Does Syria Mean the End of the Responsibility to Protect?

The crisis underscores the difficulty of reconciling humanitarian ideals with geopolitical concerns.
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Syrian refugees at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, on March 13, 2013. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

Thirty-five years ago, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski famously declared that the doctrine of détente " lies buried in the sands of Ogaden ." By exporting revolution to the Horn of Africa, he implied, Moscow had abandoned norms of peaceful coexistence, as well as prospects for the SALT treaty. One wonders if a more recent would-be doctrine, the " responsibility to protect" (R2P), is destined to suffer a similar fate. Two years ago, the UN Security Council seemed to vindicate this new norm, by authorizing "all necessary means" to protect Libyan civilians against strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi. Today, R2P clings to life support in Syria, as the civilian body count there mounts to appalling levels.

The situation in Syria underscores the difficulty of reconciling humanitarian ideals with geopolitical concerns.

Many commentators, including this one, welcomed the Security Council's authorization of intervention in Libya as the first legitimated use of armed force under R2P. UNSC Resolution 1973, as well as historic support from the Arab League, provided legitimacy to a NATO-led intervention that reversed Qaddafi's depredations and, ultimately, provided cover for Libyan rebels to remove him from power. At the time, the intervention seemed to tick all the boxes: the situation was grave, the interveners' cause was just, and their response was proportional. After a lengthy air campaign, in which no NATO troops lost their lives, Qaddafi had been toppled from power.

At the time, it was easy to overlook the fact that this Western interpretation was not widely shared--and that the Libyan case had unique features that were unlikely to be easily replicated in other settings. These features included a dictator despised in the Arab world, a country of minimal strategic importance, a small national population, and topography conducive to an aerial campaign.

Diplomatic fallout began quickly. Russia and China, which had abstained from the resolution, soon objected that the NATO-led coalition had transformed the UN mandate into a license for "regime change." Such a claim was either naïve or cynical, since all involved in Security Council deliberations should have been well aware of the expansive implications of authorizing "all necessary means," as well as the unlikelihood that Qaddafi himself would agree to a negotiated agreement with rebel forces. Nevertheless, the complaint resonated in many corners of the globe.

The African Union (AU) also emerged as a primary critic, depicting the intervention as yet another ill-advised imperialist venture on the continent. This reflected less knee-jerk opposition to R2P--after all, the AU's constitutive act declares "non-indifference" to the internal affairs of other countries, and its Peace and Security Council has endorsed the principle of intervention in cases of genocide and mass atrocities--than pique at being sidelined diplomatically. By brushing aside AU efforts at diplomatic mediation, the Western powers reinforced African insistence that future interventions on the continent be endorsed by the African Union.

The chaotic aftermath of the Libyan intervention also left a sour taste in the mouths of many UN member states. Indeed, independent militias continue to run rampant in parts of Libya two years after the intervention. Moreover, the collapse of Libyan domestic security permitted a wave of weaponry to wash over neighboring countries--contributing to instability in the Sahel. In Mali, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and extremist Tuareg groups exploited this flow of material to launch their bloody insurgency, at one point controlling nearly half of the country.

Even before the civil war in Syria, then, the implementation of R2P in Libya had generated buyer's remorse among many governments that had endorsed it at the 2005 UN World Summit. In an effort to rescue the concept, Brazil proposed that UN member states embrace the related concept of " responsibility while protecting" (RWP) in November 2011. Under this framework, the UN Security Council would undertake military intervention only as a last resort, after weighing the balance of likely consequences, and ensure that any force used was proportionate to the gravity of the situation. It would also oblige the Security Council to adopt a formal monitoring and review mechanism where states would discuss and debate the implementation of any ongoing R2P action. The proposed RWP scheme is not without problems: the "last resort" requirement is at odds with the reality that early, preventive action is often the best way to head off atrocities. The Permanent Five (P5) may also balk at committing to an ongoing monitoring mechanism for R2P-mandated missions. Nevertheless, the Brazilian proposal offers a potential bridge to bring skeptical governments back to the R2P fold. As such, it merits careful U.S. consideration rather than dismissal.

It is the bloody situation in Syria, however, that has fostered disillusionment with (though not yet the demise of) R2P. The most obvious lesson to be drawn is that the implementation of R2P will inevitably be selective. If one or more of the P5--in this case Russia--sees a significant national interest in protecting the offending government, the UNSC will be blocked. Interventionist powers will then face the unpalatable choice of doing nothing or (as the United States did in Kosovo with NATO) pursuing a surrogate form of multilateral legitimacy for coercive action.

Second, the Syrian case demonstrates the difficulty of applying R2P when the conflict in question has evolved from a government making war on unarmed civilians into a full-blown civil war in which both regime and rebel forces commit atrocities. When opposing sides are wearing neither white nor black hats but varying shades of grey, the threshold criteria for R2P intervention--and the means by which it should be implemented--become even cloudier than normal.

Third, the situation in Syria underscores the difficulty of reconciling humanitarian ideals with geopolitical concerns. The Obama administration, from the President on down, has often denied this distinction, on the grounds that mass atrocities create dangerous spillover consequences for entire regions (with the Great Lakes region of Africa a case in point), as well as fomenting forces of (and providing havens for) extremism. Perhaps. But the strategic, economic, and human consequences of a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria are hard to predict. The costs--for regional instability, budgetary overstretch, and U.S. lives--could be gargantuan. And they need to be weighed against the likelihood (and benefits) of "success"--something the administration has yet to define. This cost-benefit analysis must also include an honest assessment of the expenses associated with " the responsibility to rebuild" the post-intervention society (something the Bush administration notoriously neglected to do in Iraq).

It would be premature to describe Syria as the death knell of R2P. But it is clear that much of the idealism surrounding the UN's unanimous endorsement of the norm eight years ago has dissipated, buried in the Libyan Desert and the blood-soaked hills of Syria.


This post appears courtesy of CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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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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