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When Human Rights and National Interest Collide

On the Obama Administration’s Inaction in Syria

Human Rights have become an increasingly publicized issue in Western media. Given the advancement of global communication technologies in recent decades, images of human rights abuses have been propelled globally with a reach and speed unmatched in the pre-globalisation era. Images of the Syrian crisis are no exception. The globally viewed image of three year old Aylan Kurdi whose family were trying to reach the safety of Canada has proven to evocatively demonstrate to the Western world the ramifications of the Syrian conflict with a profundity unachievable through language alone. Sparking sympathy globally, Human Rights issues stemming from the conflict in Syria has undoubtedly grabbed the attention of the world. What about at the level of policy though? How does the world’s remaining superpower balance its commitment to Human Rights with its pursuit of securing what is perceived to be in the national interest?

National interest, whilst a debated term, can largely be understood as the perceived “conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance the wellbeing” of the citizens of a nation. As such, the national interest is arguably a vital guiding principle of each nation’s domestic and foreign policy. Undoubtedly, the American national interest has been defined and pursued differently by each administration. From President Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Monroe Doctrine’ forbidding European involvement in North or South America, to President Nixon’s ‘Nixon Doctrine’ aimed at “Vietnamizing” the Vietnam War; the core of US foreign policy has changed throughout the ages in reflection of the changing global landscape. However, whilst the global issues America has faced have changed, what has remained consistent throughout US foreign policy is the desire to keep the United States powerful, secure and prosperous. Evident in the contemporary era through the  proliferation of US style capitalism, intervention in resource rich regions and the continued economic, military and diplomatic might of the U.S.; it is clear that the continued power, stability and prosperity of the United States forms the heart of its national interests.

Nevertheless, nations are not always free to only follow what is in their national interest. Following the Cold War, the U.S. like many other nations pledged to take on a greater role in upholding Human Rights across the globe. Following the genocide’s in Rwanda and the Balkans, there has been a significant shift towards intervention abroad for humanitarian purposes. Following the debate that these tragedies induced, the UN’s International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) and the resulting concept of a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P), significantly redefined state sovereignty. R2P dictated that states are no longer free to simply pursue its interests, a nation also has a ‘responsibility’ to protect the citizens within its borders. Failing to do so, this responsibility of protection then falls to the international community. Formally accepted by all UN member states in 2005, the United States like most other states therefore pledged to protect and uphold Human Rights to a previously unprecedented level.

Despite this, observers of US policy in Syria may argue that the importance of Human Rights has been subsumed by the significance of national interest. As this article will argue, President Barak Obama’s limited action in Syria largely stems from the necessity of preserving what is in The United States’s national interest. Pursuing a policy of caution, it is arguable that he has played it safe in Syria in order to quell domestic anti-intervention sentiment and avoid neo-Cold War entanglements. As a result, it could be said that the President has largely ignored the Human Rights issues plaguing the region, in order to preserve the American national interest.

Currently, his approach to the Syrian Civil War and the “scourge” of ISIS has been one of small scale action from afar. The US’s most notable military actions have been to provide Sunni allies with military aid, deploy small units of Special Operations troops to organise those fighting militants, and of course, launch airstrikes.  However, much of this military aid is likely to have fallen into the hands of ISIS and these airstrikes have been on-going for more than a year with little decline in ISIS power or increased stability in Syria. Given the significant limits of these actions, it would appear that the world’s global policeman has largely taken a step back from the policing of the Syrian crisis.

Repeatedly criticized for being too cautious in his approach to ISIS by foreign policy hawks, those who favour a strong foreign policy based largely on the use of military force, Obama has nonetheless determined to stick to his policy in Syria. His focus in this region continues to be to address the Syrian civil war and insist on the step down of Syrian President Assad as a means of securing stability and battling ISIS. Meeting with French President François Hollande following the events in Paris, the President reaffirmed his belief that in order to tackle ISIS, the Syrian Civil War must be brought to an end.

How this is to be done however, is perhaps less clear. Repeatedly rejecting a large scale deployment of troops and resisting pressures for a no-fly zone, the US administration’s attempts to bring peace in the region are less tangible than the use of military force. Spearheading a US-led coalition targeted at fighting ISIL, it has largely turned to a mix of international diplomacy coupled with limited military action to address the crisis in the region. And yet, given the clamour of state and non-state actors vying for control of the region, it would seem that Obama’s limited military action and cautious diplomatic efforts seem to have little impact in such an unstable region. Given the continuation of the Syrian Civil War and the recent Paris attacks mounted by ISIS, it appears that stability and the decline of ISIS power has yet to occur. 

