In recent days both Bob Carr and Gareth Evans have publicly argued that Australia has a 'moral obligation' to bomb Syria. Of the two, Evans' position is clearly the more thought through, pointing to ample 'grey areas' in the legal justification, and providing sober reflections about the efficacy of airstrikes in protecting civilians in Syria.

Yet, in this case, the 'moral obligation' argument is dangerously misguided, and reflects a failed lesson offered by recent history.

Four years ago I warned that the Libya intervention would prove a major strategic error; a view shouted down by three foreign policy heavy weights within the Australian Labor Party: Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr and Gareth Evans – and the personal regard I have for these individuals cannot be overstated.

However, the Libya intervention proved an unmitigated disaster. Libya is now a failed state. Some 'rebels' we supported proved to be Sunni extremists who helped destabilise the state, culminating in the murder of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi in 2012. A second civil war is now raging across Libya to the advantage of ISIS, with atrocities perpetrated on a horrendous scale.

On almost everything that is important to Rudd, Carr and Evans – human rights, nuclear non-proliferation, R2P, NATO-Russia engagement, legitimacy of multilateral institutions and the rule of law – the Libyan adventure was a disaster.

For example, during the intervention in 2011, members of the regime lamented giving up Libya's WMD program in 2003. Commentators have speculated that this 'mistake' spurred North Korea and Iran to further develop their own programs. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine was also gravely discredited, and the West's abuse of the UN resolution authorising force betrayed Russia's trust, leading to the diplomatic impasse we face over Syria today.

Now, in claiming Australia has a 'moral obligation' to commit to airstrikes in Syria, both Carr and Evans are readopting an extremely narrow strategic perspective with regard to the reasons for, and consequences of, employing military force: prescribing violent means without credible ends.

Carr and Evans have a noble aim: to strengthen R2P through its practice to deter and prevent acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing such as those we saw in Rwanda during the 1990s. But what strengthens R2P is not waving it around whenever we want to bomb someone – as Carr and Evans aptly pointed out during the Iraq war – but rather to remain clear-sighted about where R2P is effective and relevant, and sober about it being misapplied.

A good first step is being clear about the nature of the violence. If, for example, we are witnessing one-way violence being perpetrated against unarmed civilians by organised groups, such as in Srebrenica, Rwanda or East Timor, then R2P is relevant and would, where effective, override state sovereignty with regard to the use of armed force. 

In contrast, Syria, like Libya, is a civil war. Multiple armed groups are locked in conflict in pursuit of ideological and political objectives. Of course, civilians suffer enormously in civil wars. But to expect foreign airstrikes to protect civilians caught in one is fantasy. Moreover, there has been no suggestion of protecting Syrian civilians from the atrocities of the Assad regime – the proposition before us is to take sides.

Australia's obligation as a good international citizen is to do what we can to assist Syrian civilians suffering as a result of the conflict. If that is the objective, then what is the means by which it is best achieved? Bombing the place is surely way down that list. 

So what will be achieved by Australian airstrikes in Syria? Australia is not proposing to commit significant additional resources to the fight, and the Americans are already there. From a strategic point of view, the prospective benefit is vanishingly small. It's clear that airstrikes alone will not stop the ISIS advance, yet with Iranians fighting in Iraq and Russia propping up Assad, Western airstrikes may help extend the conflict to the point where a new Sunni-Shia strategic equilibrium emerges in the post-Iraq War era. None of that has anything to do with humanitarian intervention. If anything, the short-term human misery will be increased in pursuit of this higher strategic aim.

And there is a price to be paid by Australian bombing in Syria. Australia's current military campaign in Iraq has the solid legal foundation of being undertaken at the request of the duly-elected Iraqi Government. Bombing Syria is illegal without a UN Security Council resolution authorising it (notwithstanding dubious contentions to the contrary). This is problematic for us, because promoting rigorous adherence to international rules regarding the use of force accords with our own long-term security interests. It would be unfortunate if, for example, one were to call the South China Sea 'ungoverned space' for the purpose of employing military force.

None of this is to say categorically that Australia must not bomb Syria under any circumstances. But the arguments put forth are weak, the cost and risks are real, and the strategy is somewhere between unclear and nonexistent.

Humanitarian intervention is a weak argument for bombing Syria, even while protecting civilians remains a noble and worthy aim. Doing so with military means should not be shirked where it is both necessary and effective, but neither is true in this case.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Freedom House.