Syria and the Demise of the Responsibility to Protect

Three lessons for R2P proponents.

For proponents of international human rights and humanitarian intervention, the international community’s haphazard response to the ongoing Syrian conflict must be difficult to process. After largely ignoring Syria for two years, the world—led by the United States—suddenly became acutely engaged last August over the issue of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government. Yet now that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad seems to be honoring a mid-September agreement to relinquish his stockpile of chemical weapons, a relative blind eye is again being turned as the killing continues: more than one hundred thousand Syrians—mostly civilians—have now died in the conflict.

There is no sugar-coating the damage done to the cause of humanitarian intervention by the global wavering over Syria. This is particularly stark when considering that the conflict has occurred so closely on the heels of the 2011 Libya intervention, which many human-rights activists initially touted as a model for future application of so-called “responsibility to protect” (R2P)—the new U.N. doctrine that supposedly obligates all states to protect civilians whenever and wherever they are threatened with mass killing.

But for those willing to temper their enthusiasm and expectations for what may be accomplished in the realm of humanitarian intervention, the Syria case offers several valuable lessons which may help facilitate development of a more realistic approach to protecting international human rights.

The first lesson is that states still react very differently to violations of humanitarian norms than they do to violations of security-related norms: they are much more likely to assume an aggressive and possibly interventionist posture when it comes to security norms.

The reactions to Syria show this explicitly: there was little talk of outside intervention into the conflict even after tens of thousands of civilians were killed in Mr. Assad’s ruthless response to the uprisings that began in spring 2011. Sincere intervention talk only emerged with the advent of the regime’s use of poison gas in 2013, which violated longstanding norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. Though chemical weapons use contains a humanitarian component, it is mostly a security concern: unpunished use of chemical weapons may set a dangerous precedent for further spread and use of such “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD).

Although it was clear the Obama administration only became prepared to act in Syria after chemical weapons were introduced into the mix—violating President Obama’s earlier “red line”—the administration made the mistake of not candidly differentiating humanitarian motives from security motives. During the September crisis, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke mostly of the “moral obscenity” of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, implying military action against the regime would be justified on moral grounds alone; while Mr. Obama spoke mostly of “global norms” prohibiting use of WMD in war, implying military action would be fully justified on strategic grounds.

This leads to a second important lesson: many states—including key U.N. Security Council members Russia and China—remain extremely wary of supporting any outside intervention into the sovereign territory of states, particularly if connected in any way to moral concerns, or efforts toward regime change. Even after the Assad regime used poison gas on its own people, and even though Syria’s chemical weapons pose a tangible global threat (such as falling into the hands of terrorists), Russia and China refused to become engaged until it was clear the United States was willing to act alone—and then Moscow and Beijing only approved the most narrow disarmament agreement, completely ignoring the underlying humanitarian crisis.

Ironically, much of this obstinacy is due to Russia and China feeling burned by the Libya intervention. Recall that the Libya mission was authorized by the Security Council on grounds of purely humanitarian norms—i.e., the R2P doctrine. But it quickly shifted from the narrow protection of civilians in threatened cities like Benghazi to one of broader regime change: as then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quipped following the summary execution of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi in October 2011, “We came. We saw. He died.”

To Russia and China the Libya outcome was their worst fear realized. It created for them (and many other countries—from India to Brazil to the Arab League) a new red line: there will be no more R2P-style missions authorized by the U.N. Indeed when Russia and China enthusiastically vetoed the very first resolution condemning violence in Syria that came before the Security Council on October 4, 2011, Russia’s then-president Dmitry Medvedev explained he simply did not trust his “partners in the U.N. Security Council” to “rule out the replay of the Libya scenario.” These states are now (understandably) behaving like Mark Twain’s proverbial cat that jumped on a hot stove—it will never again jump on a hot stove; but it will never again jump on a cold stove either.

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