Tanks repose in the rubble of of Azaz, north of Aleppo. / Photograph: Christiaan Triebert

How many Syrian refugees should the United States accept? In the wake of terrorist atrocities in Paris, more than half of state governors offered a simple answer: none. Several noted that one of the Parisian attackers may have entered Europe as a refugee via the Aegean island of Leros. In Alabama Governor Robert Bentley’s words, to accept such refugees would place his constituents “in harm’s way.” And for what reason? Implicit in the governors’ resistance is the intuition that the United States has no moral obligation to alleviate the suffering of distant foreigners embroiled in a civil war.

Judging by its actions, the federal government likewise perceives no obligation to accept refugees; it occasionally does so as a minimal humanitarian gesture. Just over 2,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the United States. Secretary of State John Kerry has urged slightly greater hospitality, proposing that 10,000 be permitted entrance. Yet more than 4 million are displaced externally and nearly 8 million internally, most of them by the regime of Bashar Assad, not by the Islamic State. Around half are children, implausible triggers of security panic.

The United States played a formative role in deepening the violence and directing it toward civilians under threat from Assad.

Americans might be more welcoming if we felt we bore some responsibility for the crisis. But the common assumption, implicit in Kerry’s apparent generosity and the governors’ risk-aversion, is that we don’t. In the mid-1970s, the end of the American war in Southeast Asia catalyzed an exodus for which the United States took responsibility, but that was then and this is now.

True enough. Syria today is not Vietnam circa 1976. Nevertheless, careful examination shows that the United States has shaped the Syrian war in ways that have intensified the violence and fostered greater displacement. By encouraging conflict just as it turned violent, making uncompromising demands that undermined the possibility of a negotiated international settlement, and using military force in a way that channels the Assad regime’s forces toward civilian populations, the United States has entangled itself in the Syrian refugee crisis. In light of these facts, even narrow conceptions of global justice saddle the United States with an obligation to refugees far beyond what has been acknowledged so far.

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The philosopher Thomas Nagel offers a useful framework for thinking about the demands of global justice in this context—useful, here, not because it places heavy cross-border responsibilities on the liberal democratic state but, rather, because it doesn’t. Nagel’s brand of strong statism holds that norms of justice apply solely among members of a polity. Most moral obligations, Nagel believes, expire at the nation’s jurisdictional frontier. Yet even on this narrow account—in contrast to cosmopolitan commitments that extend principles of justice to all people, regardless of national boundaries—one finds moral obligations that reach the Syrian case.

Nagel identifies two exceptions to what he candidly labels a “conservative” vision. The first arises where “minimal humanitarian morality” demands action, although he is not precise about what this means. But, for the sake of argument, let us say that, through $4.5 billion already allotted in aid for Syrian refugees and meager resettlement, the United States has done its job. Like a wealthy individual who gives charitably to poor people but feels no duty to house them in her own home, Americans have plausibly discharged any obligation owing to minimal humanitarian morality.

The second exception, though, still applies, and it doesn’t let the United States off so easily. If, Nagel argues, a society has inflicted wrongs, it may accrue an obligation to make reparation. Stated more generally, moral obligation might arise if two societies’ trajectories become entangled, with one society shaping the other’s destiny in some relevant way. Although Nagel does not elaborate on this idea, his intuition can be extended to circumstances in which a state shapes global politics such that some group of noncitizens is subject to a predictable mortal risk from third parties. That is, even if a state has no responsibility to a group outside its borders, by placing such a group at mortal risk, it can accrue a moral obligation to act.

This is not just abstract moral logic. The idea of taking responsibility for placing someone in harm’s way resonates in American constitutional law. It is established doctrine that when a state official plays a motivating role in exposing a person to private violence, the state is at fault for resulting harms. For example, when police pull over and arrest a driver, but leave vulnerable passengers behind in the vehicle under circumstances in which they are likely to come to harm, courts have found the passengers’ constitutional rights violated. Even Americans who share Nagel’s state-centered perspective on moral obligations would likely concede that this legal position reflects a powerful intuition about responsibility.

But what does it have to do with the U.S. stance on Syrian refugees? A great deal, in fact, as the history of the conflict demonstrates.

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American involvement in the Syrian war takes three forms. On their own, none plainly entails moral responsibility toward the Syrian refugees. Together, however, they reveal the formative role the United States has played in deepening the violence and directing it toward civilians under threat from the Assad regime—the primary source of refugees.

First, when peaceful protests first broke out in March 2011, the United States supported the Assad regime. Rather infamously, then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called President Assad a “reformer” and contrasted him with the recently ousted Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. As late as May 6—four days after Syrian tanks shelled the city of Deraa, killing dozens of civilians—Clinton said the United States was “pushing hard for the Government of Syria to live up to its own stated commitment to reforms.” Armed resistance to Assad emerged in June in Idlib province and became increasing organized over the remainder of that year. As the opposition turned violent, the U.S. position toward Assad also pivoted sharply. On August 18, with the death toll climbing, President Obama finally called for Assad’s resignation. “It is time for the Syrian people to determine their own destiny, and we will continue to stand firmly on their side,” he said. Obama’s about-face came two weeks after Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, firmly stated that there was “no indication whatsoever” the United States would act militarily in Syria.

The idea of taking responsibility for placing someone in harm’s way resonates in American constitutional law.

