When and How to Intervene?

The news this past week from Aleppo is overwhelming, with accounts like this one being almost too difficult to read/watch. The city has been in a constant state of conflict for years, with the horror escalating the more foreign parties intervene. Russia, which is an ally of the ruling Assad regime of Syria, supposedly controls the airspace in Syria – and yet massive barrel bombs are regularly dropped on marketplaces and other public spaces from planes, prompting many organizations to charge Russia with war crimes. A ceasefire was greeted with last-minute attacks on civilians even as rebel fighters were allowed to evacuate; this often happens at the end of wars or battles, with the winning side killing and raping civilians as a way to settle scores. The evacuation has now been halted, and there is concern that fighting might begin again.

I remember several years ago hearing an impassioned plea from a Syrian woman, who lamented that the West was not intervening as Assad killed his own people. That was at the beginning of the civil war. The West has still not intervened in the way we did in Afghanistan or Iraq, giving us a sense that we’ve just been standing by while people are butchered. It’s hard to take.

What if we had marched into Damascus the same way we marched into Iraq? What if we had occupied Aleppo the way that we occupied Kandahar? Would those people be better off? It’s hard to say. I don’t think there’s much we could have done to stop the violence, if anything. We should feel awful for the people of Syria, but we should not feel guilty for the fall of Aleppo.

What we can say, with some certainty, is that the current problems in Syria are exacerbated by our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. In the vacuum of power created by the fall of the Taliban and the regime of Saddam Hussein, ISIS arose, creating even greater destabilization throughout the region. Instability begets radicalism, radicalism begets violence, and violence begets instability. We have been attempting to create stability and peace through force and violence in that region of the world for so long that we have unwittingly contributed to the vicious cycle.

So when should we intervene, and how? I’ve been hearing those questions a lot, and I’m beginning to wonder if they’re the wrong questions.

We have a duty to our fellow humans to save their lives, if we can. But we also have a duty to our fellow humans not to kill them. Once a war has started, we are limited in our ability to intervene in a way that doesn’t undermine one of those two duties. The bizarre logic of killing to save lives gets us nowhere. We must instead remember that we have other duties.

We have a duty of hospitality. In the Ancient Near East, hospitality was a sacred duty, not to be transgressed: the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, shows what happens to the inhospitable, and the great lengths that those committed to hospitality must go for their guests. Two travellers were not able to find accommodation in Sodom, and as the sun sets they were left standing in a city square; Lot, being a righteous man, insists on taking them in, just in time to avoid the men of the city coming to rape them. As it turns out, the two men were angels of the Lord; Lot’s action of hospitality is enough to save him and his family, while the inhospitable city is destroyed.

We might not be able to stop the violence, but we can be hospitable. That means taking in as many refugees as we can, and empowering those who can save, protect, heal, and move people out of harm’s way. There are many articles, like this one, outlining ways that we can do so.

Sometimes people are intent on violence, and there’s nothing we can do to dissuade them. Sanctions don’t always make a difference, international courts are slow moving, and sabre-rattling provokes violence or escalation as often as it deters it.  We are often told, in such moments, that we have a duty to fight; but violence cannot conquer violence. While our nation cannot command its people to do so, the most principled of us may choose to put ourselves in the way physically to protect others; but we as a nation can most certainly do whatever we can to help people to get out of the way.

Aleppo is not the result of our inaction, but the dire situation of unsettled refugees is. We cannot be responsible for the violence of dictators, but we can be – and are – responsible for saving and serving the people affected by it.

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