Two months ago, an aging but deadly Russian aircraft carrier laboriously lumbered through the English channel, under the watchful escort of an increasingly privatized Royal Navy. The task force it leads has since joined the Assad regime's Grozny-esque siege and storming of Syria's second city of Aleppo. Refugees desperately continue to flee their homes, extrajudicial executions and disappearances rise, and barrel bombs and artillery barrages reduce a once prosperous metropolis to rubble; the brutality of a dying city re-ignites a fierce debate among Western publics on the legal and moral legitimacy of international humanitarian interventions.
Pragmatic Hesitations vs. Hysteria
The debate has been as vigorous as it is multi-faceted, and there has been informed and valid concerns with any attempts to intervene. International law fully recognizes that state sovereignty is not a complete, blanket right but limits. That's the entire point of collective security and both the international humanitarian intervention and the right to protect doctrine.
Like many who are passionate about international human rights, I am a fierce critic of the endless and accountability-free "war on terror" as well as immoral and illegal invasions and military actions. Yet such deplorable uses of force are separate from international humanitarian interventions, which can be both legitimate and moral under certain conditions. A particularly illustrative framework is international legal scholar's Harold Koh's six conditions for intervention:
1. There have been gross and egregious human rights breaches leading to the loss of hundreds or thousands lives and amounting to crimes against humanity. These atrocities are carried out by the central government or because the government has collapsed and cannot prevent them
2. The crimes against humanity result from anarchy in the state. The government consistently refuses to comply with the UN.
3. The Security Council is unable to take any action due to disagreement or the use of the veto.
4. All peaceful avenues have been explored
5. A collective group of states take action with the support (or at least non-objection) of a majority of UN member states
6. Force is used for the sole purpose of ending the atrocities and restoring human rights.
While what constitutes a "humanitarian intervention" can be in the eye of the beholder. Koh addresses that point though in his fifth condition. Together, I believe his six conditions lays out a very reasonable framework for a legitimate humanitarian intervention.
With regards to the establishment of a no fly zone, legitimate concerns include the contours and scope of establishing a no fly zone, include the potential for conflict with Russia. Yet the reality is quite clear: A no fly zone in Syria would actually not be such a radical, reckless, or dangerous proposal. Indeed with "Operation Euphrates Shield", Turkey has already established a de facto no fly zone covering 630 square miles of territory liberated from ISIS control, with no problems from either the Russians or the Assad regime. How unrealistic would it be for the US, NATO, and other allies to work together to expand that zone to all territory recaptured from ISIS? Especially if that zone can then become a safe haven for those fleeing both atrocities from ISIS and the Assad regime?
The downside to such a no fly zone is the possibility of diplomatic squabbles as to the exact contours of and rules of engagement within the no fly zone, plus dealing with the fact that frenemy forces occasionally attack each other in addition to fighting ISIS. It is certainly a complicated battlefield. However, the upside is saving thousands of lives from indiscriminate bombings, allowing thousands of refugees the opportunity to return home, and beginning the process of rebuilding a shattered nation. The opportunity to help create a sense of normalcy in a land that has seen no such thing for five years is compelling, to say the least.
Humanitarianism: All in or All Out
Yet rather than engage in such sober analysis of potential solutions to end this bloodbath, far too many people have engaged in self-serving fear-mongering and hysteria. "A no fly zone is the path to World War III!" we have repeatedly been told, from both sides of the political aisle-even when the situation on the ground demonstrates otherwise.
Sections of both the right and the left have been equally guilty of this, for different reasons. The right alternates between adoring and deploring dictators like Putin and Assad-not based on these autocrat's actions, but depending on whether they support whoever is currently occupying the White House or 10 Downing Street. Indeed said President or Prime Minister can either be "too soft" on Russia or supporting baby-eating terrorists and inviting World War 3 in the same week. Such blatantly self-serving flip-flopping simply has no antidote, except to call it what it is: Political nihilism. A pox on that house. All the poxes.
Yet more frustrating is the selective empathy and convenient apathy from segments of the left. It's amazing to see many of those who always claim the moral high ground becoming apologists for some of the most brutal dictators in the world, and are often willing to write a blank check for their abuses. Why? For the critical distinction of being "anti-Western." Corruption, ineptitude, and violent crackdowns by the unpopular Venezuelan government? It's a Western/World Bank conspiracy! Blatant Russian aggression towards its neighbors? Hey it's "their backyard"-the US and Europe need to back off! Tinpot dictators and mafia dons who torture, shoot, and carpet bomb their own people? They're just getting bad press because they oppose American hegemony!
Tyrant Selective Memory Syndrome (TSMS)
There of course must be an acknowledgment that history is written by the victors, and thus for centuries has had a very Western-centric framing. As I myself have repeatedly advocated, there is certainly plenty of room for nuanced analysis and critical reflection. Yet when the pushback to the Western-centric narrative is so zealous that it glosses over or outright absolves massive human rights abuses, historical truths become displaced by yet another version of revisionism.
The most serious manifestation of this revisionism is Tyrant Selective Memory Syndrome (TSMS), in which humanity's testimony to horrific misdeeds of unelected tyrants are conveniently ignored because of their defiance to Western powers.
TSMS is no recent phenomenon, but has existed throughout the ages. It's why some leftist circles were so slow to condemn the genocidal Khmer Rogue , even as evidence of horrific killing fields where thousands of people were murdered daily began mounting.
Slobodan Milošević, Saddam Hussein, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi...Indeed Gaddafi in particular serves as a stunning contemporary example. Gaddafi apologists are happy to shout from the rooftops "Gaddafi gave citizens free healthcare, free electricity, and homes for newlyweds!"
