Syria and the Morality of Humanitarian Intervention

Legal scholar Fernando Teson, a leading academic expert on humanitarian intervention has an interesting post on why the humanitarian case for intervening in Syria is weak. Like Fernando, I’m not opposed to such intervention on principle. But it can only be justified if there is a high probability of improving the situation in the targeted nation. In this instance, the case is dubious for reasons Fernando describes:

Some supporters of the proposed intervention in Syria call it a genuine case of humanitarian intervention….

In reply, critics may:

A) Deny the validity of the doctrine itself…., or

B) Accept the doctrine but deny that it can justify the intervention in Syria.

I have long defended the doctrine of humanitarian intervention….. I would like to explain, therefore, why my position on Syria falls under B) above: the military action proposed by the Obama administration (limited aerial bombings) would not be justified under the doctrine. In contrast, a full-fledged intervention that would overthrow Al-Assad while neutralizing Al-Qaeda could be justified under the doctrine if it complied with the principle of proportionality. Given the predictable dire consequences of a full invasion for the region and the world, such action is unlikely to be proportionate, and therefore the United States should stay out…

For starters, the proposed action is caught in a dilemma. Either the bombings will weaken the regime or they will not. If they do, they will help Al Qaeda win. The (putative) humanitarian action will predictably open the door for something much worse for the Syrians and the world. If instead the bombings do not weaken the regime, they would have served no purpose and would have been therefore impermissible under the humanitarian intervention doctrine, especially given the fact that the bombings would have killed innocent persons for no reason.

As I have suggested previously, the key problem here is the roughly equally vile nature of both sides in the Syrian civil war. Assad’s regime is brutal, oppressive, and Anti-American. But so are the radical Islamists who are probably the most powerful force on the rebel side. I’m not as certain as Fernando that a regime led by these people would be clearly worse than Assad’s. But, at the very least, there is little reason to think it would be better. For this reason, a military intervention large enough to seriously damage Assad’s forces is likely to be problematic because it strengthens the radical Islamist rebels. A very small-scale intervention that doesn’t have much effect on Assad’s capabilities would avoid this problem, but only at the cost of being useless – thereby killing people (including, possibly, some innocent civilians) for no benefit.

Perhaps the Obama administration has some brilliant middle option in mind that avoids both of these problems simultaneously. But Secretary of State John Kerry’s testimony on that subject before the Senate foreign relations committee today was far from reassuring:

SEN. UDALL [D- New Mexico]: Secretary Kerry, by degrading his capacity, don’t you in fact make him weaker and make the people out there like al- Nusra and al-Qaida and these other extremist forces stronger?…..

SEC. KERRY: Well, I’m happy to –

SEN. UDALL: — could you answer that? Could you answer that? By degrading him, you make these extremist forces stronger, do you not?

SEC. KERRY: No, I don’t believe you do. As a matter of fact, I think you actually make the opposition stronger. And the opposition is getting stronger by the day now….

The problem with Kerry’s answer to Senator Udall’s question should be obvious: radical Islamist “extremist forces” are the most powerful element in the very “opposition” that Kerry says would become “stronger” as a result of US intervention. Moreover, the exact same problem arises if the intervention is justified by promoting American strategic interests rather than on a humanitarian basis. US interests will not be advanced if by weakening one enemy, all we achieve is strengthening another. Perhaps the administration will come up with a better answer to this question as the debate over intervention continues. If not, then it would be unwise for Congress to give the president the authorization he seeks.