housing regime helicopters, that it could hit with missiles from American warships in the Mediterranean. While such strikes would not have guaranteed that Assad would not use chemical weapons again, any hesitation in the dictator’s mind they might cause would have strengthened the opposition. Further strikes could later have been launched in answer to any further chemical weapons use. If President Obama believed that he had the authority, he should have exercised it. Ousting Assad need not have been America’s goal, even if that was what its president hoped for. Even a limited intervention on the side of decency would have been better than nothing.

Instead, Assad’s ally Vladimir Putin stepped in. When the Russian president proposed an agreement to remove chemical weapons from Syria, President Obama took him up on it. The deal did not, in fact, deprive Assad of these weapons—his forces have repeatedly used them since. In 2015, Putin put further effort into his goal of ensuring a regime victory, directly deploying Russian forces. The two strongmen have shown no limits in their willingness to crush all opposition, even deliberately bombing hospitals if that will weaken the rebels.

By the time Putin had launched his devastating intervention, President Obama had indeed ordered strikes in Syria, but not to help the FSA. The Islamic State, which by 2014 had emerged as the most powerful alternative to the Assad regime, was the target. Its conquest of large parts of Iraq and Syria, including the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, compelled President Obama to order air strikes against ISIS targets in both countries, and to return American troops to Iraq. By then, the FSA had withered in the face of ISIS and al-Nusra Front onslaughts.

Could the non-jihadist opposition have survived as a counter to both Assad and the jihadists with sufficient American support? While air and missile strikes may not have been enough to tip the balance in the rebels’ favor, they could, in combination with steady provision of weapons and training, have kept the rebels strong enough to endure, to stand as a viable alternative to both religious fanatics and a brutal dictator. The world will never know for sure, but it was worth a serious attempt by the United States.

Instead, Syria, in the eight years since the Ghouta attack, has devolved into a colossal humanitarian tragedy. According to the United Nations, 6.2 million Syrians are displaced within their country, 2.5 million of them children. Another 3.7 million have fled to Turkey, and a total of 1.9 million are in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. In 2015, Syrian refugees figured prominently among the massive number of migrants reaching Western and Central Europe from the Middle East and Africa. The scale of the inflow contributed to a right-wing populist backlash in Europe and the United States, helping to elect former President Donald Trump, pass Brexit, and empower such parties as Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice in Poland. Meanwhile, Assad remains in power.

Kosovo as a Parallel

Tony Blair was wrong about Iraq. As well-intentioned as his decision to align firmly with the United States after 9/11 was, the British prime minister had far too much faith in former President George W. Bush and his administration. Blair was too quick to view Saddam Hussein as an imminent threat and too trusting of the United States in planning for Iraq’s future after Saddam was overthrown. While his insistence on seeking United Nations authorization for invasion slowed the march to war, when the international body refused to give its blessing, Blair should have said no to Bush’s planned invasion.

A remark Blair made days before the war began, however, can serve as guidance for countries considering humanitarian intervention. No country, even the most powerful, can save lives in every conflict, but if it judges itself to be able to and its conscience is sufficiently moved by the killing, it should step in. In response to criticism about why he was prepared to invade Iraq but not other countries with brutal dictators killing civilians, he said, “Yes, let’s get rid of them all. I don’t because I can’t, but when you can, you should.”

Before Blair was wrong about Iraq, he was right about Kosovo. In 1999, when NATO launched air and missile strikes against Serb forces to halt Slobodan Milošević’s “cleansing” of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population, Blair was among the NATO leaders most insistent on sticking with the campaign until Milošević gave in. In 1995, NATO had gone to war with Milosevic and Bosnian Serbs to stop their genocide against Bosnian Muslims but only after letting the conflict fester for three years. It had taken the massacre of 8,000 civilians in Srebrenica finally to prompt NATO to act.

They were determined to do better in Kosovo. While his American ally then-President Bill Clinton publicly declared that he would not deploy American ground troops, Blair’s pressure behind the scenes led the United States to plan for a ground invasion, if that was what it took to win. After 78 days, the Serb strongman sued for peace, withdrew his troops, and allowed NATO troops and the pro-independence Kosovo Liberation Army (which became the Kosovo Protection Corps) to occupy the province and keep the peace.

NATO’s victory in Kosovo is, in many ways, a model of how a multilateral force can intervene in a conflict to protect both moral and strategic interests. The humanitarian goal of stopping ethnic massacres aligned with a political goal: halting the flow of Kosovar Albanian refugees into other European countries, a potentially destabilizing event for NATO members. In contrast to Iraq—which, despite Saddam’s decades of brutality, was not experiencing a conflict at the time of the 2003 American-led invasion—in Kosovo Clinton, Blair, and their fellow allied leaders nipped a problem in the bud. This also stands in contrast to Syria, where President Obama’s refusal to respond to Assad’s brutality was followed by a massive, destabilizing refugee crisis.

