The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention in Syria

Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War nearly 4 years ago, nations and people across the world have been calling for support for the protesters. From grass-root campaigns to recognizing the Syrian National Coalition, those working to halt the violence have made attempts at doing so. Once there was a noticeable tipping point in the Syrian regime’s behavior towards the protesters and rebels, the calls for intervention and wide spread support heavily increased. But why hasn’t there been any interventions like in Libya or Iraq? These regimes have turned on their people, inflamed conflict (both civil and sectarian), and caused destruction to important infrastructure maintaining the nation. At the base of it all, it can be attributed to the politics in whether intervention is legal or illegal.

Is humanitarian intervention legal? Yes and no. To save a few minutes of reading, the wording in international law on the use of force for humanitarian purposes is open ended, not explicit, and can be interpreted in different ways. This law regulating force and wars can be used for political gains, enforcing laws, or for genuine consideration on events taking place.

In the cases of those who argue that humanitarian intervention is illegal, the typical argument is that the UN Charter and the laws within it forbid the use of force against a sovereign nation. Though a nation may be experiencing a civil war and human rights abuses, it can be seen as an internal affair being dealt by the national government. Rather than outside nations coming in and regulating what the government can and can’t do, it is the right of a nation to exercise its own sovereignty.

There is another argument that this law has the potential to be abused by larger and more powerful nations. Used as a political tool, the act of force under the umbrella of humanitarian intervention could be used as a justification for invasion or force against a sovereign nation.

In the cases of those who argue that humanitarian intervention is legal, there are a handful of arguments although not concrete. The most concrete argument of the handful are that a state forfeits its rights of sovereignty at the violation of human rights. Should a government turn on its people, it is the right for nations to intervene. It is important for the international community to react to human rights violations and act accordingly in order to preserve them.

The notion that UN laws are not effective or that the global community is dynamic advocates for the use of humanitarian intervention. There is a sense that action for humanitarian causes is the norm and should be widely allowed by nation states. There is no longer the excuse of eternal sovereignty, but rather the privilege of legitimacy on the ground of protecting the state and its people. When this fails, it is the global community’s responsibility to act.

The hindrance on the UN’s action for Syria, or any other state for that matter, has been due to political reasons.

The Syrian government under the rule of Bashar al-Assad has key allies keeping its sovereignty from total annihilation by primarily Western governments. There has been support from neighboring states on the intervention in Syria, but the primary focus is on the US. China and Russia, two states on the UN Security Council, have blocked attempts for intervention in Syria. These states have argued that the conflict should be solved through political means and to act unilaterally would bring about severe consequences.

Russia also sees Syria as a key ally in the Middle East, and an important source of regional influence. Through out the Middle East, there have been states vying for regional influence like Saudi Arabia (pro-Sunni) and Iran (pro-Shia). Syria to Russia is a big trading partner and also works closely with Russia in global affairs.

The US sees the Syrian government as violating human rights as well as storing chemical weapons. With the argument on sovereignty in relation to human rights, the US argues that the Syrian government has lost control and intervention is needed to halt Assad’s actions.

There are the common speculations that Western governments see intervention in Syria as a step towards implanting a Western allied government. Syria stands as a key country in regional influence, especially between war torn Iraq and a sectarian divide in Lebanon. The Assad government also serves Iran’s interest in this very region, an influence the US wishes to overturn.

Whether genuine or political on both sides of the debate, the question on humanitarian intervention remains unanswered. It’s all up for interpretation. Though solving the crisis through political talks and dialogues is ideal, the civil war has gone far out of hand. There is no current consensus among the global community on the subject of intervention, creating that much more of a roadblock.

Both parties in the Syrian Civil War need to sit and create dialogue, yet the Syrian National Coalition (for the most part) refuses to allow Assad to continue ruling. Should these talks fail to take place or create a path towards peace, the calls for intervention will grow louder until a state risks political suicide and acts. The US faces backlash from nations like Russia, China, and Iran in such a situation. The act of unilateral intervention at this point in time will only prolong and broaden the conflict, all on the grounds of politics and ambiguity in the UN Charter law.


Photo Credit: The Political Science Club

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