So why has Barak Obama taken this reserved approach to Syria? Primarily, it could be argued, because a large scale involvement would not serve the United States’ national interests. When discussing his role in Syria, Obama has stated that “My only interest is to end suffering and to keep the American people safe…what I do not do, is to take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough or make me look tough.” By his own words then, it appears that whilst Obama may wish to ‘end suffering’ he is unwilling to take actions which will compromise this second interest of keeping the American people safe. Committing to greater military action would likely result in American casualties, a fate which the American people have largely denounced following President George W. Bush’s infamous War on Terror.  In 2013, 55% of respondents polled said that the US should “do nothing and stay out of the Syrian civil war” despite being told that the administration had concluded that Assad’s government had used chemical weapons to kill over 1,400 civilians in the previous month. Furthermore, only 6% supported aggressive action. Weary from war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems Obama has recognised that to commit to full frontal involvement in Syria and the resulting loss of American life would not be welcomed at home.

Secondly, to commit to greater action in Syria perhaps may be too complicated to partake too directly in. As Obama himself has said, to commit US troops to Syria would be making a “mistake” and serve little “unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.” Well aware of the difficulties this region faces, he has repeatedly highlighted how trying the process of maintaining a stable Syrian state will be. It seems that perhaps the “difficult, long, methodical process to bring back together various factions within Syria to maintain a Syrian state” is one which Obama recognises does little to benefit the U.S.

This hesitance to play a greater role in Syria could also be viewed as a sensible recognition of the complexities of Syrian crisis. As Obama’s statement makes clear, he has commendably given much consideration to the long term process of maintaining peace and stability in Syria. However, given Russia’s involvement in the region, one may also conclude that Obama is reluctant to entangle the United States in situation made even more fraught for America by Putin’s pro-Assad stance. Openly supportive of Assad, Obama had referred to Russia’s actions in Syria as heading towards a “quagmire”, it seems that the President’s policy rests on not heading into that quagmire himself, and furthermore, steering well clear of Russia as it heads for it. With the proxy wars of the Cold War still within living memory, it could be said that the Obama administration has little wish to drag the United States into a war which pits it alongside other anti-Assad actors directly against the pro-Assad coalition of Iran and Russia. As numerous observers have commented, action (or inaction) in Syria is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Cold War. Arguably, a desire to avoid flaring up old confrontations has formed at least a partial role in forming American policy in Syria; it seems implausible that the possible ramifications of pursuing action hostile to Russia’s interests in Syria has not occurred to the President of the United States.

 So, how much has Obama’s policy been driven by the necessity of committing to Human Rights? As this article has argued, very little. The world has unhappily seen what a President’s lack of caution can cause in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, Obama’s caution in Syria can be viewed as stemming from a similar desire to protect US national interests. Shouting down Republicans calling to only accept Christian refugees aside, Obama has done little to actually help the situation or to champion those that are suffering as a result. While avoiding needlessly committing troops to the region is commendable, it does seem that the world’s biggest power could be doing more to encourage peace in the region.

Simply avoiding escalating a conflict is no longer enough when already 11.6 million people have been displaced in less than five years as a result of the Syrian conflict. Stating that his only interest in Syria is to “…end suffering and to keep the American people safe” it seems that the only component of this statement that President Obama is upholding is the latter. Simply creating a coalition is not enough, that coalition needs to commit to greater humanitarian action. Once again it would seem that Human Rights on foreign shores have failed to be as important as what is in the United States’s national interest. This begs the question, how useful is a superpower if it fails to fully engage with one of the most pressing Human Rights issues of our generation?

Author Biography

Scarlett Gurnham is a recent graduate from the University of Nottingham in American and Canadian History, Literature and Culture. As part of her undergraduate degree, Scarlett also studied at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, where she studied International Relations and American and Canadian History. Scarlett is interested in issues of political activism and protest, foreign policy, class, gender and social justice and hopes to pursue these interests through a masters in International Relations next year.

Cover image ‘Syria, Taftanaz‘ by the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation


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