Should the US take military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria? It’s become the one important question in the US since President Obama announced that the dictatorship had indeed used chemical weapons against its own people. After a year of ducking the question, a brutal attack on August 21 with multiple rockets full of nerve agents into the suburbs of Damascus has made the situation intolerable.
It’s best to never react to the news as it is coming in because everything is fluid. We last wrote about Syria 18 months ago and it was not clear that the horror has lessened. But today it seems as though there has been a breakthrough and the threat of US force, wielded without flinching, works well in the hands of an administration that would rather not have to do it at all.
The year was 1648. After 30 years of Lutherans slaughtering Catholics and Catholics slaughtering Lutherans, Europe had become tired of war. The heart of western Germany, the Palatine, was utterly destroyed. A treaty was concluded at Westphalia, near the heart of the conflict, which crafted peace through a new concept – sovereignty. The warring monarchs agreed that each side had territorial integrity and that neither would interfere in the internal affairs of the others.
The entire world was eventually divided up into “sovereign nations” based on this principle.
The year was 2011. Protesters igniting the “Arab Spring” in Syria were slaughtered by their sovereign national army, and eventually formed something like an armed rebellion in what is now known as a civil war. The world watched in horror as at least 100,000 people were killed, about half civilians, for more than two years. Sovereignty means that no one is supposed to intervene, at least not directly. That has held until repeated attacks by chemical weapons occurred, crossing an apparent “red line” that denotes the limits of sovereignty. The world wants to act to stop it.
Why this line? Why now? What is the real limit of “sovereignty” and what does it mean to be a nation-state today?