In a joint interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes last Friday, US President Barack Obama and his outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to justify the administration’s policy on Syria which many critics describe as pathetic. “We do nobody a service when we leap before we look, where we take on things without having thought out the consequences of it,” Obama said, calling Syria a classic example of how the US should be clear about its objectives whenever taking any action.
Clinton made exactly the same comments when she was asked about the lack of action by the US concerning the Syrian conflict. “You know you’ve got to be careful, you have to be thoughtful, you can’t rush in, especially now where it’s more complex now than before”, Clinton said. She called Syria a “wicked problem” that highlights the delicate balancing act of how to make sure US foreign policy upholds American values and freedom in situations where the solution has the potential to be worse than the problem.
These comments have shown that the Obama administration remains absolutely indifferent about the two-year old conflict which has so far claimed the lives of more than 60,000 Syrians. Intervention does not seem an option for the US here although the three main considerations that have usually guided intervention on the international arena apply in the case of Syria. They are: the devotion to one’s own national interests; respect for the legitimate interests and rights of other states and for international law; and respect for human rights and for common morality.
The first consideration, for example, would oblige the UN Security Council, which represents the interests of the international community, to intervene militarily — if necessary — to prevent the Syrian crisis from spiralling into a broader conflict that could engulf the entire region.
Maintaining international peace and security is the key responsibility of the Security Council, according to the Charter; and the Council must live up to its responsibilities. Complacency and apathy would result in dire consequences. Among many other things, it would lead to increasing anti-western sentiments in the Arab and the Islamic world. This shall feed the cause of extremists and would certainly result in targeting foreign interests and citizens.
Given the humanitarian aspect of the crisis in Syria, Arab and Muslim public opinion is boiling as anger and frustration mount. These sentiments can be easily translated into riots, civil strife and social unrest. Instability in the Middle East, the world’s largest oil supplier, would also damage the world economy, which has not yet fully recovered from the 2008 crisis.
There is, therefore, a genuine international interest in doing everything possible to stop the daily killing in Syria before it is too late.
The second consideration is related to the norms of international law. The obligations of states are part and parcel of the rights and duties they obtain as responsible members of the international community. Refrain from committing mass killing and war crimes is, therefore, part of a state’s duties in international society and is essential to gain the acceptance it desires for itself.
As a consequence, the international community, in the absence of an over-arching authority with coercive power, is ought to take proper measures to force brutal regimes not only to abide by international law but also to act in accordance with international norms and conventions.
This is an obligation to international society as well as to world peace and security. Intervention, under these conditions, becomes hence necessary and in agreement with international law and in consensus with international society.
The third consideration is concerned with human rights and common morality. A statesman, it is assumed, is an ordinary human being and, hence, shares solidarity and universality with the rest of humanity. He is also better placed to assist and defend other human beings from threats to their lives or dignity. There is, therefore, an obligation to do whatever possible to preserve justice and to protect human rights. This is, essentially, the humanitarian factor for intervention.
This factor is to be placed morally prior to any economic or strategic interest. Countries trapped by endemic problems, such as, ethnic cleansing, mass killing, oppression, military rule, and massive human rights violations, should be assisted by the international community.
Over the past two years, all sorts of crimes against humanity have been committed in Syria and the international community cannot afford to stand idle. Indeed, the world has a dozen other running sores, but no other place like Syria needs humanitarian intervention right now.
The crisis here wrenches our heart, night after night, with images of children, women and elderly dying before our eyes. These people are getting killed for no crime committed; but because they yearn for freedom and dignity.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.