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Is There A Moral Duty To Intervene In Syria?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to check in on a number of important international stories today. In a few minutes, we will tell you about what could be a significant ruling by the International Criminal Court. The court issued the first conviction in its history. It was against a former Congolese rebel fighter who was found guilty yesterday, of forcing children to serve as soldiers. We'll take a closer look at the verdict and what it could mean in a few minutes.

But first we want to turn to another important conflict that has the world's attention. It's in Syria. The United Nations estimates that more than 7,500 people have been killed in clashes with the government that began roughly a year ago. Yesterday, as Syrian troops took control of opposition territories, rebel leaders again accused government forces of indiscriminate shelling and the slaughter of civilians, and that has prompted growing calls for military intervention.

At a press conference yesterday, President Obama downplayed that option.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The way the international community mobilizes itself, this signals we send, the degree to which we can facilitate a more peaceful transition or a soft landing rather than a hard landing that results in civil war and potentially even more deaths, the people who are going to ultimately be most affected by those decisions are the people in Syria itself.

MARTIN: But as the death toll in Syria continues to rise, we felt it was important to ask: At what point does the U.S., the United Nations or other global powers have a moral duty to intervene? We want to do two things here. We want to get a sense of what the fact are, as we can determine them in Syria, and also have a discussion of kind of the moral context here.

So we've called upon Abderrahim Foukara. He is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He's a frequent guest on this program. Abderrahim, thank you for coming to see us once again.

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Always good to be with you.

MARTIN: Also with us, Shaun Casey. He is a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, that's in Washington, D.C. He teaches a course there on the principles of just war theory. Professor Casey, thank you for joining us once again.

SHAUN CASEY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So Abderrahim, before we get started here, if you could set the table for us: How are you, how are your reporters describing what's going on in Syria now? The president said that leads up to a civil war. Is it a civil war, or is it a matter of grassroots rather disorganized people facing their government and to what end?

FOUKARA: I think it does have an element of civil war. There have certainly been reports of revenge killings among the various sects, you know, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is from a Shiite sect called the Alawi, and there have been reports of Sunnis taking revenge on members of the Alawi sect and vice versa.

But I think overall, it's still being described as an uprising, a revolution against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, although more recently, obviously, the parts of the opposition have been arming themselves to counter what they describe as the bloody attempt by Bashar al-Assad to actually crush the revolution, as we've seen in Homs and Idlibs and the concurrent massacres from those places.

MARTIN: And just briefly, if you could remind us, as we said that these conflicts began roughly a year ago this week: What set it off initially?

FOUKARA: Well, it depends who you talk to. If you talk to the Syrian government, they say that terrorists started it, and it was a conspiracy against stability in Syria, but obviously those events came within the larger picture of the so-called Arab spring.

And it started off initially with young kids saying death to the regime, and the regime sent its security forces to deal harshly with that, and then it just snowballed from there and spread to various parts of Syria. I have to say, though, that there are still substantial numbers of Syrians who for one reason or another, either because they genuinely believe that it is a conspiracy against Syria or because they feel that if Bashar goes, their future in Syria would be undermined, but I think Bashar al-Assad has reached a point where at least politically, he's believed to have lost.

He's still in control militarily, though.

MARTIN: And Professor Casey, I wanted to ask: Is there a generally agreed upon sort of moral or ethical construct that the international community generally uses to determine when it's appropriate to intervene in what could be a civil war?

CASEY: That's right. In 2005, the United Nations adopted a doctrine called responsibility to protect, where they imported from the just war ethic six questions and said if you satisfy these six questions, there is a moral case for military intervention into an otherwise sovereign country.

The first one is just cause, and the big argument now is whether or not we've reached that point of atrocity where enough people have been killed to trigger an international intervention. If the current trends continue, it's only a matter of time until we actually do reach that.

Some ethicists say we're there, others say not yet, but if the current trajectory continues, it's only a matter of time until I think everyone recognizes there is a humanitarian disaster there.

But once you have a just cause, there are other things that you have to talk about. What is the intention of the interveners? We have a history of great power interventions with bad motives, certainly the United States would be questioned intervening in that context. Is it the last resort? Do you have a legitimate authority to go in?

Is the good you're going to achieve going to outweigh the evil you take place? And is there a reasonable chance of success? If you satisfy all of those, then you have a moral case.

MARTIN: And does the United Nations have a mechanism for scrutinizing or answering these questions for itself?

CASEY: Well, no, and that's the messy part right now is you've got Russia and China saying the Security Council should not and will not authorize intervention. So ultimately, the final case would go to the Security Council, but that's not going to happen if the current political configuration holds.

