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Striking the Syrian Regime Is Not Legitimate

Middle East

Striking the Syrian Regime Is Not Legitimate

Striking the Syrian Regime Is Not Legitimate

The Trump administration may say it wants a humanitarian intervention. But the strikes it’s considering fail to meet the criteria that would justify it.

PETER BEINART


A woman wearing a scarf depicting the Syrian opposition flag walks in the damaged areas in Deir al-zor, on March 3, 2013. KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS
The story of American humanitarian war, as expressed over the last quarter-century, is a tragedy. It’s the tale of well-meaning interventionists like Samantha Power and Susan Rice who—haunted by America’s failure to act in Rwanda in 1994, and emboldened by America’s partial successes in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999—helped orchestrate a 2011 war in Libya that toppled a dictator but created something worse: a jihadist-filled failed state. The impact on President Obama was profound. In his second term, Obama—despite pressure to wage war against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—made clear by his actions that, at least in Syria, the era of humanitarian war was over.

It still is, kind of. What has emerged under Donald Trump is a macabre sequel: humanitarian war not as tragedy but as farce. Trump is considering a second set of air strikes aimed at punishing Assad for using chemical weapons. His administration has justified this possibility in intensely moralistic terms. It’s “an affront to humanity,” Trump declared after the Syrian government’s chemical attack last April. On Monday, after another apparent attack, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that, “The images, especially of suffering children, have shocked the conscience of the entire civilized world.”

But calling Trump’s potential strike against Syria a legitimate humanitarian intervention is absurd. The most comprehensive effort to define that notion came from the Canadian government, which in 2001—in response to pleas from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan—empaneled a commission on the concept known as the “Responsibility to Protect.” That commission outlined several criteria that any humanitarian war must meet. No past U.S. intervention has met them fully. A new Syria strike, however, wouldn’t even come close.

One criterion was what the commission called “reasonable prospects.” A military intervention, it argued, must stand “a reasonable chance of success in halting or averting the suffering which has justified the intervention.” When Trump struck Syria for the first time last year, it may have been “reasonable” to hope an American strike would prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again. But it is utterly unreasonable today. That’s because, in the year since Trump’s strike, Assad has used chemical weapons again and again. He didn’t just apparently use them last weekend. According to armscontrol.org, he also allegedly used them on March 11, on March 7 and at least five times in January and February.

 

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