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    War for Peace: The Moral and Legal Case for Intervention in Syria

    October 26, 2012

October 26, 2012

War for Peace: The Moral and Legal Case for Intervention in Syria

Syrian-Civil-WarOver the past 19 months, the people of Syria have risen up against a regime that for over four decades has denied its people basic rights and freedoms. In response to demonstrations and protests, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has reacted with overwhelming force, giving way to an estimated 30,000 victims to date. International observers have noted the following:

  • The United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria reports that Syrian state agents have violated various provisions of international humanitarian law, failed to distinguish between the civilian population and combatants, and failed to exercise proportionality with respect to civilian losses.
  • Doctors without Borders states that the Syrian government continues to deny basic medical care to injured civilians.
  • Reuters and the AFP report systematic acts of violence against civilians at the hands of the Assad regime.
  • The United Nations-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic describes “…crimes against humanity of murder, torture, rape or other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity…” at the hands of the State.

The international community has negotiated with and given Assad time, but diplomacy has failed. A military intervention currently is the only way forward to peace. The international community cannot be deterred by Russia’s objection, one that is hypocritical in light of Russia’s shipments of military equipment to Syria. Under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, the international community must act on its moral and legal responsibility to intervene when a people suffers from egregious acts of violence at the hands of their State. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights further requires States to ensure the protection of the right to life, prohibitions on torture, and freedom of thought and expression, all of which have been violated by the Syrian regime.

Syrian Refugee Crisis

In 1999, the world stood at a similar crossroads. A humanitarian crisis engulfed the Balkan Peninsula, but United Nations collective security action on Kosovo was impeded by a Russian veto. Despite this veto, NATO, based on a moral duty transcending Russian interests in the Balkans, undertook military action. Most observers now agree that NATO’s actions were legitimate and justified under international law.

The time is now for military action in Syria, with or without Russia’s consent. The international community, led by NATO or a similar coalition, must make a clear ultimatum to Assad: he may step down now in exchange for immunity or he will be prosecuted for crimes against humanity after a military campaign including air strikes to neutralize Syrian intelligence and strategic bases, the establishment of a no-fly zone, safe havens in Syria and at the Turkish border and material support to the opposition.

The failure to act cannot be justified by citing terrorists within the ranks of the Syrian opposition. While it is true that in recent months, some obscure Salafi Islamic groups have claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Syria, it is entirely possible that such groups, unknown before the Syrian uprising, may be creations of the Syrian State. Upon defecting, former Syria Prime Minister Riad Hijab announced that one suicide bombing against a Syrian target was engineered by the regime against an empty target where not one regime soldier was harmed. It should not be surprising if the Islamic Al-Nusra Front, which recently claimed responsibility for an Aleppo air defense base attack where over one hundred captured opposition members were imprisoned, is similarly under the control of the regime, designed to bolster Russian claims of an “Islamic uprising.”

Yet even if groups such as the Al-Nusra Front are bona fide members of the opposition, their recent emergence in the conflict clearly shows that the failure of the international community to act has left a power vacuum that terrorist groups are eager to fill. Given concerns as to what the opposition is genuinely comprised of, the international community can condition its military support on commitments by opposition leaders to guarantee the basic rights of minorities and all religious groups, based on the Universal Declaration for Human Rights or on the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. Military and political advisers of NATO or a similar coalition can work with opposition members in establishing a power-sharing model under a new Constitution where Sunni Muslims as well as Alawi and other minorities share power and guarantee the respect for the rule of law.

The road forward will be filled with challenges, but no case can be made for the current status quo of inaction. The ongoing massacre of Syrian civilians gives special urgency to the international community to act on its responsibility to protect.

  • Emmet Cooney, October 26, 2012 Reply

    I have sympathy for this writer's point of view. However the geopolitical status/situation of Syria is much more complex than in Libya or even Kossovo. Syria is effectively a Russian Protectorate and Russia is a nuclear power. For unilateral NATO military action to be viable at all, Russian non involvement and non interference at all levels would be the minimum necessary condition and this does not appear forthcoming at all. A joint intervention would be a better option in practice but this is a pipe dream. It is also in my view premature to assume that Islamic extremist elements in the opposition are all agent provocateurs/double agents for the Assad Regime. Lessons must be learned from the mishandling of the Iraq war for example. Of course, continuation of the current situation is totally unacceptable as well. It is very difficult to judge what practical solutions are actually available though.

  • John Balouziyeh, October 26, 2012 Reply

    Thank you for these valuable insights, which are indeed frequently cited by opponents to intervention. Careful thought must be given to avoid creating a confrontation between NATO and Russian forces similar to that of the 1999 Pristina airport incident, which could have triggered a massive war had a diplomatic solution not been reached. However, such an episode could be avoided by negotiating a deal whereby Russia maintains its naval presence and military contracts in post-Assad Syria in exchange for a commitment not to interfere with a NATO intervention. Russia is ultimately interested only in preserving the remnants of its influence in the region; it has no special ties to Assad. Because its interests are so transparent, negotiating an agreement should not be difficult.
    I recognize the threat of Salafi Islamic elements that in their tactics are reminiscent of Al Qaeda, but some evidence (e.g., bombing a military base where over one hundred imprisoned opposition members went missing) points that such groups are double agents of the Assad regime. Yet even if they are bona fide terrorist groups, one thing is clear: with time, their presence is growing in Syria. During the first twelve months, they were virtually unheard of. Then, as the infrastructure of Syria was being torn asunder, we began hearing of suicide bombings and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups. If the crisis in Syria continues without an intervention, terrorist groups will exploit the security vacuum.
    In evaluating these complex issues, we must remember these insightful words given to us by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." The international community, despite its many summits and conferences, has taken no substantial action to change the balance of power or end the humanitarian crisis in Syria. In its actions (though perhaps not in its words), it has adopted a posture of neutrality. As time goes on without action, the legitimacy of the United Nations, whose chief end is to secure peace and security, will be undermined and ultimately discredited.

  • Emanuel Ioana, March 12, 2013 Reply

    As you are aware this is not a simple or a black and white situation. I however do feel your post is very one sided. Yes there havebeen thousands of civilian deaths to date, however if you honestly believe that they are all the work of Assad forces your naive and pro Rebels.
    All sides are doing the killing and all sides should bare the responsibility to this growing civil war's civilian casualties. My deep concern is that there seems to be so many Rebel groups that have their own agenda in this war for power as seen when the Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade abducted 21 Pilipino UN peace keepers in the disputed Golan Heights.
    I believe that there should be a cease fire created by the UN and for there to be a free election to be held with UN observers. Only then will the voice of the Syrian people will be heard and not by Western backing of Rebels.

  • Thomas Rose, February 26, 2015 Reply

    Mr. Balouziyeh,
    This concerns your recent article on Palestinian Statehood under International Law. Specifically I am interested in your thoughts on the validity of the ICC 'conferring' Palestinian Statehood as announced by the UN Secretary General, especially when, as you point out, the GA is not authorized to grant such status, nor is the Sec.Gen., and certainly by my understanding, neither is the ICC, which deals strictly with States.
    Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.
    Thomas Rose LL.M, MSL
    Laurier University

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