Applying the Responsibility to Protect to Syria

More than 9000 people have been reported killed in a year of Syrian unrest, after the government used troops and tanks to crack down on determined protesters, and thousands of Syrian refugees try to escape the violence by crossing into Lebanon and Turkey. Human rights advocates had lauded application of the United Nations’ Responsibility to Protect doctrine in Libya to end the violence by Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, and the international community had hoped that other dictators would pay heed. But Russia and China have blocked the R2P response for Syria, suggesting that sanctions or military action could lead to illegitimate overthrow of a government and revealing insecurity about their own authoritarian ways. Bennett Ramberg, former official with the US State Department, points out that the rest of the international community should avail itself of other R2P steps, including offers of amnesty for Syrian troops, military training for rebels, and encouragement of a united interim government. – YaleGlobal

Applying the Responsibility to Protect to Syria

Russia, China reject intervening on Syrian slaughter; the world must explore modest R2P steps
Bennett Ramberg
Monday, March 5, 2012

A cry for help: A Syrian boy holds up a sign in Homs (top): US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, (left) and British Foreign Minister William Hague (center) confer on the problem at the Friends of Syria Conference in Tunis

LOS ANGELES: The brutal assault on Syria’s civilian population by government tanks, mortars and rockets continues, but the world appears unable to do more than wring its hands. Is this the end of a democratic wave ushered in by the Arab Spring and the Responsibility to Protect, the R2P doctrine that the international community applied to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s threatened massacre of his citizens? Published accounts estimate more than 9000 people have fallen in the Syrian unrest, with thousands wounded and displaced while others linger in government prisons. One question that emerges is whether the global community is complicit by failing to stop the mayhem.

The Russian and Chinese opposition to UN Security Council action suggests as much, but opponents of the Syria regime still have options based on a broad interpretation of R2P. When this new century began, new thinking emerged about ways the community should respond to governments that turn on their people. Rwanda and Bosnia instigated the new era, and the slaughters that took the lives of tens to hundreds of thousands – in some cases more – in Sudan, Indonesia, Uganda, Cambodia, Syria and Saddam’s Iraq in the post–World War II era raised questions whether international intervention should transcend the customary law codified by the United Nations’ Article 2 that “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state…”

In 2005, the global community agreed that the time for change had arrived. The World Summit – the largest gathering of leaders in history at a plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly – endorsed the Canadian-sponsored Responsibility to Protect initiative that called upon the international community to use diplomatic, humanitarian and, through the Security Council, collective action – namely, force – to protect populations from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” and asked the General Assembly to consider the matter more fully.

Libya marked the first test, and the international community stepped up.  The Arab League led in calling for a no-fly zone to protect the country’s rebelling population. Given the nod by the UN Security Council, the International Criminal Court indicted Muammar Gaddafi for crimes against humanity. The council then endorsed military action calling attention to the regime’s “gross and systematic violation of human rights,” and “widespread and systemic attacks” that amounted to “crimes against humanity.” The seven-month war that followed translated words to action. It first generated the effective largely NATO-led air campaign to protect rebel-held Benghazi. The time bought allowed regime opponents to cobble the fighting force which, working with air power, defeated the Libyan leader.

Success seemed to herald a new era in global politics, one putting dictators on notice that they could not get away with murder. But many wondered if the principle could survive the test of time.

The world did not have to wait long. While attention focused on Libya, unrest in Syria boiled over into demonstrations that threatened to topple the Assad regime. The government responded with increasing force before a horrified world television audience. 

As in Libya, the Arab League took the lead to push back. It suspended Syria from the body, prohibited travel of designated Syrian officials to Arab states, froze Syria’s government assets abroad, and halted transactions with Syria’s central bank and commercial exchanges with the government while calling for President Basher al-Assad to step down. The United States, the European Community and others joined exercising diplomatic and economic sanctions. Collectively these measures suggested that R2P indeed was alive.  But as implemented they proved insufficient to halt the violence.

Both China and Russia vetoed a watered-down version of the Libya resolution. The Kremlin claimed repetition of even UN sanctions, let alone military action, would ill serve peace and be a slippery slope to an illegitimate overthrow of a government.  

Of course, there is more to the story. In Moscow’s case it is not simply its longstanding supportive relationship with the Assad regime that allows it to port its Mediterranean fleet in Tartus. Of greater concern, and this includes China as well, the Kremlin undoubtedly fears that application of R2P to Syria could blow back someday. After all, both the authoritarian rulers in Moscow and Beijing fear future serious domestic tensions at home. They would like to prevent any precedent for international intervention in their domestic situation.

Does this pull the rug from Responsibility to Protect in Syria? Not really. The doctrine’s authors anticipated council roadblocks and concluded that in event the body failed to “discharge its responsibility in conscience-shocking situations crying out for action, then it is unrealistic to expect that concerned states will rule out other means and forms of action to meet the gravity and urgency of these situations.”

The “other means” do not require repetition of the Libya intervention. Neither the West nor the Arab League has the stomach to mire themselves in the potential quagmire that Syria’s sectarian and ethnic divisions pose.  Rather Syria requires that the League and allies apply a more nuanced approach in addition to enforcement and strengthening of economic and diplomatic sanctions.

On February 16, 2012, the General Assembly gave momentum in its 137 to 12 vote – the 12 opponents included Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe joining China and Russia – supporting the Egyptian resolution that called upon the Assad regime to halt its crackdown and comply with the Arab League's demand for a transition of power.

But the resolution was no action plan and neither did one come from the 60-plus nation “Friends of Syria” February meeting in Tunisia. That gathering ended with a lame call for the Syrian government to “immediately put an end to all human rights violations and attacks against civilians.”

Nonetheless there remain modest R2P steps much of the international community can endorse under the umbrella Arab League to stop the slaughter: 

  • The League should restate its January 22, 2012, call for Assad to step down to include other key members of the ruling clique. After all, any regime is more than its leader.

  • Syria’s foreign opponents should use the airwaves in a propaganda war to offer amnesty to Syrian forces who lay down arms or defect to the rebel side by a date certain to avoid prosecution for crimes against humanity.

  • Syria’s armed resisters should receive military aid and training sufficient to combat the government’s infantry, armor and helicopters.

  • The United States and others must lobby Russia and China to support R2P impressing that they are on the wrong side of history with consequences that will diminish their political and economic interests in the region for years to come.

  • Foreign mediators should help mold the divided Syrian opposition into a united internationally recognized interim government in waiting prepared to lay the foundation for legislative elections and constitution building – learning from the difficulties Libya and Egypt have encountered –for a new democratic Syria once the current government falls.

What’s at stake in Syria is more than Damascus’ future. Successful application of R2P will make a statement that Libya was not a fluke.  It will send a message: For governments that murder their people to stay in power, the international community will assure that the survivor will be not the regime but the people.

Bennett Ramberg, PhD, JD, served in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the US Department of State during the George H.W. Bush administration. He can be reached at
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