Last week the Syrian regime used chemical weapons to massacre civilians. It was a crime against humanity and a violation of international law. And now the US and its vassals are gearing up for their response: bombing. So, their response to the indiscriminate murder of civilians is going to be - in practice, because bombs miss, and Americans aren't too fussy about their targets anyway when the victims aren't white - to indiscriminately murder some more. Fantastic.
While I want to see the perpetrators of this atrocity brought to justice before an international court, the idea of military intervention utterly unconnected with that is deeply morally queasy. Iraq and Libya have utterly discredited the concept of humanitarian intervention, exposing them as a sick joke to mask US power politics. But even if we took such claims seriously, there'd still be problems. The basic criteria for humanitarian intervention to be justified were laid out a decade ago by Human Rights Watch. Firstly, because wars impose high human costs, the trigger is high: intervention is justified
only in the face of ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life.While the suffering in Syria is terrible, it simply does not meet that level. But even if it did, there are other barriers to overcome. Military action for humanitarian motives must:
- be a last resort;
- be "guided primarily by a humanitarian purpose" (this does not preclude other motives, but they must be subsidiary);
- comply with international human rights standards (the means must be concordant with the ends);
- be reasonably likely to actually make things better; and
- ideally should be endorsed by the UN or other appropriate multilateral institutions, except in extremis.
Looking at this list, its hard to see how a US campaign of random airstrikes in Syria, not endorsed by the UN, would satisfy the criteria. There are huge problems of motive, and even if we granted that the US was acting for a humanitarian purpose, it is very difficult to see how airstrikes would serve that purpose, because airstrikes do not protect people. Its also difficult to see how they would be compliant with international human rights standards. Iraq, Israel and Libya have shown us for decades what "surgical strikes" do: kill children. There is no such thing as a "humanitarian airstrike". They are just another means of indiscriminate murder.
But beyond that, there's the bigger problem: airstrikes won't work. They won't stop the Syrian regime from murdering people. They won't even stop it from using chemical weapons, because those weapons have clearly already been dispersed to individual units. To the extent that they destabilise the Syrian regime, Libyan style, then they will encourage those weapons to be used. And if somehow they topple the Syrian regime without a general bloodbath, that simply means that something equally repugnant takes its place (see also: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya).
If we can't do any good, then we can at least do no harm. Leaving the Syrian civil war to fester is not a pleasant solution (it means ~50,000 dead a year). But given the hideous uncertainties involved in military action and regime change, it is almost certainly the least worst we can do.
(Meanwhile, times like these, I'm awfully glad New Zealand got rid of its air combat wing, otherwise John Key would be signing us up for this latest exercise in barbarism)