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Civilians flee from fighting after Syrian army tanks enter the northwestern city of Idlib, Syria, 14 February 2012. © Anonymous/AP/SIPA

From idea to experience - Syria and the Responsibility to Protect

Opinion - 28 February 2012

Ekkehard Strauss

The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything. Because a new experience displaces so many old experiences. And it is like trying to use muscles that have perhaps never been used, or that have been going stiff for ages. It hurts horribly. […] The world doesn't fear a new idea. It can pigeon-hole any idea. But it can't pigeon-hole a real new experience.
D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, Chapter 1 (1923). 

Lack of action by the Security Council

The world is failing the people of Syria. Since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, more than 5,000 people have been killed. There are daily media reports of attacks, involving tanks, destroying private houses and targeting a terrorised population.  Already by the end of November 2011, an independent international commission of inquiry reported summary executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and sexual violence against participants in peaceful demonstrations, with army recruits refusing orders to shoot and kill bystanders and passers-by. The world looked to  the UN Security Council to take action, but members of the Council, yet again, failed to agree that systematic and large-scale violations of human rights committed by a government against its own people to maintain its power was no longer an internal matter of state sovereignty. Despite all the hype surrounding the much-touted Responsibility to Protect (R2P), enshrined in the 2005 World Summit Outcome document, the international community continues to be unable to act in concert when faced with mass atrocities.
It is difficult to assess the possible medium- to long-term impact the vetoed resolution would have had on Bashar al-Assad and the people supporting his rule. Abstention by China and Russia, it was claimed, would have increased the international isolation of the regime. If we stick with the text of the draft resolution, though, it is hard to see what difference it could have made in the present situation in Homs, Hama or Daraa. The Council would have condemned the violence and demanded that the Syrian government protect its population, release detainees, withdraw the military, and guarantee freedom of assembly. It neither prescribed measurable steps for the Syrian government and the armed opposition to implement its demands nor did it authorise any coercive measures, e.g. sanctions, in case of non-compliance. In fact, all members of the Council ruled out the possibility of military action during the negotiations.

As the Security Council failed to reach agreement, various governments and the European Union imposed sanctions against members of the Assad regime. Other governments supported either the Syrian military and security agencies or the armed opposition or both by supplying arms and technical advice. Discussions on the establishment of humanitarian corridors or safe havens did not really proceed beyond a concept phase and are still the object of operational, logistical and political reservations on the part of military and political experts. The difficulty of assessing the possible impact of different scenarios on the volatile region, consciousness of traditional ties with individual countries and a sense of ever-expanding activities under a mandate to protect civilians may have led Council members to watch events unfolding rather than reach common ground to prevent and halt further violence.

A failure of R2P?

Syria today seems to confirm the concern held by many that the R2P is the emperor’s new clothes, unable to cover even the most basic nakedness of an international system unable to deal with mass atrocities. In an attempt to counter these arguments, since 2005, well-meaning advocates invoked R2P in every situation of human rights violations at a certain scale and called for Security Council intervention without clarifying even the most basic parameters of its application. Others claim that Syria today represents collateral damage from the forceful intervention in Libya which sought to uphold the R2P. In contrast to the experience in Iraq, the international community limited its engagement to following the lead of the armed opposition and protecting civilians at imminent risk. Armchair generals explained that, from an operational perspective, no other course of action other than the extensive air campaign against a broad range of targets was possible and that the military was not influenced by politicians’ calls for regime change.

In the hopeless situation that many Syrians are currently caught in, R2P could demonstrate its real potential. The Security Council is the international organ capable of authorising military action, which has been ruled out by all its members. This is regrettable from the more theoretical point of view that R2P requires an element of deterrence to realise its full potential. However, a Libyan-style intervention would not provide solutions for all of the different challenges within Syrian society, not to mention the future relationship between different sects. Instead, operational demands and political agendas of those providing the military assets would dominate the agenda and timeline of action. 

