The Ethics of Intervention


Is it ethical for the US to arm Syrian rebel groups in a humanitarian intervention effort to combat the Islamic State?

Syrian rebel army on patrol.  March 6, 2012. (Freedom House/Flickr Creative Commons)

Syrian rebel army on patrol. March 6, 2012. (Freedom House/Flickr Creative Commons)

Guest Contributor: Amanda Schmitt

“There’s no negotiating with ISIL [and]nothing to negotiate,” asserted Secretary of State John Kerry in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on US strategy against the Islamic State (IS), also commonly known as ISIS or ISIL. “ISIL must be defeated. Period.” IS has killed 5,500 civilians and created 1.8 million internally displaced persons in their quest to construct an Islamic caliphate under sharia law. As is common in cases of humanitarian intervention, the ethical and legal natures of the circumstances are at odds. The over 50-state US-led international coalition demonstrates the need for a response to IS; yet, the UN Security Council has not, and will not, authorize military action within Syria’s borders due to laws of sovereignty. This prevents legality of the action under international rules of force, necessitating a UN Security Council resolution, government consent or a self-defense claim.1 Iraq requested the collective self-defense claim within its borders, but the US asserts that the Assad regime relinquished its right to consent foreign action within state territory given a practical lack of physical and political control of the area in question. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon accepted the legitimacy of this argumentation, further authenticating it as an exception to rules and norms in international law. While the technical legality of such action under international law and the future application of US dispersed weapons are controversial, it is ethically appropriate for the US to arm Syrian rebel forces deemed moderate by the intelligence community. Given the severity of the human security crisis, the nature of warfare with non-state actors and the purpose of sovereignty, the rationale for the action outweighs the potential negative aspects of infringements on international law.

With globally disseminated videos of public beheadings, systematic killing and raping of women, rejection of women’s right to education and acts of mass killing against any opposing group, IS is not an actor that abides by the rules of the international system and therefore cannot be dealt with as such. States have global legal frameworks and structural governance mechanisms to mitigate anarchy, but the context changes completely when dealing with non-state actors. When there is no option for diplomacy, the only viable alternative is military action to counter the violence. If the military response were confined solely to aerial bombardment, then IS’s resources and infrastructural support could be debilitated; however, the individual participants of IS would not likely be contained on a large-enough scale to cause a permanent power shift against them. The nature of such terrorist organizations prompts revitalized defiance and fundamentalism in response to attack. One cannot bomb an ideology.

IS’s power has grown militarily, territorially and ideationally, since their rhetoric has struck a chord with other Islamist jihadist groups. This momentum has created a daunting opposition on numerous levels that requires a multifaceted combative initiative, including the necessity of a ground counter-force to IS’s constant push for expansion. The Iraqi military has not proven itself as a strong enough containing force within Iraqi territory. Furthermore, the Turkish military became only recently involved in October 2014 to protect its borders. Within Syria, however, IS has gained significant territorial control, and the Assad regime’s military has proven ineffective. Within the US-led coalition, government positions vary in support of action within Syrian borders—all members agree with action in Iraq given the government request of collective security, yet they differ on both air strikes and arming rebels within Syria without government consent. Without other international military support, the Syrian rebels are therefore the most viable ground counter-force within Syria. As Secretary Kerry elucidated, arming the moderate Syrian rebels as a counter-force to IS precludes the potential need for US ground forces. While there are some American critics of a weapons assistance program, there is little to no support for any contribution of US troops to containing IS, restricting military options to training and weapons programs.

An unavoidable risk of engaging in a conflict of such an uncontrollable nature is the potential for future misuse of US weapons post-conflict, another area of American concern. In the September 2014 Senate debate for arming Syrian rebels against IS, Senator Rand Paul referred to past interventions, expressing his concern that intervention would create a “chaotic vacuum” of power that could result in radical groups contributing to further violence with the provided weaponry. While the future application of the weapons and training are always of concern, the extent of unease is lessened since the CIA already armed vetted Syrian rebel groups against the Assad regime in 2013. Any remaining weapons will likely be applied toward this same effort given the multifaceted conflict environment. This application of resources is likewise problematic under international law without a Security Council resolution for arming rebels against the Assad regime; nonetheless, this context limits the probability of weapon use beyond a US-backed initiative, given Syrian rebel priorities of combating IS and the Assad regime. This weapons allocation could actually act as an unstated strategy to bolster Syrian rebel groups for both US initiatives of combating IS and the Assad regime. This approach addresses US interests on both fronts and likewise prevents the need for American ‘boots on the ground’.

From an international legal perspective, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has reacted negatively to the option of arming actors as a means of intervention, reasserting its illegality. In the 1986 Nicaragua case in the ICJ regarding the US arming of rebel groups, the ICJ declared, “the protection of human rights, a strictly humanitarian objective, cannot be compatible… with the training, arming and equipping of the contras.” 2However, when there is such immense international outcry for the need to relieve a humanitarian crisis, as there was in the Rwandan Genocide and Syrian Civil War and currently with IS, international organizations refrain from serious reprimands despite breaking international legal procedure. This dynamic creates a de facto exception to rules of international law, with the ethical concerns of intervention taking precedence over the legal complexities.

