It was a hot day in Reyhanli, a small town on the Turkish-Syrian border. "Tell Obama we don't want him to intervene," a Syrian woman yelled to me in Arabic. "We do not want to be another Iraq!" She was half joking, but her 19-year old daughter added on quickly: "We want better equipment for our fighters. Maybe a no-fly zone. But no intervention!"
After spending the past two months speaking with Syrians living in both Reyhanli and a small Syrian town about 30 minutes inside of the border, I've heard a lot. What shook me though was not simply the stories I heard, but the amazement of people, who were shocked that I was taking time to listen at all.
"Why do you care about us?" Syrians would continually ask me after I listened for hours on end to their experiences, fears and opinions. "Why do you study politics if you care about us?"
You are American.
Whether we hold our breath in hopes of U.S. missile strikes in Syria or we close our eyes in fear of further meddling in the Middle East, one question remains that we are publicly ignoring: What do the Syrians want?
From Secretary of State John Kerry to House Speaker John Boehner to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, compelling arguments are presented for U.S. missile strikes in Syria. Frameworks are placed around the precedents set by Kosovo and Libya, around strategic U.S. interests in the region, around a moral obligation we have as leaders in an international community plagued by inertia.
But this is exactly the problem with humanitarian intervention rhetoric of the 21st-century: It too often omits the views of the very people we are supposedly helping, one of the most important facets of any argument for or against humanitarian action.
Consider the very purpose of humanitarian interventions, evident even in the name. Not merely a strategic military move, humanitarian interventions extend to include "humanitarian objectives," such as preventing genocide or the mass killing of innocent civilians. Underlying these objectives is the fundamental belief in the dignity of every human being, recognized legally in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This means not only the protection of life but the respect of it as well. This means treating the people you are supposedly trying to save like they matter.
When speaking before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Mr. Kerry explained the moral and strategic interests of the United States in Syria.
"Now, we must stand up and act, and we must protect our security, protect our values, and lead the world with conviction that is clear about our responsibility," he argued.
But hardly any references were made to actions the Syrian people want. Several politicians vaguely referenced having a Syrian-led transition post-U.S. action, but nothing at all about what Syrians want now.
If we really care about "protecting our values," shouldn't one of our first considerations be to equally represent the viewpoints of the people we are supposedly helping?
And this is exactly why Syrians I have talked with are against U.S. missile strikes. Not just because they disagree with the policy — though many do — but because they feel sidelined from the deliberation process itself. Which makes them much less likely to trust what the United States does in their country and, more broadly, what we stand for.
So whatever action the United States government chooses to pursue in Syria, it is essential that the arguments include substantial, public consideration of what Syrians themselves want the United States to do. This means having in-field testimonies from Syrians themselves. This means politicians taking time to get in touch with the expansive network of non-governmental organizations throughout the region and developing a sense of what people are thinking on the ground, and then using this in their votes for or against U.S. action. This means genuinely asking Syrians what they want.
If we continue to speak for people rather than with them, we not only risk proving our own efforts futile, but dooming future humanitarian efforts as well.