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.

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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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