Carnegie Europe was on the ground at the 2016 Munich Security Conference, offering readers exclusive access to the debates as they unfolded and providing insights on today’s most urgent international issues. Check out our live coverage here.
Anne-Marie Slaughter didn’t mince her words. “[Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad tortures ten-year-olds. That is the sign to the world that unless you act early you will reap the whirlwind,” the American lawyer and political analyst told participants on the third and last day of the 2016 Munich Security Conference.
I took five takeaways from this focused debate. First, unless the United States moves by putting boots on the ground in Syria, no one else—least of all Europe—will move. Roula Khalaf, deputy editor of the Financial Times, made the point that the West, particularly Britain and the United States, are living with the consequences of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“We have overlearned the lessons of the Iraq War,” Khalaf said. “The shadow of Iraq is very present.” The longer Western prevarication and caution persisted, she explained, the more Syria would descend into an ideological, sectarian, political, and military battlefield, with Russia’s intervention making the suffering even worse.
The second takeaway was that European governments are allowing the refugee crisis to rule Europe out of having any ambitions as a strategic player. Europe can’t aspire to such a status because it is paralyzed. Moreover, because of its response to the refugee crisis, the EU is even unwilling to exert any means of upholding international law, as Ine Eriksen Søreide, Norway’s defense minister, argued. The debate in Europe over the refugees was becoming more polarized. No wonder she was “concerned about the health of European politics.”
The third takeaway was the question of whether humanitarian intervention can be successful. Such an approach was tried in Libya in 2011, when NATO, initially operating under a mandate based on the responsibility to protect, changed its objective to regime change. Now, neither the West nor the region is even close to ending the civil war in Libya, and the security vacuum has been duly exploited by the so-called Islamic State.
There are unintended consequences of humanitarian intervention, as U.S. political scientist Joseph Nye pointed out in the question-and-answer session. But its use goes back to the issue of the responsibility to protect civilians. And from a purely moral point of view, should humanitarian intervention not be considered for Syria? Some of the panelists at the Munich Security Conference did not rule out military force on the part of the West.
The fourth takeaway was related to the first. The West is truly weak. It was too weak to agree on a no-fly zone over Syria when the fighting began in March 2011, almost five years ago. Yet it was the West’s no-fly zone over northern Iraq that protected the population there from the advance of the Islamic State.
The West has been too weak and too late in supporting Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey to take care of the refugees in those states. “There has been woefully inadequate investment in neighboring countries,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN’s new high commissioner for refugees.
Grandi didn’t hide his frustration with the lack of humanitarian access to besieged towns and cities in Syria. He said it was all very well for the international contact group on Syria to agree that aid must get through. “But it must last. It can’t just last for one day. It must be sustained,” Grandi told the conference participants. He knows from bitter experience how aid can be stopped within hours. And the West has proved pitiful at crisis management.
The fifth takeaway was the most pessimistic one. The West’s uncertainty in defending its values, protecting citizens against terrorism, and providing security to refugees has the makings of a new problem. “We are incubating another generation of terrorists,” Slaughter said.
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