Early U.S. interventions in Syria thus accelerated the armed conflict. The Obama administration promised to “stand firmly” with the rebels only when they became violent. It is hard to imagine these words had no effect. Yet even as it encouraged armed resistance to the Assad regime, the administration had no intention of seriously aiding that resistance. In effect, the United States poured fuel upon a military conflagration whose devastating humanitarian impact anyone could have predicted, but it did nothing to mitigate the consequences.  

In response to this argument, one might answer that the shift in U.S. sentiments over the summer of 2011 was a just response to the Assad regime’s turn to violence. That the shift coincided with deepening conflict is mere happenstance, for which the United States cannot be blamed. But Assad’s violence long predates the American change of heart. Indeed, the United States has taken advantage of that violence, relying on Assad’s intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, to imprison and torture victims of “extraordinary rendition” after September 11. Although the Obama administration notionally abjured Bush-era torture, it has never apologized or offered restitution to the victims, nor has it condemned, let alone punished, the State and Defense Department officials who arranged for transfer and torture to occur. It is naïve to suggest that principles of justice turned the United States against Assad.

Second, once the United States abandoned Assad, its intransigence over the future of the regime made negotiating a ceasefire much more difficult, leading to more military repression and, predictably, increased refugee flows.

During two rounds of UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, the United States refused opportunities to pursue a compromise that might stanch the bloodshed. During the first conference, in June 2012, Secretary Clinton announced categorically that Assad would “have to go,” a position that clashed with mediator Kofi Annan’s proposal for a transitional government that blended elements of the Assad regime and its opposition. Annan later resigned as mediator and cast blame widely for the failure of Geneva I. But while he agreed with Clinton that Assad could not remain in power, Annan simultaneously blamed the United States for failing to perceive the need for a transitional process. At the second round of Geneva talks, in October 2013, the United States was unwilling to countenance external military pressure on the Syrian regime to compromise, even as it stuck to the position that Assad could not be part of a transitional government.

The United States is not solely responsible for the failure of Geneva I and II. As Annan saw it, most of the blame lay with the Syrian regime itself. Nevertheless, U.S. moral rigidity—in stark contrast to its pre–August 2011 practices—was an obstacle to a ceasefire. Negotiated transitions from armed conflict almost always demand compromise. By refusing to yield in the slightest, the United States ensured more death and destruction would be visited on the very civilians alongside whom it purported to “stand firmly.”

Finally, the pattern of U.S. military action and inaction in Syria has worsened the conflict. This is not to say that the United States has ever had an obligation to intervene militarily. Deploying American troops to Syria presents many difficult strategic questions, as Rajan Menon has persuasively argued. But we must also recognize that the United States is already militarily engaged in Syria. U.S. strategy has enabled Assad to focus on foes intermingled with urban populations, while simultaneously failing to lend those populations, where possible, protection from the regime’s aerial attacks. In other words, U.S. strategy has channeled violence toward civilians, with predictably dire consequences.

U.S. military action has, for good reasons, focused on the Islamic State, with some air support flowing to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. American forces have launched more than 6,000 airstrikes against the Islamic State and deployed about 3,500 personnel to train and advise the Iraqi army. But while the Islamic State is a genuine threat worth fighting, the aerial and ground offensive now occupying it comes with a crucial side effect: it has relieved pressure on the Assad regime, which has responded by concentrating on enemies in the country’s urbanized west and south. The United States, in effect, freed Assad to level his own cities.  

One could argue that the Islamic State poses a greater threat to U.S. interests than does Assad, hence it is worth fighting the Islamic State even if doing so is to Assad’s benefit. But, in that case, the United States is nonetheless opening Syrians to further bloodshed. In such circumstances, it faces special obligations to shelter those civilians, and yet it has not done so even when it could have. The International Crisis Group (ICG), for which I was formerly an analyst, recently published a devastating critique of the U.S. failure to “dissuade, deter, and otherwise prevent” aerial attacks on opposition-held areas in southern Syria by means of no-fly zones. ICG argues that such intervention would mitigate “dire” humanitarian conditions, slow refugee flows, and “improve prospects for an eventual negotiated end of the war.” Although such a no-fly zone would likely not extend to all of the western areas that have suffered from Assad’s military strikes, it could create a haven for refuges within Syria.

ICG’s case is not mere hawkishness. The argument is nuanced and meticulously researched, eschewing any suggestion that military intervention will inevitably succeed. Instead, the recommendation is to engage in a narrow intervention—establishing no-fly zones over rebel-held areas in the south—that has a meaningful chance to reduce immediate suffering and hasten the war’s end. Yet the United States has refused this carefully limited intervention even as it has driven the Assad regime’s attention to civilian centers. 

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Together, U.S. encouragement of armed conflict, refusal to pursue de-escalation, and rejection of responsibility for civilians thrown at Assad’s feet move us beyond the minimal floor of humanitarian duty. American obligations run deeper.

In his essay, Nagel speaks of two nations that come, in John Rawls’s words, to “share one another’s fate.” That is not the case here. Nor can responsibility for the refugee crisis be laid exclusively on America’s doorstep. But American decisions helped to manufacture the conditions unfolding before us. We should therefore set aside threadbare excuses for inaction and provide to Syria’s refugees the full measure of what we owe.