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Moralizing states: intervening in Syria

By Kathleen A. Cavanaugh


The narrative that underpins humanitarian intervention has been reframed from a narrow focus of intervention to a broader notion of responsibility to protect. While the concept of responsibility to protect is clearly best placed in an international framework, one key aspect of the question of intervention is the proposition of legal authority. It may be possible to frame some of the debate about intervention within law, but as Adam Roberts suggests:

[…]there are some hazards in discussing burning political issues in legal terms […] while most international lawyers are, quite properly, cautious in their application of rules and principles to particular cases, sometimes law may get misused. The language of law can easily become a language of right and wrong, of moralistic reproach, of the clothing of interest in the garments of rectitude, of the concealment of factual changes with legal fictions, of refined scholasticism in the face of urgent practical problems, and of the facile application of general rules without a deep understanding of situations that are unique. Such approaches are hardly the highest expressions of law; nor are they necessarily the best way of addressing complex and multilayered international problems.

Despite the limitations of employing legal language to address what is essentially a political problem, the language of intervention currently dominates the international community thinking on Syria. Against this backdrop, it is worth interrogating some of the key aspects of the intervention discourse and asking how these might map on to the Syrian case.

As the various disciplinary lenses compete for the hegemonic control of how we understand what is happening and, it follows, what we should be doing in Syria, we are left with an often clouded, rarely consistent analysis.  Yet whether situated in a protection (or humanitarian) justification or a more overt political agenda to ensure that whatever political leadership emerges in Syria will be compliant with the US and its allies, the calls for intervention are growing. Failure to understand the complex political terrain in Syria (replicated in a broader regional context) coupled with (flawed) predictions of Assad’s imminent exit may lead to military initiatives that are counterproductive at best.

If the sectarian divide that now characterizes the pro- and anti-regime divide was at an earlier stage of the conflict less fixed, the sectarian entrepreneurship (“exploit[ation] of the political vacuum created by an absent state”) of the Assad regime has been devastatingly effective. Similarly, if this was once an internal conflict, it has now bled in to neighboring states. Layered to this already complex landscape is the heavy presence of other interveners. Russia and Iran have provided support to the Assad regime; the United States and its allies have sided with the opposition. Recent Israeli involvement (ostensibly as a foil to Hezbollah) contributes to an already crowded and morally corrupt space. Much like Iraq, Syria has become the surface over which ideological struggles are being waged. The number of strategic competitors has served to diffuse, rather than consolidate the power base in Syria so that even if there is direct military intervention, it is highly unlikely that a clear ‘victor’ would emerge. Despite this, the rhetoric and (increasingly likely) prospect of intervention hangs heavy, which some commentators argue has underpinned, rather than dampened the conflict.

Since the conflict began in March 2011, the UN reports that over 70,000 civilians have died, and approximately 1.5 million have become refugees or are internally displaced persons. The burden of the gross and systematic human rights violations is attributed to al-Assad regime, but the civilian casualty rate has soared since the international community ‘intervened’ in late 2011. Given the already complex socio-political landscape, finding the ‘right intention’ for potential interveners raises a number of critical questions.

First, we must decide whether it is desirable (therefore non-essential) or mandated to know the motive of the intervener. Second (and regardless of how we answer the first), can we ever forensically know whether a state intervenes with the ‘right intention’? Whether we evaluate humanitarian intervention or the newer model of duty to protect, the primary purpose of the intervener must be to halt or avert suffering.  The question is: can we arrive at this conclusion?

Trying to argue a moral imperative underpinned by a liberal case for humanitarian intervention (as Fernando Tesón has endeavored to do in his thesis) is to argue that a state can be a moral agent. The moral imperative, to which Tesón compellingly addresses, does indeed exist. As he has argued, “sovereignty is dependent on justice and we have a right to assist victims of injustice.” Both camps — the interventionists and non-interventionists — are not likely to disagree on this point.

What is contested however is twofold. Firstly, “interventionists claim that foreigners may help to stop the injustice and non-interventionists claim that they may not.” This is a debate that lends itself to some degree of empirical assessment-based either on precedent or existing political conditions. Secondly, interventionists understand the dangers of suggesting that a state can be a moral actor but, like Michael Waltzer, they tend to accept there can be no purity of motive, that states can and should be attentive to their own state interests, and that it is still possible for the state to assume both strategic and moral armour. No matter where the arguments go we find ourselves at the same intersection.

So how to divest the moral imperative from the proposition? As Noam Chomsky has argued, we can, “[…] ask whether the pursuit of self-interest might happen to benefit others in particular cases, or whether unremitting public pressure might overcome the demands of the “principal architects” of policy and the interests they serve.” As we move Syria back in to our frame, the answer to this question is far from clear.  Sectarianism has yet again served the Assad regime well, leaving Syria fragmented—territorially, socially, politically, and militarily. Imagining a cohesive public voice to emerge from this space and have the sufficient leverage to push back against the multiple stakeholders jockeying for control is difficult. The forensics of this analysis may sit uneasily in the public conscience where the horrors of the war in Syria continue to play out. Bringing an end to the conflict requires that the international community not only accept, but demand a diplomatic, not military, solution.

Kathleen Cavanaugh is currently a Lecturer of International Law in the Faculty of Law, Irish Centre for Human Rights (ICHR), National University of Ireland, Galway. She has recently co-authored Minority Rights in the Middle East with Joshua Castellino (OUP 2013).

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Image credit: By James Gordon from Los Angeles, California, USA. Creative commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

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