The Middle East Channel

Syria’s crisis and the future of R2P

As the brutal crackdown in Syria turns one year old with little sign of a solution on the horizon, skeptics and defenders of invoking the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine can agree: Syria has put the doctrine, which obligates states to be concerned about the welfare of those outside its borders, in crisis. Critics charge ...

SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

As the brutal crackdown in Syria turns one year old with little sign of a solution on the horizon, skeptics and defenders of invoking the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine can agree: Syria has put the doctrine, which obligates states to be concerned about the welfare of those outside its borders, in crisis. Critics charge that it requires intervention on the Libyan precedent, exposing R2P as a crusading utopianism mandating perpetual war for peace. Supporters worry the doctrine will be made into a discredited farce if Bashar al-Assad is allowed to massacre innocents with impunity. In one colorful phrasing, "R2P, R.I.P."

Both are wrong. Military intervention in Syria would not only be a misapplication of R2P, but would radically weaken the doctrine’s role in building both a better Middle East and a better world. Our responsibility to protect both Syrians and the R2P doctrine itself demands that we stay out of it.

It’s a common misconception that R2P is simply a convenient excuse for military intervention against atrocities. Rather, the heart of the doctrine (as formalized in the canonical ICISS report) is that state sovereignty entails that states are responsible for the lives and welfare of their citizens. This principle is instantiated in three ways, or pillars: first, through states themselves; second, through assisting states in attempts to provide for the basic needs of their citizens, and third, by taking direct action when states are "manifestly" unable or unwilling to do so.

Core R2P documents are clear that third pillar action is not restricted to military intervention. In fact, the ICISS report permits intervention only in "extreme cases" and, even then, only when the extreme case itself passes stringent tests. Those criteria mirror the moral tests for war in classical just war theory, including one key restriction: any war must have "reasonable prospects" for achieving success, which in an R2P intervention means better protection of civilian life than the status quo.

That’s the problem with intervention in Syria: the options on the table at best don’t seem likely to stem the bloodshed, and at worst might significantly exacerbate it. Airstrikes alone would be a catastrophe. Much of the fighting takes place in restive anti-Assad cities, and bombing in such tight quarters with limited intelligence would guarantee significant civilian casualties. To make matters worse, Assad’s forces are too strong and the resistance too divided to be defeated as Qaddafi was, meaning that an air campaign could only prolong an Assad victory and increase the casualty count in the process.

But what about using international troops to create "safe zones" where the resistance could be armed and trained? Not only would the people outside the zones be left to Assad’s tender mercies, but protecting the people in them would require a ground force strong enough to deter a loyalist assault or a credible commitment to escalate to regime change if the zone were subjected to heavy assault, as it is not at all clear that targeted airstrikes outside a zone could disable an Assad advance. A weak international force would be rolled over (as has happened before), and even one roughly at parity with what Assad can muster might simply turn the "safe zone" into a firefight zone, risking serious collateral damage in what was supposed to be a refuge for refugees. Unless the international community is willing to gear up for an enormous ground commitment — a vanishing and unlikely prospect — safe zones are a recipe for deadlier violence. And that’s not even accounting for the regime’s massive chemical stockpile, which one doubts it would have any qualms about using if seriously threatened.

Many R2P critics are fond of noting all this, and yet in the same breath claim that R2P provides a carte blanche for intervention everywhere and anywhere. But as we’ve seen, the doctrine has clear guidelines in place to prevent precisely this sort of dangerously counterproductive interpretation. As the ICISS report puts it, tragically enough, "some human beings simply cannot be rescued except at unacceptable cost." Not all terrible things can be stopped with force, much as we wish they could.

