r2p in syria: how do unintended consequences affect the norm’s evolution?

In an Atlantic piece earlier today, Anne-Marie Slaughter offers her two cents on the prospect of international intervention in Syria, contextualized within the international discourse on the “responsibility to protect” future evolution. Slaughter offers her support for Steven Cook’s moral argument for military intervention in Syria, which calls on international policymakers to consider the future consequences of continued Assad atrocities (I addressed the Cook/Lynch discussion last week). Slaughter, rightly wringing her hands over the prospect of R2P’s normative delegitimization, outlines five conditions for effective, justified military intervention in Syria: a call for armed intervention from the Syrian opposition; legitimization of military force by the reigning regional authority–in this case, the Arab League; a restricted focus on civilian protection, rather than regime change; UN Security Council authorization; and, finally, Turkish and Arab operational leadership, reliant on NATO logistical support and combat intelligence.

I’ll save the combat assessment for more skilled military analysts, but a couple of points are worth raising, especially with regard to Slaughter’s reliance on opposition legitimacy and the impact of an armed intervention on R2P’s evolution:

On the opposition: Human rights advocates, in general, and Slaughter, in this particular instance, likely place too much of an emphasis on the legitimizing authority of opposition movements in conflict situations. The consolidated opposition movement is a rare phenomenon in sub-state politics, and Syria is no anomaly. As avid-intervention-supporter Michael Weiss writes, the Syrian National Council, which Slaughter perceives as the legitimate and legitimizing Syrian opposition organization, has received little on-the-ground support, largely due to its inability to develop an inclusive coalition of Syria’s ethnicized political entities. If, as Slaughter assumes, the international community is not concerned with bolstering the Syrian opposition and, instead, focused on the establishment of a sustainable protective zone, there is little justification for a moral and political reliance on the SNC.

The question of opposition authority touches on an essential dilemma in coercive intervention: if international actors are interested in mitigating the unintended consequences of coercive action, who’s voice do you prioritize? In the context of the DRC, a multitude of civil society voices maintain manifold perspectives on the conflict minerals debate, and neither human rights advocates nor their critics have developed a consolidated framework for incorporating said voices into the policy discourse. In the DRC, it’s a matter of coercive certification authority; in Syria, where military force is the essential consideration, the stakes of the international/opposition discourse are exponentially higher.

On intervention and R2P’s evolution: Applying her notion of “credible influence” to the prospect of international intervention in Syria, Slaughter perceives the effectiveness of international response to mass atrocities in Syria as a partial determinant of R2P and, more broadly, human rights norms’ continued credibility. From a moral perspective, Slaughter’s assessment of R2P’s deterrent significance may be correct; if we perceive norms as a relevant force in international politics, then the expansion of R2P’s normative strength may well lessen the recurrence of mass atrocities and violent conflict. Unfortunately, R2P’s credibility relies on its application within the decision-making processes of domestic and transnational political institutions, rather than its moral acceptance.

If the international community successfully intervenes in Syria–that is, if a civilian protection operation secures a safe zone on Syria’s eastern corridor, in the midst of a successful political transition–R2P’s political salience will surely benefit. However, as Marc Lynch has observed and two millennia of just war theory has reinforced, a reasonable chance of success is a necessary precondition for a successful intervention. Much to the detriment of human security in Syria, the technical and operational requirements, human terrain, and weak international political will for intervention renders success an unreasonable hope. In this context, as in all others, the moral imperative for intervention is insufficient. If we’re truly concerned about R2P’s political future, “do something that works” is a much more effective operative framework for human rights policy interventions than its more concise counterpart.

Update: In a post today, CFR’s Robert Danin offers a couple of non-armed policy options for the Obama administration, most centered on symbolic international attempts to prioritize civilian protection in Syria, including closing small sanctions loopholes, Security Council prioritization of Syria, and an arms embargo. Russia, of course, is the persistent party-fouler.

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