CREDIT: AP Photo/Ugarit News
We’re nearing the end of the run-up: American officials are now telling the press that Syria strikes are inevitable “within days.” What’s confusing most people about the decision is why: what’s the point of strikes that US officials are describing as “just muscular enough not to get mocked” but not significant enough to actually change the balance of power between the Assad regime and the rebels?
The common answer to this conundrum is that the strikes are “symbolic,” punishment for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. That’s true, but in a key sense misleading. The truth is that strikes are a kind of humanitarian intervention, albeit one with such a specific and narrow aim as to be essentially unprecedented in the history of humanitarian war.
Administration officials, as The Washington Post’s Max Fisher suggests, have left zero room for doubt that this intervention is about chemical weapons. Fisher argues that, instead of thinking of the strikes as an attempt to restore American “credibility” after Assad crossed the chemical weapons red line, the point of the strikes is to defend the international norm against chemical weapons use. We’re attacking Syria to make sure that chemical weapons are never used, particularly against civilians, again.
There’s two intended audiences for this message: other states with chemical weapons stockpiles, like North Korea, and the Assad dictatorship itself. The message being sent to the latter is much more interesting because the United States has explicitly ruled out regime change. We’re telling the Syrians that we’re staying out unless you return to en-masse gassing, in which case we’ll get involved with (by implication) escalating levels of force.
This is a form of humanitarian intervention, albeit a very specific one. The idea behind a humanitarian intervention is to end ongoing violence or prevent it from escalating; the idea behind the norm against chemical weapons is that chemical weapons are uniquely hideous and well-suited for the mass murder of civilians. Intervening in Syria to deter Assad from using chemical weapons is intervening to prevent a very particular subset of the horrible violence going on in Syria from getting worse.
Intervening against a particular tactic that could be used to kill civilians, rather than the campaign of murdering civilians in general, is unprecedented. It would be as if the United States had intervened in Rwanda to stop Hutus from killing Tutsis with machetes, but not the systematic extermination of Tutsis writ large. A careful read of the history of humanitarian intervention shows that intervention was always conducted on behalf of a population, like the Tutsis, and that the goal was to protect that population from organized killing or, in the case of peacekeeping missions, the vicissitudes of war in general. The American campaign against Syrian chemical weapons use would mark the first intervention against a tactic in human history.
There’s nothing inherently wrong or unjustifiable about this. So long as the intervention satisfies the other basic moral criteria for a just war — it’s conducted as a last resort for a just cause, with the right political authority and using force proportional to the expected humanitarian gain — then there’s no moral problem with having a more limited conception of what a humanitarian intervention is supposed to achieve. Whether Obama’s Syria strikes check all of those boxes, including the need for them to actually deter Assad from escalating, is a totally separate question.