Saturday, 31 August 2013

It probably won't work. A postscript on Syria.


We are always conflicted on humanitarian matters, on Britain's role in the world and on whether the suffering of civilians in some foreign place is, or isn't, our business. And if it is our business, what the nature of that business should be.

So we have - inconsistently and selectively - intervened. Sometimes this intervention is one of those surgical strikes beloved of my neo-conservative friends, more often it's a series of bombings that are not quite so precisely targeted. And sometimes it's real troops nervously clutching guns as they creep down unfamiliar streets unsure whether the people they see are friend of foe and whether the next corner will mean a bomb, death or the shattering of limbs.

We convince ourselves that this is right and, just as importantly, effective.


To the extent that biased military interventions shift the balance of power between conflict actors, we argue that they alter actor incentives to victimize civilians. Specifically, intervention should reduce the level of violence employed by the supported faction and increase the level employed by the opposed faction. We test these arguments using data on civilian casualties and armed intervention in intrastate conflicts from 1989 to 2005. Our results support our expectations, suggesting that interventions shift the power balance and affect the levels of violence employed by combatants.

In layman's terms interventions increase civilians casualties rather than decrease them.

Supporting a faction’s quest to vanquish its adversary may have the unintended consequence of inciting the adversary to more intense violence against the population. Thus, third parties with interests in stability should bear in mind the potential for the costly consequences of countering murderous groups.

OK it's just one study and others may wish to challenge the findings but for me it's a reminder that, as ever, we should be careful what we wish for. And to understand that righteousness and good intentions alone do not suffice to put things right, you need a strategy that works too.

It seems to me that military intervention in Syria may increase civilian deaths. And if this is a definite risk (and leaving the moral issues to one side for now) what is needed to eliminate that risk so as to ensure our end is achieved?


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