R2P May Still Work

The Responsibility to Protect, the legal doctrine that establishes a framework for international intervention, seems tailor-made for the current civil war in Syria. The principle affirms a common duty of nations to resist the mass killing of innocent civilians by their own government. Evidence of indiscriminate Syrian government attacks on its citizens is sufficient to warrant an array of measures under the doctrine to protect the Syrian people from Bashir al-Assad and his murderous regime. Unfortunately, the United Nations has hesitated to do more than commission former Secretary General Kofi Annan to undertake what turned out to be two ill-fated peace missions to the region.

Commentators lay blame for the failure to intervene militarily on the opposition of Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council. But even if no vetoes blocked international action, there are many reasons to hesitate. Syria’s defensive capabilities would make armed intervention costly. The unsettled outcome of the 2003 Iraq invasion cautions against outsiders trying to resolve ethnic and religious differences with an enforced settlement. In addition, the fragmentation of the armed Syrian resistance strongly suggests that any post-Assad future will be afflicted by interreligious violence.


All the same, 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 conclude that international intervention to end the slaughter is justified. Before armed rebellion began and since its spread, 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 artillery barrages have demolished entire neighborhoods suspected of sympathy with the regime’s critics. All the attacks on civilians are violations of the laws of war and crimes against humanity. Without doubt there is just cause for international intervention. But altogether too much public debate has focused on the issue of international military intervention as if it were the only option.

The framers of the doctrine of responsibility to protect anticipated situations in which the Security Council might be deadlocked and acknowledged 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.” So the need for action can be met in other ways than through an all-out military intervention under the authority of the Security Council.

Hesitancy about intervention derives in large measure from the lack of unity among the opposition forces in Syria. The transition can be better secured and postconflict instability reduced through efforts to unify them. This can be done through outside mediation between factions and through arms transfers and other aid given on condition that the opposition closes ranks and accepts a unified command. The Syrian National Council should make public the elements of a transition plan prepared for it by the U.S. Institute for Peace, a federally funded research institution. Publicity will allow others in the diffuse opposition to buy in or negotiate for changes in a postconflict regime. This could reduce the squabbling that is bound to come after the overthrow of the Assad government.

A particularly thorny problem in regime-changing conflicts is the question of transitional justice—that is, how to hold those responsible for atrocities accountable for their crimes. To wind down the conflict, Syrians may have to make a choice between full accountability and advancing the end of armed conflict by extending amnesty to some of the perpetrators. A cessation of hostilities could be speeded up by extending amnesty to military and government officials who surrender or defect by a specified date.

Given the regime’s history of violence against its own people, the opposition will be wary of amnesty; but except in egregious cases, amnesty may be the price to be paid for peace. Worries about former agents of the regime returning to power could be handled, as was done in some Eastern European countries after 1989, by lustration (political cleansing) laws that prohibited their return to political or civil office. In any case, the tradeoffs between justice, peace and the basic functioning of government should be made by the liberated Syrians themselves.

Finally, neighboring states, the U.N. refugee agency U.N.H.C.R. and the Syrian Red Crescent are doing good work providing aid to refugees and others displaced by the fighting. The international community should take steps to expand efforts to meet this complex humanitarian emergency, prepare for winter and begin the work of postconflict reconstruction. Given the global economic recession, planning and the acquisition of resources must begin as soon as possible.

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Christopher Rushlau
6 years 5 months ago
Israel does to Gaza, the West Bank and many people within its own supposed borders much worse, both in volume and in deliberateness, than Assad does to Syrians, but because Israel says Palestinians are not its own people, this is okay.
The need for reform in the Catholic Church can be gauged by the quality of its arguments.  We've gone from a high point in the early 1960's to what an English protestant might call this Slough of Despond.
John Corr
6 years 5 months ago
Do we really know what the consequences of intervention in Syria would be? Idon't think we even  have much understanding of the Syrian forces at play. The ethics of this editorial would justify intrervention in many places across the globe. We would need a new federal Department of Intervention. 
Thomas Farrelly
6 years 5 months ago

"This can be done through outside mediation between factions and through arms transfers and other aid given on condition that the opposition closes ranks and accepts a unified command."

Yes, by all means get these people who are engaged in desperate combat around a table for leisurely discussions, presided over by an outside mediator. Perhaps a "discernment" process could take place. This would be laughable except that people are being killed, maimed, and tortured every hour.