The primary responsibility to protect its population rests with the national government.  It is obvious that the government of Syria is manifestly failing in this respect: it is attacking its own people. Therefore, responsibility moves to the international community. However, national civil society participates in the Responsibility to Protect, in particular to the extent that the opposition, through continuing demonstrations, creates risks that civilians will be the victims of indiscriminate violence, however legitimately it may have acted. The international community also comprises actors other than states and the Security Council. It is time for civil society in Syria and abroad to apply the R2P and demonstrate its added value in Syria.

The opportunity provided by the R2P

The R2P emerged in response to the international community’s past experience of failing to prevent or halt extreme cases of massive and systematic violations of human rights. There is no clear line between ‘an R2P situation’ and others, a threshold, which, once reached, ‘triggers’ R2P. Any situation involving grave human rights violations could develop towards an East Pakistan, Kosovo or East Timor scenario – to name just a few of the cases that were on the minds of those who developed the concept of R2P in 2000. Furthermore, the application of R2P does not require a finding of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing, nor do all war crimes characterise an exceptionally grave risk of future mass atrocities. The gravity of a case is not only indicated by the number of victims, but by the level of risk of mass atrocities caused by the persecution of groups based on ethno-political identities and affiliations established by the perpetrators. The Syrian government attacks cities and their populations based on their perceived participation in or support of demonstrations. People are shot at, arrested and tortured indiscriminately, as a matter of policy, based on their presence in a particular location at a particular time. On 22 February, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic characterised these actions as falling under the category of crimes against humanity. 

The R2P does not prescribe a particular course of action. In particular, it does not aim at authorising military intervention for the purposes of protecting populations. Rather, R2P commits national and international actors to take consecutive, measurable steps to mitigate the risk of mass atrocities, based on existing legal obligations. These steps should be based initially on existing resources and support. If steps are not taken in time or sufficiently, national, regional or international actors may substitute for national actors based on complementarity, i.e. to the extent required to fill the gap in protection. Substituting activities may involve military action in order to meet the objective of the agreed step. New military concepts for this particular situation of physical protection of civilians have been developed in the context of R2P, e.g. the MARO (Mass Atrocity Response Operation) project, and look very different to NATO’s intervention in Libya.   

Since R2P is not primarily about military intervention, Syria does not face a higher challenge, not because of the lack of Security Council agreement on the use of force but because of the lack of a jointly agreed way forward to protect its population. It is time for the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, armed opposition elements, representatives of the different sects and people opposing the demonstrations to come together and agree on concrete measurable steps with timelines to protect the civilian population. In addition to the exchange of information on the humanitarian situation, measures against sectarian violence and establishment of neutral humanitarian safe havens in areas beyond the control of the regime may be discussed. The respect for humanitarian law by members of the armed opposition should also be monitored and reported through an agreed mechanism. The creation of local humanitarian coordination committees would allow cooperation of people with different views on the cause and desirable outcome of the current crisis, by applying strictly the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. Such activities will also support the future assessment mission of Valerie Amos, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator. 

Ultimately, Syrian society needs to agree on a process towards a political solution. Based on the development and implementation of the proposed steps, Syrians can articulate concrete action needed from the international community as limited, targeted contributions short of military intervention. In addition to their local coordination, humanitarian committees should be in contact with international NGOs and UN humanitarian agencies on a daily basis. Missions and the temporary presence of international actors could be an important means of protection. However, ownership and control should remain with the Syrian people. If the government of Syria does not engage in these humanitarian processes, these activities may pave the way for the Security Council to engage and support the implementation of measurable steps through authorising targeted military action. The appointment of Kofi Annan, one of the main advocates of R2P in the past, as Joint Special Envoy of the League of Arab States and the UN, may further support this approach.


Ekkehard Strauss is an independent researcher and consultant based in Morocco, who studies the prevention of mass atrocities. The ideas he expresses here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the EUISS.