The skies over strife-torn Syria are now a playground for combat aircraft of various other nations. They fight not each other, but elusive quarries on the ground, including that mutable entity — ‘terrorism’.

Russian air operations began on September 30, over a year since the US opened the newest chapter in its unending mission of overwhelming terror with terror. Yet Russia has seemingly achieved greater success, without earning any appreciation for its efforts or approval of its strategic objectives.

In the free-for-all over Syrian airspace, agreement on the purposes of combat operations is non-existent and Russia alone has a mandate from the sovereign government of the land. All others — the US, France and Turkey principally — are using the slippery pursuit of terrorism as a means of dismantling the sovereign state, though the cockiness of past years is conspicuously lacking. The record of liberal intervention since Iraq compels a degree of caution even in the most deluded minds.

As the US steps into a season of fierce electoral contestation, the right-wing of the Republican Party is fashioning a campaign plank in which Russia’s entry into the Syrian theatre would be portrayed as exhibit A in a story of US decline. The strategic course proposed is a ‘no-fly zone’ that the US would police over Syria, even at the risk of collision with Russian aircraft on combat missions.

International relations doctrine argues that every state, even when motivated by narrow self-interest, should show due regard for the sovereignty of counterparts. Interventions in another’s affairs would be premised upon the concerned state’s consent.

Exceptions in the real world would be made when one state purports superior wisdom. Colonialism was such a system of tutelage, which created apparatuses of state governance across much of the world map, engendering after World War II a mosaic of nations that passed to US imperial oversight.

State sovereignty could at one time be shredded every time the US perceived a threat to its interests, which in turn were equated to the general good. When this moral pretence became too heavy to sustain, a higher purpose was invented in the protection of human rights. The ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) became official doctrine in 2005, just ahead of the 60th anniversary of the UN, a system otherwise premised upon state sovereignty.

Liberal interventionism is the spawn of an acknowledged principle that state sovereignty does not grant freedom to do horrible things within internationally recognised boundaries. It was the fig-leaf former British Prime Minister Tony Blair reached for recently when he proffered a long overdue apology for his complicity in the US drive to war in Iraq in 2003. There would be no apology for the toppling of the Iraqi regime, he clarified, though the failure to plan for the day after was admittedly a serious lapse.

The International Coalition for the R2P, a voluntary body formed in 2009 to monitor the doctrine’s practical implementation, has held Iraq an instance of its misapplication. So too Libya, which erupted in insurrectionary violence in 2011. The African Union was quick to warn against an expansive R2P reading in the Libyan context, explicitly opposing the ‘one-sided interpretations’ that would create conditions for ‘military and other actions on the ground’. The coalition of oil-rich potentates that goes by the name of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had no such qualms, explicitly calling in the early days of unrest, for UN Security Council action to ‘protect civilians, including enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya’.

R2P is a troublesome new intrusion in international legal doctrine that seriously complicates an already muddled discourse on human rights and state sovereignty. Practical exigencies of governance following the very radical vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — adopted in 1948 — forced the introduction of certain caveats. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, effective as part of the ‘international bill of rights’ since 1974, imposes certain responsibilities as the inevitable price for the enjoyment of individual rights. And it allows for exceptions to the fundamental rights in particular circumstances.

One among these provisos, ‘the protection of national security or of public order’ was then accepted with little demur, but has since become a zone of serious contestation. An argument could be made that in the absence of ‘national security’ and ‘public order’, individual citizens would be deprived of all liberties. What would prevail then would be chaos and anarchy, of Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’.

This, in turn, points towards a knotty paradox at the core of the human rights discourse. An individual enters into a social contract with fellow beings to live at peace, in part by delegating responsibility for life and liberty — most prized among all possessions — to an external agency. State sovereignty is an outcome of multiple such acts of delegation.

The human rights dilemma is derivative of the paradox of sovereignty that Italian Giorgio Agamben among modern political theorists has drawn attention to. In the absence of the state, there would be no mechanism for the defence of rights. Anything that threatens the existence of the state or its legitimacy, potentially threatens the rights of all. The state functions under the law but also reserves the power to determine when exceptions could be made, when it should invoke the doctrine of necessity.

In the international context, the US has, as legatee of the colonial mandate, been main arbiter of when the doctrine of necessity should be invoked.

The consequences in terms of the unfolding chaos across much of the globe, clearly call for an end to that state of exception.

Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Gurgaon, Shimla