It has been over two years since the Syrian Uprising began in March 2011, and yet the onslaught and the ever-worsening humanitarian crisis continue to little avail. It has been reported by the UN that in June 2013 over 100,000 people have been killed since protests first began and approximately 3 million displaced. As the toll of refugees continues to rise having already passed the 1million mark earlier this year, together with the mounting evidence of human rights violations from both sides, it begs the question why the big powers in the West are doing little to nothing to stop the violence.
Perhaps, the answer to that very question is the fact that the term ‘humanitarian intervention’ has become somewhat of a dirty word in the political sphere: a measure seen as a last resort by most governments, if considered at all. The reasons for this vary, ranging from a history of failed humanitarian interventions, such as in East Timor and Somalia, to the realist notion of ‘every man to his own’, the high expenses and the undoubtedly the most resounding concern for most nations is having to be fully committed and follow through. However, it may be questioned whether the tarnished image of humanitarian intervention is fair. In light of such reasoning it may seem that in an age of instant-gratification and superficial interests, morality and its demands on humanity have been put on the back burner.
First of all, what is humanitarian intervention? Simply defined it is the use of force across state borders by a state (or group of states) to prevent and end widespread violations of human rights without the permission of the state in question. Secondly, can it be justified in Syria? To that I would argue, yes, it could be. Despite the controversial reputation of humanitarian intervention, we, as nation states, have a duty as outlined in the UN Charter to protect basic fundamental human rights. The Responsibility to Protect initiative adopted by the UN in 2005 states that sovereignty is not a right: it is a responsibility. Hence, if a government fails to protects its own people, the international community must step in and prevent further humanitarian violations. Thus given the on-going civil war being fought by Assad and his army against ordinary civilians and the Rebels, it is clear that the international community steps in to end the fighting and prevent further human rights abuses. However, this is not to overlook the fact that atrocities are being carried out by both sides, yet to equate the Assad’s government with the Syrian Opposition fails to take into account that there are several factions within the opposition. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) operates in vastly different ways in comparison to the extremist groups within the Syrian Opposition, Jabhat Al Nusra and Islamic Jihad. The FSA’s origin can be traced back to defectors from the Syrian army who refused to fire upon unarmed protesters.
Intervention on humanitarian grounds does not necessarily denote that excessive military force must be used, or that military intervention cannot be humanitarian. Rather, what it important is that it is conducted and executed in a highly responsible and strategic manner to prevent repeating mistakes that rendered many past humanitarian missions a failure. Although the UK may have recently stepped up its efforts to help end the humanitarian crisis in Syria, supplying the Syrian Opposition with armoured vehicles and body armour is nowhere near enough.
The current level of destruction has seen the social fabric of Syria destroyed. Health care has plummeted to inconceivable levels and doctors are considered to be the enemy by members of the regime: providing healthcare has become to be seen as act of resistance. Hospitals are now military targets, and few civilians venture anywhere near in fear of being tortured. Refugees in neighbouring Jordan have turned to prostitution to get by. Many women who have fled the country are at risk at being exploited by traffickers, at even at times, at the hands of their own family in order to have some sort of income. These women risk deportation back to Syria and up to three years jail time, as prostitution is illegal in Jordan. Yet, with influx of refugees and the lack of resources to help them, the alternative may be to starve. Not only does more have to be done to help the Syrian Opposition, support should also be given to neighbouring countries offering refuge in the shape of supplies and resources.
Thus, should we intervene in Syria? Yes. It has now become a matter of how.