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The reaction to the use of chemical weapons in Syria

by Richard Meckien - published Sep 30, 2013 01:35 PM - - last modified Sep 30, 2013 03:53 PM
Rights: Carlos Malferrari

The issue was debated at the meeting 'Ética e Ataque' ('Ethics and Attack'), conducted by the IEA on September 11.

Mesa-redonda 'Ética e Ataque'On September 11, as the world recalled two striking events – the military coup in Chile and the attack on the Twin Towers in New York –, the unfolding of a new tragic chapter of contemporary history was discussed at the IEA. The roundtable “Ethics and Attack” brought up the arising possibility of military intervention in Syria by the U.S. government in response to the use of chemical weapons in that country’s civil war.

Organized by the IEA’s Contemporary Societies Laboratory in partnership with the Institute of International Relations (IRI) of the University of São Paulo, the debate focused on two main issues: Can political actions solve international conflicts by preventing the use of force? Can ethics remain indifferent to the monstrousness of deploying chemical weapons?

Participants of the encounter included sociologist Bernardo Sorj (by videoconference) and anthropologist Massimo Canevacci, both visiting professors of the IEA, and IRI’s legal scholars specialized in International Law Pedro Dallari, vice-director of the institute, and Deisy Ventura. The event was moderated by philosopher Renato Janine Ribeiro, member of the IEA board.

The interests involved

Inspired by the wave of protests in the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring, the conflict in Syria emerged two years ago with a political agenda of democratization. However, according Dallari, the movement quickly underwent a transformation and acquired ethnic overtones when the predominant Sunnis assumed the leadership of the insurgency against the government of dictator Bashar al-Assad, from the Alawite minority. Dallari said that this ethnic cleavage led to the internationalization of the conflict, with each side seeking support from groups and countries with common interests. The Sunnis, for instance, are now being supported by the jihadists of Al-Qaeda.

Sorj also addressed the internationalization of the conflict. According to him, Russia and Iran have been arming the Syrian government, while the Arab nations have been arming the rebels. “The war goes on with support from all sides. In this sense, criticizing Obama unilaterally is basically unfair,” he added, pointing out that the president of the United States has sought to be the least interventionist possible. “Obama’s stance of not sending arms to the rebels is a worthy of merit,” he insisted.

Dallari, on the other hand, considers that the American president’s option to not arm the rebels derives from the alignment between the United States and Israel, the latter having no interest in overthrowing Assad for fear of steeply increasing instability in the region. For the Israelis, he noted, it is better to have a minority at the helm of the Syrian government than risking power being seized by the radical ethnic majority.

Ventura, in turn, argued that the issue of attacking Syria should be considered in terms of overcoming the dichotomy between innocence and cynicism: “The innocence of alleging that intervention was motivated by a wish to safeguard human rights, and the cynicism of claiming that no country has the right to intervene in the affairs of another.”

For him, the binary logic that pits good against evil does not apply to Syria, since it is not possible to identify supporters and violators of human rights. As an example, he mentioned the case of the United States, whose interventions are motivated more by security concerns than by human rights issues – the latter being the only legitimate motivation.

“Every state that proposes to intervene does so selectively, and this selectivity is not determined by how much human rights are violated but by the power relations that prevail in each case,” he said, warning that neutral intervention is impossible and that any kind of intervention implies changes in the balance of forces. Sorj likewise stated that “any intervention in any country will always mix values ​​and interests.”


Canevacci, who proposed the meeting, raised questions about the legitimacy of the American initiative. According to him, the threat of an attack on Syria is based on a chastisement-driven ethics, e.g., punishing the Assad regime by resorting to war to give him a lesson in kindness.

“But is this ethics universal? Who has the right to put into question the autonomy of a State?” he asked, noting that no single country should decide if another country has committed a crime against humanity. “That is up to the United Nations, a supranational organization that was given the power to make such decisions.” Notwithstanding, the United States took it upon themselves to define a universal ethics and the right to intervene whenever the limits they deem tolerable are exceeded.

Speaking from the perspective of International Law, Dallari said the U.N. Charter (the 1945 document that gave birth to the United Nations) specifies only two circumstances whereby intervention in a State is legitimate: in case of self-defense or through a resolution of the U.N.’s Security Council. “And the US intervention does not meet any of these requirements,” he emphasized.

He also explained that, from the viewpoint of responsibility for human rights violations, it is irrelevant who ​​used chemical weapons in Syria. “When it comes to International Law, whenever there is a situation of violation of human rights, it is the State that is accountable; therefore, it is the Syrian government that is responsible, regardless of who used the weapons.”

Ethics vs. Law

According to Janine, the threat of an attack on Syria by the United States should not be thought only in terms of Law, since there is be a big difference between the approach of Law and that of ethics. “Law discusses which interventions are lawful, a role that the United States would like to take on.” For him, ethics goes way beyond the application of consensual norms and the assurance of legal certainty, since it should be the obligation of every government, regardless of the laws, to abide by ethical principles.

Janine recalled that when the crisis in Syria began in the wake of the Arab Spring, it was a movement to overthrow a dictatorship. This made analyses easier, as any dictatorship is in itself unethical. “But the issue became more complicated when discussions began about what kind of freedom would be established after the overthrow,” he said, noting that the Syrian rebels tend to favor collective freedom based on ethnic identity, not individual freedom.

“For them, ethnicity is more important than the individual, so we have multiple agendas enmeshed in conflict: those of democracy, of the right to life and of the rights of the various ethnic groups involved,” he explained.


In addition to discussing the American attack on Syria from the ethical and the legal viewpoints, the panel also talked about the effectiveness of the initiative. In Dallari’s interpretation, the effort would be innocuous in terms of promoting peace, since we are no longer dealing with a struggle for democracy, but rather with a dispute between ethnicities. “To what extent bombing military facilities in Syria might stop a conflict stemming from ethnic issues?” he insisted, warning that this would only lead to the escalation of the negative effects of the crisis.

Ventura also pointed to the ineffectiveness of an American attack and of international interventions as a whole. To him, wars are being replaced by other forms of intervention that, while posing as “surgical,” actually establish diffuse situations of violence, causing tremendous damage and only partially restoring dignity. “Many countries that underwent intervention have yet to recover, and remain sunken in violence,” he said.


Discussing ways to solve the conflict in Syria, Canevacci stressed that Law is not enough. For him, an issue as complex as this must be addressed by plural ways of thinking that take into account the dimensions of culture and citizenship, and above all seek alternatives to war. “Contrary to what Law claims to be, no objective system exists to solve war crimes; therefore, we must face the problem in Syria through dialogue and the dispersal of values, ​​and by striving to overcome the dichotomy between good and evil,” he concluded.

Dallari acknowledged the limitations of Law in face of the ethnic cleavage in the conflict and that we must promote dialogue between cultures. “But how to achieve this?” For him, at the moment the only real possibility for a solution is the diplomatic proposal spearheaded by Russia.

Ventura, on the other hand, recalled that International Law specifies alternatives to armed intervention, but that these would be much more grueling. According to him, the U.N. could, for example, present Syria’s case to the International Criminal Court and request that war criminals be tried. However, he warned, there would be some obstacles, since the court has not been ratified by the United States and other major nations.


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