Foreign Relations & International Law

The Impending "Humanitarian Catastrophe" in Aleppo

Jack Goldsmith
Wednesday, February 10, 2016, 9:32 PM

As the Russian-backed Aleppo offensive proceeds, State Department official Brett McGurk testified today that Aleppo is on the verge of “a humanitarian catastrophe.” In the face of that catastrophe, allied complaints about U.S.

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As the Russian-backed Aleppo offensive proceeds, State Department official Brett McGurk testified today that Aleppo is on the verge of “a humanitarian catastrophe.” In the face of that catastrophe, allied complaints about U.S. disengagement and cries at home for U.S. intervention grow louder. Nonetheless, “officials and outside experts” today told Ken Dilanian and Abigail Williams of NBC News that “the U.S. is not prepared to take military steps to stop it.”

McGurk’s testimony led me to reread President’s justification for invading Libya to prevent a humanitarian disaster. On March 19, 2011, he said that “we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy, and his forces step up their assaults on cities like Benghazi and Misurata, where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government.” In a March 28, 2011 speech, he justified the intervention at greater length, and explained his humanitarian intervention philosophy more generally. Some excerpts:

Rather than stand down, his forces continued their advance, bearing down on the city of Benghazi, home to nearly 700,000 men, women and children who sought their freedom from fear.

At this point, the United States and the world faced a choice. Qaddafi declared he would show “no mercy” to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we have seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we wanted -- if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.

It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen. …

It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country -– Libya -- at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

Moreover, America has an important strategic interest in preventing Qaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him. A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful –- yet fragile -– transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. …

What a difference 5 years makes. Of course one difference between Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2016 is that the Libyan humanitarian intervention was authorized by the U.N. Security Council while there is no such authorization for Syria. But that obviously is not the reason why Obama is not acting, for in September 2013 he made clear his belief that he can engage in humanitarian intervention in Syria without Security Council authorization to redress a humanitarian catastrophe. One momentous difference between 2011 in Libya and 2016 in Syria is Obama's experience with the disastrous afterparty in Libya. As the President told Tom Friedman in August 2014:

“I’ll give you an example of a lesson I had to learn that still has ramifications to this day,” said Obama. “And that is our participation in the coalition that overthrew Qaddafi in Libya. I absolutely believed that it was the right thing to do. ... Had we not intervened, it’s likely that Libya would be Syria. ... And so there would be more death, more disruption, more destruction. But what is also true is that I think we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this. Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions. ... So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’”

It is ironic to read the President saying that “Had we not intervened, it’s likely that Libya would be Syria,” since most people think that the intervention itself is what caused Libya to descend into Syria-like chaos. But it is not just the “day after” question that makes it so unlikely the United States will do anything to help the civilians in Aleppo. It is the “day of” question as well. In Libya the United States perceived few adverse military consequences from the intervention. But in Syria Russia is helping lead the military charge against Aleppo. DIA head General Stewart testified yesterday that Russia’s intervention, contrary to President’s Obama’s predictions, has “changed the calculus completely” in Iraq. Any action now to save Aleppo would be militarily complex at least, and more likely hugely militarily fraught. The president was disinclined to use military force to help Syrian civilians before Russia’s involvement. He will certainly now – in “measuring our interests against the need for action,” as he said in 2011 – be even less inclined to do so now.

Jack Goldsmith is the Learned Hand Professor at Harvard Law School, co-founder of Lawfare, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Before coming to Harvard, Professor Goldsmith served as Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel from 2003-2004, and Special Counsel to the Department of Defense from 2002-2003.

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