In 2004, Human Rights Watch released a statement denouncing the 2003 invasion of Iraq on humanitarian grounds. The statement said that the misuse of humanitarian intervention ― invading and occupying a country on false pretenses in the name of “democracy” ― would “breed a cynicism that could be devastating for future people in need of rescue.” Fourteen years later, we know the statement was correct, and for proof we need only look at recent U.S. activity in Syria.
In the five years I’ve spent talking with American audiences about Syria ― from Houston, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to Evansville, Indiana ― I’ve seen the deep cynicism that Americans feel about the word “intervention.” Given the disaster that is America’s excursion in Iraq, that cynicism makes rational sense. But Americans should not impose their understanding of what intervention looked like during the Bush administration onto the current Syrian context. Instead, we should work to intimately understand the dynamics of the Syrian conflict and ally ourselves with civil society in that country.
At the core of the Syrian conflict is a dictatorial regime that has labeled unarmed civilian demonstrators as “terrorists” and used that label to justify killing them. Though the U.N. stopped counting the death toll in Syria in 2014, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has attributed 218,000 civilian deaths to the regime—that’s close to 90 percent of the total civilian deaths the group has counted since 2011.
These massacres began during the Obama administration, whose foreign policy regarding the war on terror took a drastic detour from that of his predecessor. While former President George W. Bush famously said he wouldn’t distinguish between terrorists and those who harbor them, the Obama doctrine went in the opposite direction: the United States would no longer engage militarily against another state, regardless of the situation—even in the case where this might be justified if the state is culpable. Instead, the American War on Terror would rely heavily on drones to target members of privately armed groups, a program not without its own civilian casualties. When ISIS emerged in Syria, the Obama administration responded by declaring Operation Inherent Resolve in 2014 and entering Syria through a U.S.-led coalition. The operation’s official mission is to “increase regional stability” through a coalition of 75 international partners. To date, the U.S.-led coalition is responsible for thousands of civilian deaths across Syria and Iraq.
In other words, the West has already intervened in Syria, just not in the way that most Americans think.
The catastrophe of the Obama policy was that it gave the Assad regime a green light to continue massacring civilians through improvised explosive devices, cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, mortars and tanks. The Assad regime also uses chemical weapons. It used sarin, a nerve agent, even after it was forced to destroy its stockpile in 2013. And the regime uses chlorine because it’s a heavy gas that seeps into underground shelters, forcing civilians to make the decision: Suffocate in a shelter, or come above ground and risk being hit by a “second tap” airstrike.
The West fixates on the use of chemical weapons as unacceptable, mainly through arguments of “norms of civilized people.” However, cluster munitions were banned in 2010, in part because undetonated bombs can continue to kill or maim civilians decades after a conflict is over. Even though the U.S. has yet to join that treaty, the U.K. and France have. Furthermore, cluster munitions are by nature indiscriminate, so any use in populated areas can be considered a violation of the Geneva Conventions. The exclusive fixation on chemical weapons dehumanizes the Syrian people by implying there are acceptable ways for them to be killed. There is no “civilized” way to torture and massacre a people.
The Trump administration’s approach to Syria is perhaps even less coherent than Obama’s ― in fact, the only thing that is clear about Trump’s foreign policy is that it seems to do everything that the Obama administration didn’t. Where the Obama administration resettled 12,000 Syrian refugees, the Trump administration tried to completely ban the entry of Syrian refugees. Where Obama would use words to reprimand Assad for his use of chemical weapons, the Trump administration used missiles. So far, the only thing the Obama and Trump administration have in common is a lack of strategy to end the imminent threat of massacre of Syrian civilians.
The U.S. intervention must address Syrian civil society’s demands for a fair political transition and accountability for all war crimes. Those demands are outlined in a recent press release by Save Our Syria, a platform for Syrian civil society to express their demands to the international community. Part of this includes using “credible consequences” for both chemical and conventional weapons.
Today, every state that’s dropping bombs in Syria, including the U.S., justifies it by saying they are targeting terrorists. In the latest U.N. Security Council resolution, 2401, there is even a clause that says countries may continue bombing in Syria if it is to target terrorists. There are multiple UNSC resolutions on Syria that call for any combination of the following: an end to the use of chemical weapons, a cessation of hostilities, a nationwide ceasefire, a lifting of the sieges and unimpeded humanitarian access to all parts of the country. None of these resolutions have been enforced because there is no political will to enforce them ― especially after the U.S. and Russia both entered Syria to purportedly bomb terrorists in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
The politics of Syria, and the of UNSC, have major implications for U.S. domestic policy. Labeling civilians as terrorists in Syria allowed the Republican Party to start suggesting in early 2015 that resettling Syrian refugees is akin to supporting a “jihadi pipeline,” something I wrote about at the time. After the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, Congress and the majority of American governors said a collective “no” to Syrian refugees. Later, the Trump administration released its first version of what would be known as “the Muslim Travel Ban.” The ban restricted travel on people from seven countries but put the heaviest restrictions on Syrian refugees ― on the grounds of a perceived terrorist threat.
“Labelling civilians as terrorists in Syria allowed the Republican party to start suggesting in early 2015 that resettling Syrian refugees is akin to supporting a 'jihadi pipeline.'”
It’s essential to bear all this in mind as we consider the airstrikes that the U.S., Britain and France carried out last Friday. Notice how these countries framed the strikes exclusively around punishing and preventing the use of chemical weapons. This again signals a green light for the Syrian regime to continue massacring civilians through other means. All three countries affirmed that they didn’t want to get further “entangled” in the Syrian “civil war.” But they are already players in the game through participation in the U.S.-led coalition, and as permanent members on the UNSC.
It’s clear the conflict in Syria has an international component and requires an international response. In the aftermath of these new strikes, civilians in the U.S., France and the U.K. must stand in solidarity with Syrian civil society. This means steering the conversation about their nations’ intervention in Syria towards a strategy to remove the imminent threat of yet more civilian massacres. This may mean pressuring the Assad regime back to the table for serious negotiations on a fair political transition and establishing mechanisms for accountability on war crimes for all parties. The sooner we stand in that solidarity, the sooner Syrians might begin healing from the horrors of this war.
Shiyam Galyon is the managing director of Books Not Bombs, a campaign to create higher education scholarships for displaced Syrian students.