Commentary: Anti-Humanitarian Intervention

“Mission accomplished!” tweeted President Trump, with regard to the recent U.S. airstrikes on Syrian government air bases. The strikes were in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in Douma.

Is it as simple as Trump’s tweet? I’m afraid not. The outcomes of American “humanitarian” intervention in the Middle East have historically proven to be complicated. For instance, the U.S. intervened in Iraq using Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses and accumulation of nuclear weapons as reasons. This intervention failed, which led to the rise of Al-Qaeda, escalated ethnic tensions, and deteriorated living conditions for the Iraqi people. In Libya, the U.S. supported the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, creating what “The Atlantic” calls a “jihadist-filled failed state.”

Both President Trump and United Nations representative Nikki Haley have passionately denounced the recent chemical attack in Douma, which killed dozens of Syrian people. This recent U.S. air strike, which disabled a research and storage facility for chemical weapons, has raised a flurry of responses from all sides. Supporters of the airstrike argue that it hampers Bashar al-Assad’s immediate ability to commit more chemical attacks, but is not enough to prompt retaliation from Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran. Others question what the President’s true mission is in Syria. Does he even know? President Trump has stated that this airstrike is a “one-off,” just like the one last year. So is this mission really enough to protect the Syrian people from future chemical attacks?

Peter Beinart of “The Atlantic” states that the recent strike has failed to meet the criteria for humanitarian intervention set down by a global political commitment called the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), which was endorsed by all member states of the United Nations in order to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. As Beinhart notes, no U.S. intervention since the commitment was written has ever met these criteria.

One criterion, which is called “reasonable prospects,” states that the intervention must have some chance of success. Unfortunately, according to Max Fisher of “The New York Times,” the recent airstrike does not meet this criterion. Firstly, this civil war is a matter of personal and national survival to Assad. Unless his own existence or the existence of his nation is threatened, he will not back down from using chemical weapons. Additionally, Assad can rebuild damaged air bases or storage facilities in another location, as his allies — Russia and Iran — can easily absorb the cost.

Another criterion of R2P, called “Right Intention,” indicates that the intervention must avert or halt human suffering. While President Trump has spoken with passion about the children Assad’s chemical weapons have killed, at the same time, he also declared at a campaign speech in Connecticut that he would look into the faces of Syrian children and say, “You can’t come.” He went on to say that Syrian refugees could be a Trojan horse for terrorists on U.S. soil.

In frustration with Prime Minister May’s eagerness to join the U.S. intervention in Syria, but refusal to increase the number for resettling Syrian refugees in the U.K., James O’Brien, a British journalist, tweeted, “Dropping bombs on a country but voting against allowing refugee children fleeing the conflict to come here. That’s got to be worse than running through a wheat field.”

The recent airstrike has already failed to meet both humanitarian war criteria set by R2P. So, then, what is the intention or mission with Syria? Is the airstrike some sort of test to ‘see what happens’ or find out ‘how far can we go’ before Russia and Iran retaliate? Is it President Trump’s attempt to show his might and willingness to ignore Congress (he never asked their permission to strike)?

The whole situation is very nebulous, but one thing is crystal clear: as Beinart concludes in his article, we should not glorify these airstrikes by calling them “humanitarian interventions.” They are a lot of things, but definitely not that.

Miraya Bhayani is a Junior from Orchard, Singapore. Contact the author at