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The Need to Reframe the Syria Debate

“What on earth is the American national interest?” writes Andrew Sullivan in his visceral attack on President Barack Obama’s decision last month to send small arms to the Free Syrian Army.

Taking up his own question, Sullivan considers Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, its role in the regional Shiite-Sunni conflict, and its civil war’s impact on domestic terrorism, before concluding that the United States has no national interest at stake in the “ancient sectarian conflict.” Sullivan’s question is meant to rally anti-interventionists against Obama’s decision. It should offer no less sting to advocates of intervention, who have failed to make the most compelling case for military action by accepting the framing of the Syrian question in terms of narrow, short-term hard power regional interests, instead of the United States’ long-term interest in implementing the Responsibility to Protect doctrine– the United Nations framework which stipulates the conditions under which international actors ought to intervene to protect victims of mass atrocity crimes.

That the Syrian debate within the United States has transpired outside of the international framework that compels intervention is no fault of anti-interventionists like Sullivan; that his view has become mainstream, with its implicit assumption of unilateral American action and its explicit demand for narrowly defined American interest, demonstrates the extent to which humanitarian interventionists have failed to shape the debate.

Rather than appeal to international human rights standards, interventionists have chosen to frame the question in terms of American hard power interests. In his major address at the Brookings Institute last month, Senator John McCain, a leading Congressional interventionist, argued that, “Decisive action in Syria could create a new leverage to counter Iran’s ambition of regional hegemony.”

The Washington Post, the only mainstream media outlet to advocate intervention, similarly argued in a morbid May editorial, that, but for American intervention, Syria’s sectarian conflict will dethrone the fragile Iraqi political system, leave Syria’s chemical weapons “up for grabs,” force Israeli intervention against Hezbollah, and permit Turkey and Saudi Arabia to “conclude that the United States is no longer a reliable ally.” Remarkably, the editorial does not once mention the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria itself.

That interventionists have chosen not to couch their arguments in the language of international human rights standards does not change the fact that Syria’s humanitarian crisis meets the Responsibility to Protect standard for intervention. In its third year, the conflict has claimed at least 93,000 lives, created 4,500,000 refugees within Syria, and 1,700,000 refugees beyond it. Refugees near Irbid, Jordan, where I spent several days last week, describe passing through the border under gunfire that sends many newly displaced refugees directly to local hospitals.

With little chance of a negotiated peace, even after economic sanctions that slashed the Assad regime’s access to currency by one third and denied it weapons and energy supplies, and a plan for intervention supported by major American military and diplomatic leaders, the large-scale loss of life, last resort and reasonable prospect conditions of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine have clearly been met. The criterion that now remains most ambiguous is Right Intention, the assurance that intervention is driven by humanitarian concerns, not national interest.

The Responsibility to Protect denies the legitimacy of national interest in armed humanitarian intervention for very good reasons: when armed conflict justified by the language of humanitarian intervention serves national interests, it complicates future efforts to justify interventions that do fall within the scope of the Responsibility to Protect.

Just look at the way commentators usually respected for nuanced political punditry have casually dismissed the Syrian humanitarian crisis by reductionist comparisons to the Iraq War—in which, unlike in Syria, there was no immediate humanitarian crisis, diplomatic means were not exhausted, and the leading motive was (perceived) national interest. Iraq blowback has given rise to such nuanced analysis as this Eugene Washington musing: “We have been at war in Afghanistan for a dozen years and in Iraq for a decade. Have we learned nothing at all?” Similar dismissals have been voiced by leading liberal thinkers such as The Nation’s Katrina Vanden Heuvel, The New York Review of Books’ David Bromwich, and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times.

The influence of Iraq nightmares on today’s pundit class seems so great that few can imagine what an actual intervention would require: not a repeat of unilateral adventurism, but a multilateral coalition of diverse, multi-interested states. A coalition not only of the United States and its NATO partners France and Turkey, but also including Qatar and Saudi Arabia would combat many of the legitimate criticisms of a prospective Syrian intervention: most importantly, by allaying the fear that the United States would be responsible for an excessive operational and post-conflict burden.

None of this is to suggest that the United States has no stake in armed humanitarian intervention in Syria. The solidification of the Responsibility to Protect vision –that for the first time in the four-hundred-year history of the modern nation-state system, perpetrators of grave human rights abuses will be held accountable by a concerned, engaged international community– strongly aligns with the liberal values that lend credibility to American hegemony. This distinction between the short-term hard power arguments of interventionists such as Senator McCain and the long-term, soft power interest in supporting international human rights standards is paramount.

If the American public is to be rallied to armed intervention, it will not and should not be because of Senator McCain’s interest in countering Iranian regional ambitions, or his invitation to imagine chemical weapons in Hezbollah’s hands. Rather, advocates of intervention should appeal to the human suffering that justifies military action by internationally agreed upon criteria: the unabated, systematic sectarian slaughter that has claimed nearly 100,000 Syrian lives, and which cries out for decisive, multilateral action in the name of preserving human life.