By Andrew Kydd
Over ten thousand people have been killed in the fighting in Syria, and the Assad regime has committed a number of atrocities against civilians, including the recent Houla massacre. NATO intervened in Libya with far less provocation, and this was declared a triumph of the UN Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which holds that the international community has a responsibility to protect civilians if they are under attack from their own government. This triumph must surely ring hollow for the families of Assad’s victims today.
In truth, R2P’s application to Libya was seriously flawed. First, the Libyan regime did not commit large scale massacres before NATO decided to intervene. At best, NATO acted preventively, to head off a potential massacre that might have happened had Qadaffi’s forces retaken control of Benghazi, the rebel stronghold. And in the implementation, NATO clearly did not simply attempt to protect civilians, as its UN mandate dictated, they became the rebel airforce and did not stop their strikes until Qadaffi was dead in a ditch. Current opponents of intervention in Syria such as Russia and China are unlikely to have forgotten that an inch of R2P was turned into a mile of regime change.
Can R2P be redeemed in Syria? What would such an intervention look like? The usual concept is an overall threshold for civilian fatalities, that, once crossed, leads to all out intervention to overthrow the regime. This has some points to recommend it, but suffers from two drawbacks: it generates opposition from regime supporters and the cost may deter action, resulting in too high a threshold.
Consider a lower threshold alternative. Imagine if NATO adopted a policy of destroying a government tank, artillery piece, or other military asset for every ten civilians killed by the regime. A massacre such as Houla in which around a hundred civilians died would cost them five tanks, four guns and a helicopter. Massacres committed by the rebel side could be punished more subtly by interdicting supplies from their backers such as Saudi Arabia. Such a policy would at least provide incentives for each side to minimize civilian casualties. It would also shift the balance of power in favor of the rebels, because it would hamper the regime’s use of its advantage in hardware. This is probably ok with the NATO countries, though objectionable to Russia. The main drawback is it might also prolong the war, which would frustrate NATO publics and might in the end lead to more fatalities over time. McArthur was not alone in preferring victory to prolonged indecision. But R2P is meant to produce cleaner fights not quick victories.