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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.
In the case of the NATO-led, UN-authorized intervention in Libya, these stars were at least temporarily aligned. Thanks to a few critical abstentions (by China, Russia, India, and Germany) the United States, France and the United Kingdom (the so-called P3) were able to secure Security Council Resolution 1973, authorizing "all necessary means" to protect civilians. But misgivings soon rose among UN member states, as the Western powers dismissed regional mediation efforts and the goal of regime change became increasingly apparent.
Despite such complications, intervention in Libya was a proverbial "cakewalk" for liberal interventionists: The Qaddafi regime had no major power allies, lacked major strategic importance or significant military capabilities, and had a small, concentrated population-not to mention congenial terrain.
Syria, though, possesses a capable military, is located at the heart of the Arab world, is adjacent to the tinderboxes of Lebanon and Iraq, is rife with sectarian divisions, and enjoys the active sponsorship of P-5 member Russia, as well as Iran. As such, it presents extraordinary risks.
When it comes to Syria, how do the prudential criteria for intervention stack up?
1) Atrocity Threshold. Certainly, the regime's depredations more than meet threshold-11,000 dead and counting, including innocent woman and children.
2) Right Intent. A problem here is that many international observers will see this just as another effort at regime change and a U.S. effort to eliminate Iran's last major regional ally--and given US rhetoric, it may be impossible to avoid.
3) Last Resort. Despite the assortment of UN and regional condemnations of Syria's actions, the UN Security Council has yet to pass a resolution invoking specifically Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which refers addresses threats to "international peace and security." Other than military action, this could include the imposition of tough, cross-cutting sanctions. There are rumors of another alternative diplomatic route--involving reaching out to Russia and Iran--but this seems impractical given the geopolitics involved.
4) Proportionality. Supporters of military intervention may point to recent reports that NATO's intervention in Libya killed less than one hundred civilians. While even one civilian death is noteworthy, it still must be weighed against the daily killings and massacres taking place in Syria.
5) Consequences of intervention. This is the huge uncertainty. Armed intervention could be regionally explosive, as Syria's various communities appeal to diasporas and co-religionists across borders. Moreover, Syrian rebels are only beginning to coalesce, lack a clear stronghold, have had shaky leadership, and may not be able to capitalize on the benefits of an R2P intervention. Still, the status quo is getting pretty close to meeting--if not exceeding--the potential risks of an intervention.
6) "Right Authority." Without UNSC endorsement, any collective intervention mobilized by the United States would be technically illegal but--as in Kosovo--arguably legitimate. High-level UN officials, including the UN secretary general, have accused the Assad regime of potential crimes against humanity, and the Arab League has repeatedly called for additional action. But who would join a collective military effort remains unclear.
For the Obama administration--which has warned that the Assad regime may be planning a third massacre--crunch time has arrived. It either needs to come up with a credible plan to work with international partners to end the killings in Syria--whether by arming the opposition or by mobilizing a coalition of the willing--or it needs to drop its high-minded rhetoric and let R2P and the Syrian victims rest in peace.
This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.