MARTIN: We're talking about the implications of intervention in the bloody situation in Syria. We're speaking with Shaun Casey, a professor of Christian ethics and an expert on just war theory; and Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera International.

Abderrahim, Professor Casey, pointed out that the United Nations doesn't - is disinclined for its own reasons to act at this point, but it does appear that the Arab League and members of the Arab League have been more forceful. Do they have a commonly understood moral framework among themselves about what would justify intervention?

FOUKARA: Well, first of all, very important factor in all this is that Arab public opinion is absolutely horrified by the massacres and news of the massacres coming out of Syria, although the government of Bashar al-Assad has been blaming what he calls terrorists and outside forces for those massacres.

But I think generally speaking, Arab public opinion does not believe that version of that story. And remember that the memory of what happened in Syria, at that time Bashar's father was in control, in 1982, when he razed a whole town to the ground, and the toll at that time, people talked about 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 people.

So that's one part of it. The other part of it is the countries that are at the forefront of this, as far as the Arab League is concerned, is the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has taken some - it's taken a very prominent role over the issue of whether Bashar should stay or should go.

Remember in Tunis a couple of weeks ago, he described the effort to arm the Syrian opposition as an excellent proposition, and it wouldn't surprise me if the Saudis, the Qataris, other Gulf states are very busy arming the Syrian opposition.

And it has to be seen within the larger context of this cold war going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad being a very close, a crucial ally of Iran in that part of the world. So whatever happens to him will have serious implications for the Gulf states.

MARTIN: And as you mentioned, Abderrahim, there are a number of options for the international community on the table here, arming the opposition being one, increasing sort of diplomatic initiatives, if there are any, you know, outright military intervention.

So Professor Casey, I'm going to ask you: Do you have a personal opinion about what a moral intervention would look like at this point? And I recognize I'm asking for your personal opinion.

CASEY: Sure. Well, it gets very ugly at this point, when you look at the different kinds of interventions. Arming the opposition may actually be the fuel for a chaotic civil war. I mean, the fear is the consequences might even be worse than the status quo, so there's a moral reluctance to endorse that wholeheartedly.

CASEY: Some people are talking about safe havens on the Turkish border where Anne-Marie Slaughter, former state department official, said, let's create these pockets of safety where people can flee to and build corridors. Somebody's going to have to protect those safe havens militarily.

MARTIN: Yeah. They don't protect themselves, clearly.

CASEY: Exactly.

MARTIN: Military forces are required to do that.

And that's going to require air support, which will require taking out air defenses, and suddenly, you're really looking at a very large military operation on the part of someone.

CASEY: And so the question then becomes the safe haven sounds good, but practically, will they work? And I'm not in a position to make that call, but that seems to be the most reasonable possibility here, as opposed to simply arming the rebels or establishing large no-fly zones, which would require a huge military footprint.

I think there's a real reluctance on the part of our government to go in those directions. But who would provide the safe havens? Who would patrol them? And that's a very difficult question to answer.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, before we let you go, a final thought from you. Is there any government which is contemplating an intervention, a military intervention, such as we normally think of it? Such as, for example, the United States undertook in Iraq, such as other, you know, powers have undertaken in, you know, Afghanistan over the years? Is any government contemplating that?

FOUKARA: I think that the consensus in the region is that the only country that can really lead an effort like that is the United States and I find it very significant that President Obama yesterday used the word premature, as opposed to his intervention on Super Tuesday when John McCain called for air strikes on Syrian positions in northern Syria. He just said, flat out, no. But now, he's talking about it being premature.

There's a sense that, other than the United States, Britain and France, that if there's going to be a military intervention in the classic sense that you're talking about, it would have to be undertaken by the Turks, America's allies in the region.

But, somehow, everybody that I've talked to finds it extremely hard to foresee a situation in which the Turks would actually go to war with Syria, so it's not very clear exactly where we go from here.

MARTIN: And why is that? Briefly, why is it that people find that hard to imagine? The Turks have one of the largest armies in the region, as I understand it, a million men under arms.

FOUKARA: Well, I mean, you have to look at it this way. If a lot of people feel skittish about the U.S., the superpower, the main superpower getting involved and bogged down in Syria. The Turks have the same concern and they're not a superpower and they are - actually, they have a border with Syria, so if they get bogged down, they really get bogged down.

MARTIN: Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International and a frequent contributor to this program to give us important insights on affairs of the region. Abderrahim, thank you for joining us once again.

FOUKARA: Always good to be with you.

MARTIN: From our Washington, D.C. studio, also with us, Professor Shaun Casey. He's a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary. That's also here in Washington, D.C. He teaches a course on the principles of just war. Thank you both so much for joining us.

CASEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.