Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Responding to Syria’s War

Michael J. Gerson


By Michael J. Gerson

August 30, 2013

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa. 

Last week I returned from Jordan, a nation strained to the breaking point because its neighbor, Syria, has descended into violence and chaos. About 600,000 refugees have come across the border into a county of only seven million people. One refugee camp, which was an empty stretch of sand a year ago, now has about 120,000 residents, making it the fourth largest city in Jordan.

Over several days, I talked with Syrian refugees, both in the camps and those living in towns and cities in Jordan. They told terrible stories of suffering. While there are abuses on all sides of the complex Syrian conflict, the Assad regime has engaged in mass violence against civilians, using artillery, aerial bombing, SCUD missiles, and chemical weapons on neighborhoods. It has targeted schools during school hours, bakeries, clinics, and hospitals. I met one man whose uncle, a nurse, was killed by an agent of the regime merely for having medical supplies in his home. He was accused of treating the rebels. Nearly every refugee I talked to had family members killed, wounded, or missing. 

How should we respond to such horror? 

First, Jordan and other neighboring countries need humanitarian assistance. Although many organizations are doing good work, I’ve been told by some of the leaders of aid organizations that their fundraising appeals in Western countries have generally fallen flat. Donors don’t seem interested in the Syrian crisis, for a variety of reasons, none of them good. But the need is real and growing worse. 

Second, the Syrian crisis shows the importance of foreign assistance from the American government and from other countries. All of the public services in a place like Jordan are under tremendous stress. Schools are running double shifts to accommodate refugees. Hospitals are filled to overflowing and drug shortages are common. Water deliveries in an arid country have becomes less frequent. Unless the American government gives Jordan a hand, economic strains could cause political instability. While foreign aid comes under a lot of political criticism, in this case it is preventing the spread of chaos in a vital region.     

Third, the attacks on civilians by the regime must be recognized and confronted. America and much of the world have accepted a norm of international law called “the responsibility to protect.”  It means that the sovereignty of nations, while worthy of respect, is not unlimited.  When nations betray their most basic responsibilities and commit mass atrocities against their own citizens, other countries have a duty to respond. 

Applying the responsibility to protect in the midst of a complex civil war is very difficult, and it does not always mean military action. But America is now wrestling with its duties to the Syrian people and with the broader requirements of security and stability in the Middle East. The options are flawed. Yet there is one option we do not have: to simply turn away.

The Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Security and Defense and an accompanying essay outline some considerations of America's responsibilities within the context of the international community.

-  Michael J. Gerson is a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010). 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”