Is This Obama's 'Put Up or Shut Up' Moment on Syria Intervention?

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Syrians carry the bodies of men whom activists say were killed by the army in Taftanaz village, east of Idlib. (Reuters)

The ratcheting up of violence in Syria, including the massacres of civilians in Houla and Qubair, is placing extraordinary pressure on the Obama administration to match its tough anti-atrocities rhetoric with practical action. The pending failure of the Annan peace plan, and the former secretary-general's declaration that the country is headed for "all-out civil war," is quickly driving the White House toward an unenviable election-year choice: either sit back and watch the carnage, or forge an ad hoc coalition to prevent Syrian depredations. Senior administration officials have made it clear that if the UN Security Council (UNSC) fails to "assume its responsibilities," in the words of U.S. envoy Susan E. Rice, "members of this council and members of the international community are left with the option only of having to consider whether they're prepared to take actions outside of the Annan Plan and the authority of this council."  

For Washington, it's put up or shut up time.

Nearly seven years ago world leaders unanimously endorsed a new international principle, the "responsibility to protect." This would-be norm establishes the sovereign obligation of all states to prevent atrocities from being committed on their territories. When a regime fails to do so (or commits atrocities itself), that responsibility devolves to the international community, which may take a series of escalating steps including armed intervention to protect the country's inhabitants.

That, at least, is the theory. The deteriorating situation in Syria, where the Assad regime's atrocities continue unabated, shows just how challenging it is to translate this principle into practice. Indeed, Security Council deadlock and buyer's remorse among UN member states have led some to suggest that R2P is dead.

These obituaries are premature. But the bleak situation in Syria underscores just how difficult it can be to vindicate the principle when the world's great powers are deadlocked over the merits of armed intervention.

The Syrian situation poses an excruciating--and potentially embarrassing--quandary for the Obama administration, which only last August declared that "preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States."  Seven weeks ago, the White House upped the expectations ante again, releasing, "a comprehensive strategy and new tools to prevent and respond to atrocities." The headline was the creation of a senior-level Atrocities Prevention Board, charged with "help[ing] the U.S. government identify and address atrocity threats, and oversee institutional changes that will make us more nimble and effective." To inform its work, the president commissioned the first ever National Intelligence Estimate on "the global risk of mass atrocities and genocide."

Juxtaposed against the unending slaughter in Syria, these bureaucratic innovations have elicited withering criticism from neoconservatives. Rather than rearranging deck chairs, they argue, the administration ought to be arming and training the Syrian opposition and even preparing for military intervention, just like what President Bill Clinton did in Kosovo.

The R2P principle is a political and ethical rather than legal obligation. Any leader, including President Obama, must weigh humanitarian imperatives against other considerations of statecraft. Given the inherent risks and uncertainties, any military intervention should meet certain prudential criteria. First, the depredations must meet the threshold of atrocity crimes. Second, the intervention must be undertaken with "right intent", with its primary motivation protecting innocent lives. Third, it should generally be a last resort, after more peaceable alternatives have been exhausted (or when delay would have fatal humanitarian consequences). Fourth, the response should be proportional to the crimes being committed. Fifth, the consequences of the intervention should do more good than harm. Finally, the intervention should be taken under "right authority", ideally with the imprimatur of the UN Security Council. 

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Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he writes the blog  The Internationalist) and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance.

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