The turning point in the civil war in Syria was the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta on August 21, 2013, resulting in more than 1,400 people killed. This caused that the whole world has turned its eyes to Syria and has begun, after two years of open conflict, the preparation for an international intervention. The international community had to respond. The U.S. President, Barack Obama as well as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron could have directly initiated a military strike against Syria. Instead, they both chose to seek political backing in their respective parliaments. Does that move reflects the parliaments getting increasing say on military interventions or just the political fear of making a decision that may negatively affect their position in the eyes of their electorate?
It seems that both leaders followed a traditional German practice where any military engagement requires parliament’s green light. The German point of view is shared by some other NATO and the EU countries that have similar policy such as Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Lithuania, Sweden and Turkey.
To explain the hesitation of today’s leaders there is a need to go back to 2003 when the U.S. Armed Forces and their allies intervened in Iraq. They were around 5000 people killed of the coalition forces between 2003 and 2011 and the total cost of the operation is estimated at 3 trillion U.S. dollars. After a few months of the operation neither weapons of mass destruction were found, nor was any Saddam link to al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations confirmed. All countries of the international coalition led by Americans and British risked being accused of attacking Iraq under false pretenses.
After five years of ongoing conflict 64% of Americans felt the Iraq War was not worth fighting. In 2007 55% of Britons decided it was wrong to take military action against Iraq. The same year 80% of Poles did not support the military operation. In the U.S. the support of President Bush decreased dramatically from more than 70% in 2003 to 33% in 2008.
All this translates also into the current situation in Syria. Political leaders fear losing public support when it came to decide on military intervention in Syria. Three weeks before the election day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had to decide whether to join the planned campaign against Syria. Given the German electorate’s anti-war sentiment, if she were to decide to join the campaign against Syria that would likely have cost her the election. Therefore, she refused and Germany stayed aside.
In UK military actions do not have to be approved by the parliament, but the Prime Minister decided to ask for the parliament’s approval. The war vote has been the first lost by a British Prime Minister since 1782. Barack Obama followed that example and chose to seek congressional approval even though he could have initiated a strike lasting up to 60 days without it
Clearly the U.S. and UK tried to spread the responsibility for any military intervention. A growing precedent can be observed – a doctrine of parliamentary approval is on its way to become an unwritten law. Since the national parliaments usually reflect public opinion as we saw in case of Syria (71% Britons, 68% French and 77% Germans opposed their country involvement in any international military action against Syria), this could hamper the work of such international organizations as e.g. NATO.
It is commendable that the institutions chosen in democratic elections have more influence on the decisions of the executive authority, but if this precedent becomes a common practice that could mean that the Article 5 of the Washington Treaty could be, in fact, subjected to the vote as well. But what if in case of an armed attack on one of the members the other allies are unable to make a decision? It, indeed, will question the very existence of NATO as a collective defence alliance.
Author: Małgorzata Grzegrzółka – Project Coordinator at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, responsible for the preparations of the 2014 Warsaw Security Forum