The Responsibility to Protect, the innovative international law doctrine that establishes a framework for international intervention in the domestic life of countries where significant numbers of people are subject to violence or grave deprivation, seems tailor-made for the current civil war in Syria. But the United Nations has hesitated to do more than commission former Secretary General Kofi Annan to undertake two failed peace missions to the region. While there is ample reason to hesitate before intervening in Syria, evidence of indiscriminate government attacks on its citizens is sufficient to warrant an array of measures under the R2P doctrine short of all out force to protect Syrians from their murderous leaders.
Commentators lay the blame for the failure to intervene on the opposition of Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the Security Council. Even if no vetoes blocked international action, of course, there are lots of reasons to hesitate to intervene militarily. Syria’s defensive capabilities would make armed intervention costly for any outside force. The unsettled outcome of the Bush Administration’s unnecessary and unjust war of choice in Iraq, moreover, with its still ongoing internecine violence, cautions against outsiders trying to resolve ethnic differences with an enforced settlement.
Furthermore, the failed American and allied experience in nation-building in both Iraq and Afghanistan also suggests how fraught with difficulty establishing a just peace in Syria may be. The fragmentation of the armed Syrian resistance and its disconnect from the political resistance of the Syrian National Council weigh heavily in favor of a post-Assad future afflicted by interethnic and inter-religious violence. Without prior agreement international forces could be embroiled in civil conflict, increasing the overall violence in the situation. All the same, R2P affirms a common duty to resist the mass killing of innocent civilians by their own governments.
The unremitting violence of the Assad regime, not only against the current militia forces but especially earlier against unarmed demonstrators and their sympathizers, provides ample reason to presume that international intervention is justified to end the slaughter. Before and since the spread of armed rebellion, the regime has kidnapped, tortured and assassinated civilians in their homes. The victims of torture have included many children. Sharpshooters have killed unarmed demonstrators as they marched, and in town after artillery barrages have demolished entire neighborhoods on suspicion of sympathy with the regime’s critics. Organized mobs have slaughtered entire villages and urban neighborhoods. More than a quarter million Syrians have fled as refugees to neighboring countries, with tens of thousands more displaced in their home country. All the attacks on civilians are violations of the laws of war and crimes against humanity. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has urged that these crimes be referred to the International Criminal Court and that the Security Council take action to forestall further atrocities. Without doubt there is just cause for international intervention.
Barriers to Action
There are essentially two obstacles to intervention, one political, the other, ethical. The political barrier to action, of course, is the lack of consensus on the UN Security Council. The ethical barrier is the uncertainty, one might even say the excessive difficulty, of reaching a peaceful settlement by armed intervention. The framers of the R2P doctrine did anticipate situations in which the Security Council might be deadlocked and allowed that it would be “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 political barrier is not insuperable. For example, a coalition of states, like “the Friends of Syria” or the Arab League, might undertake a ‘legitimate,” though not formally legal, intervention as in Kosovo in 1999. So, the need for action could be met in other ways than through an all-out military intervention under the authority of the Security Council. Those other means ought to be aimed at reducing the obstacles to international execution of the responsibility to protect and at facilitating conditions for a just peace in post-bellum Syria.
Hesitancy about intervention derives in large measure from the disunity of the opposition, both the array of independent fighting groups and the lack of clear connection between the government in exile, the Syrian National Council, and the fighters. The transition can be better secured and post-conflict instability reduced through efforts to unify the opposition. This can be done through outside mediation between factions and through arms transfer and other aid conditioned on the opposition closing ranks and accepting unified command. As a once-secular and nonsectarian rebellion turns more sectarian and as groups like Al Qaeda begin to make added trouble, the consolidation of the opposition becomes imperative to prevent chaos after the change in regimes and political fragmentation across the region.
Uncertainty over the shape of a post-Assad regime may be reduced by making public at least the elements of a transition plan, such as has been reported to have been prepared by the U.S. Institute for Peace at the request of the Syrian National Council. While the Council or its representatives may have bought in to such a plan, publicity will allow others in the diffuse opposition to buy in or negotiate for changes in a post-conflict regime, reducing the squabbling otherwise bound to come after the overthrow of the Assad government.
A particularly thorny problem in regime-changing conflicts like that in Syria is the question of transitional justice, that is, how to hold those responsible for atrocities accountable for their crimes. It is particularly vexing because often to wind down the conflict a choice must be made between exacting full accountability and advancing the end of armed conflict by extending amnesty to some of the perpetrators. That choice also exists in the Syrian conflict. With military intervention or without, a cessation of hostilities could be speeded up by extending amnesty to military and government officials who surrender or defect by a certain date.
Given the government’s unrelenting war against protestors and dissenters these last two years, not to mention, the regime’s history of violence against its own people, the opposition will be wary of amnesty, but except in egregious cases, it may be the price to be paid for peace. Worries about former agents of the regime returning to power could be handled, as it was in some eastern European countries after 1989, by lustration laws, prohibiting their return to political or civil offices. Again, this is not an easy choice, especially since the United States after its failed experience with de-Baathification in Iraq, has warned against excluding former officeholders from public life; but the tradeoffs between justice and the basic functioning of government should be made by the liberated Syrians themselves. They should decide how heavily the American lessons of Iraq should weigh in the design of their new state.
Finally, neighboring states, the UN Refugee Agency and the Syrian Red Crescent are doing good work in providing aid to refugees and others displaced by the fighting. The international community should take steps to expand work to meet this complex humanitarian emergency, prepare for winter and begin the work of post-conflict reconstruction. The international community has much improved skills in this area, but given the global economic recession planning and the acquisition of resources will need to begun as quickly as possible.
So, even without military intervention, the Friends of Syria can act under R2P to:
--publicize a transition plan in the interest of building consensus and, where necessary, promote negotiation among opposition factions;
--extend aid, including arms, on condition of consolidation of a unified opposition under civilian command;
--offer limited amnesty in return for defection and a cessation of hostilities, and
--prepare for post-conflict emergency aid and peace building with planning and funding.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.