Understanding the limits of military force in the Syrian case is critical to R2P’s viability as an international norm. A failed intervention — which would almost certainly involve the death of international troops — would taint the idea among emerging powers like Brazil and India who are crucial to making it a widely accepted part of state practice in the 21st century. Such states, while open to R2P as a doctrine, are wary of its use to justify humanitarian intervention. A haphazard invocation of R2P in Syria could destroy the doctrine’s international legitimacy just as it was being built, preventing R2P from becoming a shared framework for understanding the legal and moral role of sovereignty.

The reasons that R2P’s viability requires international legitimacy are straightforward. Proposed international norms can usually shape state behavior only if state leaders actually want to adhere to them or if there is some incentive for acting within their dictates. R2P proponents have still not cemented the norm’s status in international law or practice, limiting the incentives to follow it. Expanding the R2P’s power, at the moment, requires persuading states to get on-board with the doctrine. Since Russia and China are likely to be incorrigible R2P foes for the foreseeable future, a wider group of states must be brought on board to create a "critical mass" for enshrining R2P as a binding international norm. If you believe R2P could be the foundation for a more just international order, pushing influential actors away from the doctrine just as it is beginning to really influence the international debate on human rights and mass atrocities would be a terrible error.

Syria interventionists do have a point when they say ignoring Syria could damage the doctrine’s credibility. Fortunately, there is an R2P-friendly middle ground between non-involvement and military force. A number of analysts have proposed diplomatic, legal, and economic tactics that could midwife an end to the violence. Some examples include referring Assad and/or other regime leaders to the ICC for prosecution, offering Russia assurances that its interests in Syria will be respected if Assad falls in exchange for slackening its support for him, or creating an international agreement to repudiate any future debt accrued during the crackdown as "odious debt." A coordinated international effort incorporating some of these proposals, spearheaded by the United States and its allies, is the best approach the international community could take to end the violence.

This political effort should be explicitly grounded in R2P’s third pillar. There is a near consensus about the propriety of putting political pressure on Assad, as the 137-12 General Assembly vote condemning him suggests. Constructing a third pillar R2P campaign oriented around non-violent responses to Syrian atrocities could help strengthen the elements of R2P like the "reasonable prospects" requirement for war that get short shrift in prominent discussions of the norm. Military intervention would be treated as merely one tool among many in R2P discussions rather than considered the doctrine’s be-all end-all.

While not every part of a third pillar political intervention in Syria would necessarily involve coordinated multilateral action, some, like Marc Lynch’s proposal for holding frequent international fora spotlighting Assad’s atrocities, certainly would. By putting these wide efforts under an R2P heading, states concerned that R2P was simply a stalking horse for interventionism run amok would be given a role in shaping its future. Brazil’s push for a "responsibility while protecting" addendum and the proliferation of R2P discourse throughout the global South suggests that the strategy of including open-but-questioning states in the dialogue surrounding the norm can make them more willing to endorse it.

The fact that this campaign would be explicitly non-military, of course, wouldn’t hurt given the serious concerns raised by key states about the militarization of R2P during and post-Libya. Indeed, Indian U.N. representative Hardeep Singh Puri could have hardly been clearer when, worrying about R2P’s "selective" use for regime change, he noted that: "I am afraid the noble idea of R2P will come into disrepute. Indeed, the Libyan case has already given R2P a bad name." This is not only post-hoc buyer’s remorse — India and other similarly situated rising powers have long harbored concerns about the use of R2P to justify military force. Addressing their qualms is therefore vital to the doctrine’s future.

Syria is a tragedy to which we have no good answers. Armed intervention, while in some cases the only viable means to stop mass murder, is not morally justified in Syria given current military realities. Couching the intervention debate in R2P’s terms allows us to see that and further opens up avenues for creative approaches to addressing the horrors in Syria. Reducing R2P to its defense of humanitarian intervention — in a rush to either uphold the doctrine or tear it down — does nothing to help suffering Syrians and could spoil R2P’s promise to build a better world. We would do best to resist the impulse.

Zack Beauchamp contributes to Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish at Newsweek/Daily Beast. You can find him on Twitter as @zackbeauchamp

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