Of Syria and Sovereignty

The Syrian government has become enraged by the actions of the United States. Like a game of chess the US moved ambassador Robert Ford to the eastern city of Hama, the site of previous violence. With ambassador in the city the Syrian government of Bashar Assad has two problems and it’s their move next.

Firstly the US is clearly watching them. What on earth is an ambassador if not to do just that: watch and report back?

Secondly Mr. Ford has quite literally placed himself in the line of fire. He’s a knight straying dangerously close to the wrong side of the board.

It’s a dangerous game to play but imagine if the US ambassador was shot by the stray bullet of a Syrian soldier? If the Syrian armed forces didn’t know they were shelling the hotel of a powerful diplomat? That’s a worst case scenario for Assad. Although of course this game of power play hasn’t been admitted by anyone on either side but I’m going to let you in on a secret. It’s all intentional. The Syrians would not outright murder their own citizens in front of the US representative to Damascus and the chance of him getting caught in the cross fire is too high for them to make the move they wanted to. Well played Obama, check mate. Ford might as well have strapped on some kevlar and gone into the streets.

Assad knows this and he isn’t happy. Part of his cunning scheme to murder his own population has been somewhat foiled. So, what banner does he hold up to assert his authority?

In my mind one of the single most absurd and pernicious myths in international politics… Sovereignty.

The idea that, simply put, whatever happens within a nations own borders are the business of that nation alone. Sovereignty is an absolute doctrine, there is no grey area. According to sovereignty no outside body, from other states to international bodies can comment on, interfere in or forbid act on a matter that is the internal matter of a sovereign state. Regardless of what that matter might be, genocide to war crimes, persecution etc. This notion is laughable for many reasons. Notably that humanity is a single entity with common interests and rights and that borders are essentially artificial. When it comes to matters of mass life or death borders are immaterial, a smoke screen to protect the most ruthless of dictators from Gaddafi to Jong-Il by way of Jiabao and Assad himself.

If this medieval principle was excised from international law it would be the duty, the compulsion of the international community to act in the circumstances mentioned. This is known as the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect. That in situations that constitute crimes against humanity (most usefully laid out in the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court) it is not only OK for countries to intervene, sometimes militarily if all other options have been exhausted, but it is the duty, they must intervene. The doctrine asserts that the sovereignty of nations must bow to the international responsibility to defend humanity against certain crimes. This principle has even been endorsed by the 2005 World Summit of the United Nations.

What the US is doing with Mr. Ford’s move to Hama is reminding Syria that it does not exist in a vacuum. That the rest of the world is watching and we are not happy.

We’ve already flexed our liberal cosmopolitan philosophical muscles and bombed Gaddafi back to the stone age. Who knows, maybe Assad will be next.


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