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.
A third and final lesson is that the world continues to have a short and seemingly cold-hearted attention span. Despite the recent genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan and elsewhere—why R2P was developed in the first place—it is clear that many tens of thousands of civilians can still be killed in slow motion on the world’s watch. We can be certain that down the line the international community will once again wring its hands and ask “how could this have happened?” Simply putting a new humanitarian or moral doctrine like R2P in place cannot solve the problem of parochial world politics.
These lessons clearly show that expectations regarding humanitarian intervention need to be significantly tempered. But they also point to practical steps that can be taken to help revitalize the world’s desire and ability to protect human rights.
Most importantly, the enormous damage caused by the over-zealous Libya intervention must be addressed head on. Proponents of international law like to say that changing state behavior in the direction of supporting international human rights is best done in “baby steps.” The U.N.’s disastrous Libya mission was more like “one step forward, ten steps back.” But the fact that Russia and China were even willing to permit the Libya R2P experiment in 2011 means they may still be open to some very limited forms of humanitarian intervention—albeit once trust is restored, and clear mechanisms to keep interventions limited and transparent are developed.
Also, as the chemical weapons issue in Syria has shown, it is often very difficult to differentiate security-related norms from humanitarian norms; especially when countries are trying to make their most persuasive cases both for and against intervention. For example, while the United States tried to invoke morality in order to help garner support for what it considered a security-minded intervention, Russia and China invoked fear of another runaway humanitarian mission to block any action at all. The U.N. can help by more clearly categorizing various types of global norms. Separating humanitarian norms from security norms may not make it any easier to garner support for humanitarian interventions; but it will at least help force a more honest debate over the issues.
These modest steps would go a long way toward reining in the unrealistic expectations of R2P, rebuilding trust among the great powers, and permitting greater understanding of options for dealing with humanitarian crises in the post-Arab Spring era. There are no silver-bullet solutions to the complex reality of intrastate violence. But there are ways to remove as many roadblocks to global action as possible—so there may be fewer moments when the world looks back and asks “how could this have happened?”