What is conspicuously missing: Gaddafi also gave his citizens absolutely no political freedoms. He detained and tortured dissidents to death for decades. When his people dared to stand up and demand their rights, he was then was willing to shoot and bomb them into submission. Since when was human life and dignity more valuable than free cars, houses, or jobs?
No leader-elected or authoritarian-is perfect But seriously, Gaddafi? Towards the end of his four decade reign he should have been committed for psychiatric care, not running a nation. Believing that the citizenry of the Global South somehow simply can't have better leadership is the embodiment of the soft bigotry of low expectations: international edition.
Politicizing Heroism and Acquitting Evil
In the Syrian context, perhaps the most stunning example is the fact that even the vaunted White Helmets-who just missed out on a Nobel Peace Prize despite a massive global campaign on their behalf-have not been safe. Some Assad apologists have gone so far as to paint the White Helmets as "covert jihadi" fighting against Assad's secular Baathist paradise. Simply because they have also called on the international community to stop a government from mercilessly bombing its own people.
Here's the rub: Anyone, anywhere in the world, who daily risks their own life to rescue innocent civilians and pull the shattered bodies of babies and the elderly from rubble absolutely has the right to call on the world to stop jets and helicopters from dropping those bombs in the first place.
In such a brutal conflict which has dehumanized so many, the White Helmets remain some of the main heroes. While they go on with their live-saving work, they have every right to use whatever energies they have left to advocate for an end to the brutality; and they have that right and responsibility just as much as the people of Gaza, Yemen, Pakistan/Afghanistan, etc. do. But leave it to Assad apologists, anti-Western pro-Putiniks, and the "no use of force, ever" crowd to find reasons to besmirch their name. Acquitting a mass murderer in favor of condemning selfless heroes.
Matters of international human rights and foreign policy should not be pigeonholed in ideological boxes or ensnared by geo-political loyalties. They should be evaluated on a case-by case basis, with the guiding principles affirming the universal right of self-determination and advocating for publics and civil society over national politics and geopolitical alliances.
Positions of Privilege
I've written about Syria's agony before. When President Obama seemed to be on the verge of finally doing something after the regime used chemical weapons to murder 1,500 of its own citizens, I wrote about how the international community has a compelling shared interest in preventing mass atrocities. We must act to prevent evil, lest one day we need protection from it.
At this point, I must admit that I have a bias when it comes to international humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect (RTP) doctrine.I was born in Bangladesh and whose parents and other family members lived through the 1971 genocide. After nine months of unprecedented rape, torture and killings, India launched a decisive intervention on both humanitarian grounds and to further its own geopolitical interests. Yet the motivations of the latter does not invalidate the ethnics and righteousness of the former.
I am fully aware that if it wasn't for India's decisive intervention, in all likelihood I would not have the life I have today as a privileged American studying in London. Indeed given how brutal the levels of killings already were (and the fact that they would no doubt continue to rise as Pakistan's military capabilities continued to grow including nuclear assets), there is a strong possibility I may not even have been born.
I acknowledge and embrace my bias. Yet in this case, I think that bias is also a valuable source of perspective. That perspective tells me an unpleasant truth: The ability to remain wedded to the conviction of "no use of military force, ever" is borne out of a position of privilege: The privilege of never having to resort to force in order to fulfil your people's universal right to self-determination. The privilege of never having to endure and survive a campaign of extermination, or had family and loved ones who have.
Indeed if it was up to the "force is never justified, ever" crowd, both of the countries of which I am a citizen would never exist: Bangladesh and the United States.
Our Lives Matter
It's true that since the dawn of colonization and into the Cold War, time immemorial, many Western governments have had a horrible track record with regards to genuinely promoting human rights. Given this track record, a healthy dose of skepticism and even cynicism with mainstream media depictions of international events is certainly valid. Yet the brutal conflict in Syria has been raging for five years now. To be frank, I believe anyone who is still on the fence about whether:
1. The Assad regime is a horrific force of nature or
2. Whether at least a significant portion of the people opposing the regime are legitimately enacting a struggle for self-determination and survival
Simply haven't been paying sufficient attention-especially from organic voices on the ground. From the perspective of the majority of the Syrian populace, ISIS and Assad are two sides of the same horrifying coin, with the difference being that Assad and his allies have the capacity of killing more people in a month than ISIS can dream of killing in a year.
Anyone who tries to excuse a government which has been doing this to their own people for five years-or tries to somehow slander the very people that government has targeting-really needs to re-evaluate some basic premises. Such as: If this was happening in Colorado rather than "over there", would I even question anyone who opposed it?
Even the most progressive-minded people have their biases and predilections. We all do-it is human nature. But our lives matter too-and it shouldn't matter if the people bombing us are being helped by Russia and we're being aided by the US or vice versa. All of that geo-political and ideological baggage doesn't mean a damn thing when the bombs start flying.
The latest movie in the Star Wars franchise will be released this week. We will once again learn that we live in a world where millions of people will flock to see every Star Wars movie and adore the Rebel Alliance, but in the real world think "meh...there are no good guys in Syria/it's too complicated" WTF...open your minds people. If Spain's "messy" civil war could still have good guys (i.e. the anti-Fascists), then so can Syria's (i.e. the anti-Assad and anti-ISIS opposition).
Real talk: We live in a world where white faces and voices ultimately matter more than the rest of ours. The first step to using yours is to build genuine empathy and solidarity. In such a highly politicized and ideology-driven world, put down all the stuff from the theorists, pundits, and ideologues. Instead, start paying attention to what the people themselves are saying. While there's still voices left willing and able to tell their stories.
A rally by the Syria Solidarity Campaign and The Syrian Campaign outside the Russian Embassy in London
Horrified about the crisis raging in Aleppo and across Syria? In addition to advocacy, here's how you can help.