At the core of the debate of ethics versus international law is the issue of sovereignty for determining the acceptability of intervention. Laws of sovereignty prohibit a misuse of an intervention claim for individual or state control over another’s territory, like Russia’s recent claim of the protection of ethnic Russians in Ukraine to effectively annex Crimea. It is a legitimate concern that numerous “exceptions” to international legal procedure for such state interference could enable governments to either intervene for largely self-interested reasons or to manipulate shifts in power in a state-building process. However, the current gridlock around intervention within the UN Security Council given China and Russia’s vetoes limits the international legality of intervention for cases of legitimate humanitarian crises; China and Russia aim to preclude any precedence that could enable foreign interference in their domestic spheres. These circumstances put global leaders like the US in a catch-22 position. If they do nothing militarily given the legality issue, they receive condemnation for failing to prevent continued loss of life. They are ridiculed for allowing the promulgation of terrorism as a global leader in the international system. By acting, they violate and undermine the international laws that create structure for the system.

The Assad regime has used the strict legal argument of sovereign control to its advantage despite that US assistance to combat IS is actually in its interest, as well. If asked for consent, the Assad regime would undoubtedly oblige, as IS is a serious threat to their control both territorially and politically. However, the Assad regime would conversely be staunchly opposed to any bolstering of opposition rebel groups for this purpose, as that would likewise strengthen the groups vying to unseat them. Since the US government does not recognize the Assad regime’s authority due to its human rights abuses, the US will not legitimate the regime by requesting its consent to act within its borders for aerial attacks. The US government’s insistence to work against a stringent interpretation of laws of sovereignty demonstrates the prioritization of ethics, including rejection of the authority of the Assad regime and utilization of the most promising campaign strategy.

To look deeper at intentionality behind the concept of sovereignty, scholar Stephen Krasner explains that sovereignty within a Westphalian state system is legitimized through “political authority based on territory and autonomy.”3 He suggests utilizing the Westphalian model as a guideline rather than concrete rules.4 With the current state of global governance mechanisms and international institutions, Krasner asserts that “compromising Westphalia is not only inevitable, it can also be good,” allowing for a “normative discourse more consistent with empirical reality.” 5 By neglecting to provide the necessary components for a state’s viability – rule of law, security, and markets – the territory becomes a failed state unable to employ sovereignty rights. Scholars Michael Fowler and Julie Bunk additionally support criteria for sovereign nationhood through “de facto internal supremacy… and external independence,” as well as de jure independence recognized by other states. 6  The Assad regime does not have supreme political control within Syria or international recognition of authority, delegitimizing its sovereign power. Ethically, if a government does not uphold its responsibility to maintain the security of its territory and political autonomy over governance, the government forfeits its right to sovereignty. The purpose of international law is to mitigate anarchy in the international system by ensuring the global protection of human rights and establishing standard operating procedures to facilitate diplomacy. It therefore cannot permit a context in which both are being violated or abused by the party in power. International law should not become a delaying mechanism that inadvertently helps the violent opposition cause further harm.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan empathized with this legalistic versus ethical dilemma, stating, “sovereignty implies responsibility not just power.” In a context in which the de jure sovereign body is not able to exercise its state responsibilities or maintain authority over its territory, it forfeits its claim to sovereignty. Given this circumstance with the Assad regime, the US is ethically justified in its intervention through arming Syrian rebels. IS is not a threat that will diminish without forced containment, necessitating a significant international response and thorough actions toward a viable end to a successful campaign. The strategy must be robust enough to have a high probability of success to prevent an ongoing waste of resources and diminishing political will. The strong and global coalition coordinating various types of resources to aid in this campaign demonstrates the global sense of urgency in combating this threat. Therein, the military aspects of these contributions currently take prevalence as having the largest impact. The US is the only state with the resources, will and political power to lead the military effort against IS, therefore implicating its responsibility to act. Without US action to arm the Syrian rebels, there is limited ground support – only strongly on the Turkish border by the Turkish military and relatively ineffectively in Iraq by the Iraqi military – to ensure the finality of the air strikes’ intentions to contain IS. This leaves a high probability that IS will continue to expand its control militarily and its support from those they radicalize into their ranks. A further empowered IS would necessitate an elongated and increasingly expensive campaign, one that the US government aims to avoid. While there is never a definitive assurance of the success of any campaign, the absence of an armed opposition on the Syrian front significantly decreases the probability of success. It would not be feasible for any foreign military to contribute ground troops within Syria given the additional context. Moreover, there is no domestic political or social will to contribute American ground troops elsewhere in the region. The Syrian rebel groups become the final front to a holistic and hopefully conclusive IS containment strategy. Thus, beyond the paramount ethical argument of protecting collective human security, the US initiative to arm Syrian rebels is also practical from collective security, financial, strategic and sovereignty standpoints.

Amanda Schmitt is a senior at the University of Southern California majoring in International Relations.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors. 

  1. Michael Schmitt, “Legitimacy versus Legality Redux: Arming the Syrian Rebels,” Journal of National Security Law and Policy, 2014.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Stephen Krasner, “Compromising Westphalia,” International Security, vol. 20, no. 3, 1995/1996, 115-116.
  4. Ibid., 150.
  5. Ibid., 151
  6. Michael Fowler and Julie Bunck. Law, Power, and the Sovereign State: The Evolution and Application of the Concept of Sovereignty, Penn State University Press, 1995.


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