NATO’s Libya intervention shares similarities with that in Kosovo. Rather than wait for large-scale massacres to occur, the alliance quickly stepped in. NATO combined its air and missile power with partners on the ground—Kosovar independence fighters, anti-Gaddafi rebels. This combination was enough to defeat the belligerent regime and to allow a free state—an eventually independent Kosovo, a post-Gaddafi Libya—to come into being. Libya was President Obama’s Kosovo; Syria could have been his Bosnia, had he finally decided to intervene.

Future Interventions

What lessons can the United States and fellow NATO members draw from these campaigns? There is no single set of actions that will be appropriate in every conflict, and leaders should be prepared to improvise. The cases described above, however, suggest guidelines for countries considering humanitarian intervention.

First, get observers as close to the conflict as possible. In government, this could mean officials like the Foreign Service Officers of the United States Department of State, if they are able to communicate with forces fighting the host country government and not simply take the government’s word for what is happening. In Syria, United States Ambassador Robert Ford visited anti-Assad activists in Hama during the early months of the conflict. This led to Assad supporters smashing windows in the United States embassy, and Ford’s criticism of the regime got him pelted with eggs and tomatoes as he met with a dissident. Washington brought Ford home for his own safety, but his bold actions made it clear that the United States would not be a completely neutral party in the war. Assigning diplomats to visit the front lines of conflicts—ideally as part of an expansion of America’s Foreign Service—will give governments more people able to assess what the impact of an intervention might be.

Reporters can also give valuable insight. In 2012 and 2013, Italian journalist Francesca Borri reported from rebel-held portions of Aleppo that were under attack by Assad’s forces. She chronicled her experience in her 2016 book Syrian Dust. Borri saw and heard the anger and frustration of those caught in the conflict—aimed not only at Assad but also at the rebels for putting them in danger, and at the outside world for not coming to the rescue. She saw how poorly equipped members of the FSA were. She bemoaned the unwillingness of many journalists to look closely at the conflict, to report anything other than a few sensationalist stories. When writing about the regime’s use of chemical weapons, she lamented that outsiders seemed mainly concerned about themselves, not truly willing to act on Syrians’ behalf. (For better or for worse, even war with a humanitarian aim will be fought partly for the interests of the countries that go to war.) While the relationship between governments and journalists is often fraught, if officials can develop respectful working relationships with reporters brave enough to go into warzones, to hear from them quickly and firsthand, they should do so.

Next, accept the flaws of allies on the ground. Before the United States aligned itself with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), its envoy to the Balkans had described it as a terrorist organization (though it was not formally classified as such). The anti-Assad forces, of course, included Islamist extremists as well as proponents of a democratic Syria. If outside powers are able to distinguish between opposition forces that merit their support and those that do not (a task made easier by, as described above, getting observers close to the front lines), they will have the chance to make sure weapons and training go to those who seek a good future for their country. If their victory would result in a considerable humanitarian improvement for their country’s people, their flaws by themselves should not preclude support for them.

Finally, total victory may not be necessary. Halting Milošević’s aggression against Kosovar Albanians did not require overthrowing him, merely weakening him enough to force him to retreat. Even if it had been necessary to send in ground troops, NATO would not have had to change the enemy regime to win the war. In Libya, while it is possible Gaddafi might have yielded to NATO pressure and given up some of his power, the fact that the rebels sought his ouster—rather than seeking independence for a part of Libya, as the KLA did in Kosovo—is reason to believe only regime change would halt Gaddafi’s aggression.

It is certainly possible that, had the United States and its allies aided the FSA with missile strikes and massive amounts of arms and training, the Syrian war would have continued at a standstill. A weakened Assad may still have fought to the bitter end, refusing to concede any amount of power. The civilian body count may have continued to rise. On the other hand, a significant American presence in Syria—in the form of missiles launched and rebels empowered, not necessarily boots on the ground—might have dissuaded Russia from intervening, depriving Assad of extremely valuable support. An opposition that endured in the face of the regime’s attacks may have stood proudly in defiance of both Assad and ISIS, winning the respect of democrats around the world. While it is impossible to know what American intervention would have led to, the world knows what a disaster has followed non-intervention.

Every country faces constraints on what it can achieve outside its borders. Many events are beyond its control, and it is fair for people to expect that their government will tend to their needs before the needs of foreigners. On those occasions when a country can affect world events for the better, however, it ought to do so, not out of moral obligation, but out of moral interest. No one should take joy in sending people to war, but if leaders determine that they are able to halt atrocities and are prepared to accept risks to their reputations and to the lives of troops they deploy, let them intervene. As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1862:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice—is often the means of their regeneration.”.

Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. In addition to Merion West, he has been published in Divergent Options, Braver Angels, the Washington Monthly, the Center for International Maritime Security, and Charged Affairs (the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy), among others.

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