the last resort and the right responsibility in syria

For those in the social media sphere paying attention to the politics of international diplomacy and the UN Security Council, this morning’s latest is nothing new: Russia and China vetoed the UN Security Council’s weak-kneed resolution on Syria. The resolution offered an ambiguous model for civilian protection policy, Assad’s transition, and political transformation in Syria, based on the Arab League’s post-observer proposals. As Philip Gourevitch tweeted snarkily, the UN Security Council’s resolution, forged after a series of disingenuous Russian and Chinese objections and negotiations, was “toothless,” offering few opportunities for tangible change.

But, for better or worse, it was an opportunity for international consensus, as well as an entry point for further collective action. The crisis reached a tipping point last night, when Syrian forces massacred over 250 civilians across the country, especially in the protest-heavy city of Homs. Especially with Homs in the backdrop, international actors did not perceive the resolution as the be-all-end-all of civilian protection policy in Syria. However, today’s failure at Turtle Bay has caused more diplomatic disarray, more uncertainty, and has lowered the prospects for an effective political resolution to Syria’s crisis. Russia and China may not have “betrayed” the Syrian people, as Human Rights Watch observed in a press release earlier today, but their intransigence is remarkably “disempowering” (friend-of-the-blog Sean Langberg‘s words, not mine).

Of course, the UN Security Council’s failure has cued a new stream of calls for military intervention in Syria, underlined by an unfortunately deterministic vocabulary (“inevitable” has proven aggravatingly persistent, especially following Michael Weiss’ January op-ed). The logic of “last resort” military action is simple and, on its face, morally convincing: the international community has engaged in every credible policy mechanism to ensure civilian protection and, more broadly, political transition; at its core, the UN Security Council is an institution of “last resort”, responsible for mobilizing collective action where individual diplomacy fails; in the absence of reliable, decisive Security Council action, the international community–whether the United States, the Arab League, or Turkey–must uphold the mantle of liberal foreign policy and universal values.

For Shadi Hamid and Anne-Marie Slaughter, two respected policy experts and supporters of military intervention in Syria (generally, in the form of a “humanitarian corridor”/”safe zone”), it’s not just a matter of civilian protection; the credibility of the international moral project, underlined by the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, is at stake. For Hamid, if the international community cannot operationalize R2P in Syria, then the doctrine “is just an idea, and not a reality.” Well, yes! The relative success of NATO’s Libya intervention has established a false standard of successful R2P implementation. A policy doctrine can provide a powerful framework for international mobilization, but, like all aspects of international politics, it’s not a self-perpetuating force. The international community’s failure to intervene in Syria will not cast R2P into Hades’ Room of Unrealized Concepts–rather, Syria demonstrates that we need to improve our mechanisms for preventive diplomacy and early warning, in order to avoid the perpetual round of insubstantial, failed Security Council negotiations.

And, from a broader perspective, Syria is a poor, poor model for “last resort” intervention. As I’ve written, a military intervention in Syria, particularly one undertaken by Arab League and Turkish forces, would likely damage, rather than improve R2P’s credibility. A quick glance at the ICISS report, R2P’s framing document, suggests Evans and Sahnoun’s broad agreement with this assessment. Outlining the preconditions for a successful, just, and responsible R2P intervention, the ICISS framers write:

In particular, a military action for limited human protection purposes cannot be justified if in the process it triggers a larger conflict. It will be the case that some human beings simply cannot be rescued except at unacceptable cost–perhaps of a larger regional conflagration, involving major military powers. In such cases, however painful the reality, coercive military action is no longer justified.

In a masterful critique of the R2P doctrine’s application in Syria, Dan Trombly addressed the folly of the “military intervention = regional stability” logic. I don’t agree with Trombly’s dismissive analysis of R2P’s normative evolution, but he has it right: the “second and third order” effects of an international intervention in Syria would be catastrophic for regional stability. Jackson Diehl’s speculations on the prospect of an emerging sectarian war across the Middle East confirm these stability-oriented concerns about “last resort” intervention in Syria. From a larger civilian protection perspective, there are few credible technical or operational indications that a humanitarian corridor, safe zone, no-fly zone, no-fly zone, or cross-border humanitarian aid delivery operation would alleviate Syria’s dire human security situation. In this circumstance, a “last resort” intervention would likely be irresponsible, rather than a fulfillment of the R2P doctrine.

What, then, is to be done? I haven’t had enough time to consider the post-veto policy options, but CFR’s Robert Danin offered some valuable, pre-UNSC proposals in late January, including an ICC indictment for Assad’s inner circle, stronger sanctions on the Assad-friendly Aleppo and Damascus business communities (the regime’s primary patronage networks), and the establishment of a coordinated “Friends of Syria” group. Indeed, much of the policy commentary remains speculative–see, for example, Daniel Serwer’s quick (but comprehensive) post on the post-veto landscape:

What the United States, Europe and the Arab League need to do now is to keep up the pressure by maintaining and tightening sanctions, redeploying the observers if it is safe enough to do so and encouraging continued nonviolent protest in forms (boycotts in particular) that do not expose large numbers of people to the regime’s violence.  They also need to consider new measures:  blockade of arms shipments?  extension of the financial sanctions used against Iran to Syria?  Reinforcement of the Arab League observers?

I’ll continue to update this page as additional policy resources flow in.

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