06/09/2013 08:55 BST | Updated 06/11/2013 05:12 GMT

International Intervention in the Twitter Age

The Obama Administration's envisaged armed intervention into the Syrian conflict (in response to the use of chemical weapons that killed and sickened hundreds of people) may be the first planned military operation to be strategized entirely in 140 characters or less.

The Obama Administration's envisaged armed intervention into the Syrian conflict (in response to the use of chemical weapons that killed and sickened hundreds of people) may be the first planned military operation to be strategized entirely in 140 characters or less. Twitter recently celebrated its seventh birthday, meaning that opinion-havers must have employed the social media platform during the debate surrounding the use of force in Libya in 2011. However, the long build-up to potential action in Syria has given the Twitterati an opportunity to sharpen their rhetorical knives, and speculation, impressions and conspiracy theories are running rampant. Twitter's strengths--the opportunity to give instant feedback, and its sheer brevity--are unfortunately transposed in a scenario such as this, and complex questions of international law, foreign relations and military strategy are being diluted to their lowest common denominator, in order to provide witty, pithy commentary.

Thus, Britain is "brave" for not marching in lock-step with the U.S, and MPs took a courageous stance in voting against involvement in Syria, reflecting the will of their citizens. Or maybe the UK is only a confused, fading power, and the vote revealed nothing so much as the fact that the political class is in fractured disarray.

Of course, the British parliamentary vote compelled Obama to ask Congress for authorization to use force in Syria--anything else would be blatant disregard for the Constitution and a shameful sellout of American values. But would it? We could probably just go it alone. Or maybe with France!

Any U.S. airstrikes undertaken against the Syrian regime without U.N. Security Council authorization would be clearly illegal under international law, because the U.S. is not acting in self-defense. Except maybe not. Possibly it's legitimate, but not legal? Should Member States submit a resolution to the Security Council anyway, even with the near-certainty of a Russian and/or Chinese veto? Sigh. Thank goodness we have a widely-adopted social media platform with hair-trigger response time that purposefully limits verbosity, ensuring that all users cherry-pick only the sources that support their predetermined conclusions.

I favor intervention. But I do not generally monger wars in my spare time, and do recognize that any operation in Syria will have unforeseen consequences, including likely civilian deaths. I'm glad the Obama Administration decided to consult Congress, as democracies should not have legislatures that merely rubber stamp their approval for major military operations. I totally agree that Kerry et al. did not bring their "A Game" to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier this week. I acknowledge that the U.S.' purported allies in the Syrian conflict are a disparate, disorganized, motley crew, with some extremely unsavoury elements.

Most of all, I understand the American public's deep distrust of their government, starting with the Commander-in-Chief. We've just learned they've been spying on us--illegally at that--and rather than proffering groveling apologies and launching credible investigations into wrongdoing, the Administration would like us to just get over it. Also, could we please stop asking pesky questions about their motives and policies? That information is, obviously, classified, and if we keep trying to report on it, the Administration will have no choice but to criminalize investigative reporting. #Gitmo, #drones, #whistleblowers, you name it: there are myriad ways this administration has not lived up to the promises of the 2008 campaign.

I accept all of these troublesome and tiresome facts as true, and yet I'm still supportive of intervention into the Syrian conflict, led by the United States (and hopefully with a comprehensive coalition of partners). Because something has to be done, and epic failures in one policy area do not preclude action in all other policy areas. The status quo in Syria is not sustainable: we can bury our heads in the sand all we want, but that won't make it go away.

Strenuous diplomatic efforts should continue, the U.N. needs to be involved, and plans for an ultimate negotiated political settlement must be made. We can (and should) argue over why chemical weapons (long outlawed, always indiscriminate) are the tipping point; legitimate questions exist over why this conflict has finally attracted the international community's attention, when there are so many others bubbling at a slow burn around the world.

But this reasoning is circular at best--the fact that we didn't intervene before is not an impediment to acting now; the fact that we haven't yet addressed other devastating conflicts doesn't preclude getting involved in Syria. It could be as simple as all the necessary factors lined up in the case at hand: a heady mix of international legal norms, humanitarian disaster, self-interest by external actors and a common enemy. The truth may be unpalatable, but we have to accept the circumstances as they exist: there is no hope of rebuilding Syria with Assad at the helm, and he has given no indication that he cares at all for the lives and well-being of his citizens. The modern human rights movement rose from the ashes of the Second World War, from the understanding that sometimes people need protection from their own governments, and the international community will not stand idly by and watch. (At least, they won't stand idly by and watch indefinitely.)

One hundred thousand people are dead; two million live in refugee camps; 4.5 million are displaced within Syria (and there is a gaping lack of legal protections for these "internally displaced persons"). Syria's neighbors are doing the best they can to cope with the influx of refugees crossing the borders every day, but resources are being strained to the breaking point. Tensions are high within the camps, as competition for supplies exists alongside ethno-sectarian strife, stoked by Syrian regime provocateurs that infiltrate the camps posing as victims. Human rights violations are increasingly common in a desperate situation: "Syrian child brides" are becoming a phenomenon in Jordanian camps. While wealthy Turkey has spent billions in its efforts to provide education, housing and healthcare to the refugees it is hosting, its neighbors with less resources (Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan) cannot continue to do so. An entire generation of Syrians is looking at an insecure future and the ramifications will be intense.

If a humanist argument doesn't persuade policymakers, perhaps an egoistic one will: it is very easy to argue from the comfort of our European and North American living rooms, in between box sets of Breaking Bad, that this "isn't our problem." But what if it was our problem? What if we were the ones facing chemical weapons, civil war, murderous dictators and massive displacement from the only life we had ever known? Would it be OK if the rest of the world blithely washed their hand of us, determining that it was "too hard" to do anything? While our lives were being irreparably damaged, would we take psychological comfort that at least, well, they stuck to their principles? I suspect it's pretty hard to update your Twitter feed from a refugee camp.

The world is a big, interconnected place, and the international community won't be able to escape the consequences of the Syrian conflict whether it chooses to intervene or not. It's better to be on the right side of history, even if perhaps not for entirely the right reasons.