Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

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RIP for R2P? Syria and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Intervention

by Stewart M. Patrick
June 12, 2012

People carry the body of men, whom activists say were killed by the Syrian government army, in Taftanaz village, east of Idlib city April 5, 2012. Picture taken April 5, 2012. (Shaam News/Courtesy Reuters)


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.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by lynn68b

    The question is about what is possible. Those who oppose Assad’s rule will never give up, those who support Assad in contrast grow more lukewarm by the day. Upholding R2P with a peace keeping force represented by Syria’s neighbours and authorised by the majority opinion of the international community would not only act to prevent a further escalation of the humanitarian crisis facing millions of Syrians but also help dissipate the fear of opposing Assad, that all Syrians are currently living under. The tipping point will come when Syrians genuinely know that R2P is finally going to be upheld by its neighbours and the international community.

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    It is apparent that the US has been stoking the coals of Syrian dissent, because it wants Assad out of the way. Is that not obvious? There is no need to pretend that the US is involved in a humanitarian dilemma. The one million plus deaths caused by America’s humanitarian intervention in Iraq is a testimony to what will happen to Syria if Assad loses control.

  • Posted by Matt

    Qaddafi was going to do something silly, all the IDP had fled to Benghazi he was going to go in there and kill 100,000. So it was about stopping him from doing something silly which he could not pull back from. It was about protecting the people in Benghazi from a massacre. Russia knew that the use of the R2P would probably result in Qaddafi leaving power via a transition. But the R2P was abused.

    The deal was to stop a massacre of 100,000 in Benghazi. That was the deal the Russians agreed too. I gave them my word basically, I will never do it again. If your word cannot be trust then that breaks down all cooperation on all sorts of issues.

    The result of that was a political swap was agreed to between the PM and President. It had not been decided until that point.

    Putin may think Assad can be saved, Lavrov may believe he cannot. But it is not going to change anything, it is a dual strategy they have in play. Like Libya Putin said no, others agreed to the R2P. They got burned, so you all get 12 years of Putin. The President of Russia is the President, he has the final say decisions are made on consensus. But the final say is by the President.

    People were told not to enter Tripoli. The Commander that agreed to that was assassinated. When it was a stalemate and perhaps NATO powers would win, the only hope was Russia to negotiate, rolling fronts back and forth for months.

    You see the crackdown on Sunni’s in Iraq led to a spike in violence in Syria, if they overthrow Assad they can push back against al-Maliki and get a better deal if Syria becomes a Sunni state. It is Assad that helped keep Iraq stable because it is a police state and he controls the Sunni’s. They will push back hard inside Iraq. Iran supports both of them Assad and has a lot of influence in Iraq.

    Russia only has a limited amount of influence over Iran. al-Maliki has Iranian support, decisions made in Baghdad effect the increased violence in Syria. It is a pan-Shiite State, crackdown on a minority Sunni population, Syria is the reverse a Shiite minority and Sunni majority.

    It is Iranian policy because Iran support both Assad and al-Maliki it is interconnected. Russia supports Assad and has limited influence on Iran. Iran know that it is interconnected, they know they are part of the solution, it is their policies that are part of the problem.

    They are a pan-Shiite State and a major regional power, they are saying they are the regional power. Why?, why do they support the crackdown on Sunni’s, by al-Maliki why do they make al-Sadr support al-Maliki, why do they support Assad because they can. They could change that with the click of their fingers. Russia knows that hence the reason regional talks for a domestic problem.

    How many times since Putin told Ahmadi to stop talking about Holocaust and destruction of the Jews has Iran made statement to that effect.

  • Posted by CMF

    US holds high-level talks with Syrian rebels seeking weapons in Washington

    Syrian rebels have held meetings with senior US government officials in Washington as pressure mounts on the US to authorise a shipment of heavy weapons, including surface-to-air missiles to combat the Assad regime, the Daily Telegraph has learned.

  • Posted by John Huerta

    The Syrian Govenrment Has Been Inviting Terrorism With More Terrorism Backing It’s Side, It’s Relationship With Iran is a Current Key of Focal Point As The Syrian Army Chose To Go To War With It’s Own People and With it It Includes Women And Children Which Is a Decisive Failure on The part of the Syrian Army in it’s Own Civil War When The War Was caused By President Assad Who is in My Viewpoint”Power-Hungry,”Syria’s War on The Rebel Forces is Nothing But a Complete Failure Because it’s allowing Mass Killings to Go Unnoticed Just as Hitler’s Men Did With The Holocaust.

  • Posted by Francesca Arcidiacono

    OK. I know, it needs to evaluate all those criteria, but is acceptable to stand by? Or is it the end of the principle of R2P?

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