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Crossing the moral line of intervention

Syria’s 28-month civil war, which started when the al-Assad government responded with violence to pro-democracy protests in March 2011, has since seen more than 90,000 deaths and millions displaced or become refugees in other countries.

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Syria’s 28-month civil war, which started when the al-Assad government responded with violence to pro-democracy protests in March 2011, has since seen more than 90,000 deaths and millions displaced or become refugees in other countries.

Since the early days of the conflict, the international community has desperately tried to stop Syria from sliding into civil war by appealing to the possibility of imposing sanctions and military intervention. The United Kingdom, France and the United States have thus far only provided support in the form of communications equipment, medicine, food and limited weapon supplies after China and Russia opposed Kofi Annan’s call for stronger international action.

But international response seems to be taking a turn. With the United Nations inspectors starting to investigate the three reports of chemical weapons use in the Syrian conflict, President Barack Obama’s administration seems determined to step up its support for the rebel force. The increased violence and possible use of chemical weapons has, according to the US, reached a stage where Syria has “crossed a red line”.

But the necessary conditions to justify a humanitarian intervention are still unclear in Syria, and before any concrete plans are out into place, we need to establish a clear limit as to the conduct of military action before it crosses the line and becomes just another war.


After several failed humanitarian interventions in the 1990s (specifically, the civil war in Somalia in 1993, the Rwanda genocide in 1994, and ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica in 1995), the 2005 World Summit endorsed the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) recommended by the Independent International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.

This signalled the emergence of a new international norm, one which affirmed the international commitment to “never again” allow man-made, large-scale humanitarian catastrophes to occur; this has already began to shape the foreign policies of many nations.

RtoP’s first official test case was the 2011 Libyan civil war. It was a success in preventing further violence because the world responded swiftly at the first sign of Muammar Gaddafi’s intention to “purify” Libya of rebel troops, and it did so by adopting a series of sanctions and setting up a no-fly zone. Gaddafi’s readiness to use violence against his own people and record of human rights violation constituted a sufficiently grave situation that justified such rapid response by the UN.

The urgency of Syria’s situation may seem clear enough: There is a sustained supply of arms and Hezbollah Shiite fighters backed by Lebanon and Iran that reinforces al-Assad’s forces. The conflict has now extended to Lebanon, and there are reported cases of chemical weapon use and hence, also evidence of the existence of a stockpile of chemical weapons that could fall into the wrong hands.

But military intervention under RtoP is only justified to prevent or cease situations of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity which, in Syria’s case, needs further clear evidence.


Furthermore, other challenges remain. Geographically, Syria’s mountainous terrain meant that aerial bombing campaigns may not work, or come at the cost of civilian deaths. Tactically, this will require sending in ground troops, but this will mean going against al-Assad’s strong military capability.

Having said that, even if a coalition of the willing does eventually materialise, there is a need to guard against another cost – that of carrying out a war for the purpose of regime change. A line must be drawn between achieving the aims of humanitarian intervention and regime change, especially when there are an estimated 40 per cent Syrians opposing the Assad regime and no clear opposition force.

Also, we must guard against losing sight of the aim of halting human suffering and replacing it with regime change. We saw how as the war in Iraq unfolded, it became a war aimed at destroying and replacing Saddam Hussein’s government even though humanitarian aims were cited to justify the invasion in the first place. The result is that the use of heavy weapons and indiscriminate targeting were justified by the aim of regime change, and even though the intervening force won the war, it did not achieve its own stated moral aims.


In Libya, regime change was an effect rather than the reason for intervention. The moral aim of halting human suffering was achieved by observing a limited scope of intervention. Military targets selected for bombing were largely those that were a clear threat to civilians and the coalition did not arm rebels or deploy ground troops.

The UN also adopted Resolution 1973 which spelt out a range of nonmilitary options (enforcing a no-fly zone, assets freeze, arms embargo, and bans on flights). And while Resolution 2009 established a UN Support Mission, it excluded an occupation force.

Clearly, the case of Libya was a moral success because it adhered to RtoP’s four principles (which were modified from the just war doctrine): The primary intention for intervention must be to halt or avert human suffering; intervention can only be justified when every nonmilitary option has been explored; the scale, duration and intensity of the military intervention must be kept to a minimum; and there must be a reasonable chance of success in achieving its aim to halt or avert human suffering, with consequences of action not worse than the consequences of inaction.

For RtoP to be successful, the conduct of the intervention – from the use of non-military options, to the choice of weapons, its scope of destruction, and duration of military offensive – is perhaps more essential in ensuring we draw the line between military action with humanitarian aims and an offensive war.

Should a military intervention into Syria take place, limiting military means by moral intent should be its first battle ground.


Dr Jennifer Ang Mei Sze is a Lecturer at SIM University.

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