The bitter truth is that the US has no vital interest in military intervention, and the countries of the area that are closest to Syria in religion and culture - Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan - and have the means to intervene, do not have the stomach for it.

One has to wonder if the Responsibility to Protect has any real meaning, and if there will ever be a situation in which it is not explained away as just too inconvenient.

Francis Gindhart
6 years 5 months ago
R2P in Syria should primarily concern its people, but should be expanded to its patrimony of sites emblematic of human civilization.  Amnesty is one road out of the current malevolency, but who or what is empowered to authorize it?  I believe it must be the action of the Security Council of the United Nations.  It should be a directive that establishes Syria as a protectorate administered by the Arab League which would have the responsibility to place a peacekeeping force on the ground, refer the leadership responsible for the war crimes of any party to the conflict for prosecution in The Hague, and suspend the operation of the Assad government pending the creation of a democratic, representative government.
Carlos Orozco
6 years 5 months ago

I found it extremely difficult to finish reading this opinion piece. An attempt to present a balanced view of the Syrian situation was never made. That the editors of a Jesuit magazine take for granted the narrative coming from an ever more alienating corporate media, whose function during MONTHS has been to prepare the war-weary public for another military invasion, is intelectually dishonest.

Nothing is mentioned of the funding that the Syrian opposition receives from nefarious foreign intelligence agencies (CIA, MI6, Mossad) and ruthless Arab Wahhabi monarchs. Nothing is mentioned of how the opposition is KNOWLINGLY being reinforced by al-Qaeda minded elements arriving from many countries, especially recently "liberated" Libya. Nothing is said of how the radicalized forces that battle Assad have desacrated Christian churches and are ready to enforce Sharia law.

How is it that in a Catholic magazine a discussion on how "Just War" doctrine can be applied in the Syrian conflict is abscent in favor of the neocon "Right to Protect"? Syria is much less victim of Assad as it is of the foreign powers playing out the Great Game of the 21st century. The energy rich Middle East is at play, incredibly great crimes will be committed under the pretext of of the defense of "human rights" (U.S. and its NATO allies) and "national self-determination" (Russia, Iran and China).

Carlos Orozco
6 years 5 months ago

For those who suspect that there is something more behind the "freedom fighters are resisting evil Assad" narrative:

Retired general Wesley Clark, former supreme NATO command?er??, ??o?n???????????? how ??war? ideologues planned widespread ?Mid?d?le ?E?ast ?invasions ?immediately after September 2001, including Syria of course.



Thomas Farrelly
6 years 5 months ago

The video referred to by Carlos Orosco shows Wesley Clark citing a memo he had read, aooarently after 9.11, advocating the invasion of seven countries, including Syria. He does not mention the author of the memo, the recommendations of which were obviously not adopted. Nor is there any substance in this video to support a contention that the uprising in Syrian is all part of a Western plot.

Carlos Orozco
6 years 4 months ago

0:00 The General states that the initial conversation he had with the unamed Pentagon general took place "around ten days after 9/11". The decision to invade Iraq has been made without (no connection with al-Qaeda found).

1:03 Gen. Clark states that "a few weeks later" the same Pentagon general shows him a memo "from upstairs, referring to the Secreatary's Defense office" describing how to "take down seven countries in five years". Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.

The implementation of the the directive is incomplete because of the disaster that became the Iraq invasion. But the nihilists at the Pentagon could not stop. Libya fell in hands of racist al-Qaeda affiliates but that did not worry the current hawkish Secretary of State of the Hope and Change administration:


The same Hillary Clinton (wife to draft dodger Bill) is currently traveling the Middle East to form a multinational force to attack Syria. And don't forget Nobel laureate Barack Obama, whom just yesterday started beating the war drums.

Of course Iran is the big prize.
6 years 4 months ago
The UN is not going to help reduce the suffering in Syria.

If you wish to reduce the killing and suffering in that country , advocate the USA to create a  "no fly" zone in the northern region of Aleppo. This area has an historical connection to Turkey.

The Zone will provide a base for  humanitarian aid and also provide a place of refuge  from Assad or a pathway to Turkey for the people of Syria.

President Obama needs to show some leadership to stop the killing in the country.
Get him off the campaign trail and back to work. He is our president and we have a moral obligation to help the Syrians


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