A Memo to Syria: Sovereignty Is Not a Right, It's a Responsibility

Earlier this week when I argued that the United States has an ethical obligation to intervene in Syria, I received a range of responses from readers. Some expressed concern about the potential for a prolonged presence in the region and others argued that the United States did not have the authority to unilaterally intervene in the crisis. In response to these concerns, I believe that we have an established ethical norm rooted in international law that compels us to intervene. This norm is based on "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P), which is a United Nations initiative affirmed by both the General Assembly and the Security Council.

R2P contends that sovereignty is not a right, but rather a responsibility. Specifically, the norm contends that states have an obligation to protect their citizens from harm and that when a state fails to uphold this responsibility, it is up to the international community to intervene. This commitment to civilian safety was born from the tragedies of the 20th Century including the crisis in Rwanda, which resulted in the mass killings of 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans. The norm itself is rooted in international law, including the Charter of the United Nations in that it seeks to ensure that crimes against humanity are responded to with the force of the international community.

The guidelines established under R2P stipulate that peaceful measures should be utilized before resorting to military intervention; however, in the case of Syria, we have seen that non-military interventions have failed to receive the intended response from the Bashar al-Assad regime. Specifically, in 2011 the Syrian government refused to participate in an independent commission's inquiry that sought to investigate claims of crimes against humanity. Further, the Syrian regime has balked at economic sanctions that have been imposed by the United States, United Kingdom, Turkey, the Arab League, and the European Union. Assad's unwillingness to respond to these peaceful attempts toward achieving security for the Syrian people demonstrates the serious unlikelihood that further efforts toward a peaceful response would have any effect on this tyrant's abuse of power and sovereignty.

In the wake of failed attempts toward utilizing peaceful measures to achieve stability and bring a halt to crimes against humanity, R2P allows for the use of military intervention. I believe that we are now at a point where military intervention is no longer an option, but rather a necessity to bring an end to the harm being perpetrated against the Syrian people by Bashar al-Assad's regime. In light of this, a strike plan of the United States could resemble the plan undertaken in response to the Kosovo crisis in 1999. In Kosovo, the United States and NATO forces undertook a 78-day bombardment, which resulted in no western casualties. It's worth noting that the Kosovo intervention was undertaken without congressional approval.

Strike plans aside, some commentators still argue that the United States should not intervene because of its "lack of integrity." Although I agree that the United States may have lost its standing as a "moral authority" in the eyes of the international community, that does not mean that a humanitarian intervention in Syria would be "wrong." Instead, this may be an opportunity to demonstrate that the United States truly is committed to doing what's right in the name of preserving human life and bringing an end to these atrocities. The time has come for us to move beyond the "Iraq test" and instead realize that intervening based on a true humanitarian intent is critical to the security of the United States.

Failure to respond to the crisis in Syria will allow evil to beget evil. We cannot merely watch as the crisis in Syria spirals into further attacks on Syrian citizens and, in turn, draws the United States and the international community into an even deeper threat to global security. If we fail to act, if we allow Bashar al-Assad to continue his assault on innocent lives, and if we merely take a backseat to a country's blatant abuse of sovereignty, we will be culpable. The ethical norm established under R2P compels a meaningful and strategic response from the international community; however, in the absence of such a coalition, the United States must respond unilaterally for the sake of global security.

Perhaps the debate over Syria is not a debate about whether to intervene in this crisis, but whether the United States will admit its absence and failure to act on past crimes against humanity and, in turn, restore its moral commitment to ensuring that human life is protected regardless of where it calls home. This crisis in Syria and the potential for intervention is not about territorial integrity or political independence, but rather it is a humanitarian crisis that calls to mind the global community's responsibility to intervene and protect the people of Syria. The credibility of the United States is on the line: either we are willing to move forward to resurrecting our moral clarity or we will stand down and permit a ruthless leader to continue his attacks on innocent people.

Bashar al-Assad and his regime must hear the unequivocal message that sovereignty is not a right, but rather it is a responsibility, which he and his government have abused for far too long.