Syria, Libya, and the Responsibility to Protect

US Navy vessel firing in support of the NATO intervention in Libya. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller, via Wikimedia.

By Andrew Kydd

US Navy vessel firing in support of the NATO intervention in Libya. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller, via Wikimedia.

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.

  1. The idea of redeeming R2P is intriguing, but I am a bit hard pressed to figure out how I should assess whether it needs redemption. One thing that strikes me as missing is the point that law is not merely applied to situations. In domestic law prosecutors (US) / judges (elsewhere) *decide* whether to pursue a case. That is, humans interpret the applicability of a standard. The concern here, with countries serving as a collective prosecutor/judge, seems to be the inconsistency across the Lybian and Syrian cases. I readily concede that inconsistency, but am hard pressed to conclude that the system is broken (and here I risk putting words in AK’s mouth). That is, it seems to me to be working as designed: rules have yet, to my knowledge, been flouted. That said, I am a bit out of my depth here, so school me.

  2. Andrew, there’s a logical problem with this argument: it treats the players as if they are abstract, apolitical, and on a constrained game-board. The domestic and regional contexts and consequences aren’t considered. If the US or NATO carried out a small military strike against Syria, Syria (or Iran) would likely feel justified (and maybe impelled by domestic regime supporters) to launch an asymmetric response. This could involve chemical weapons or terrorism, and could target Israel. Striking a few tanks could very well provoke disaster, and would almost certainly lead to a major interstate war. Kim

    1. Kim,

      Those scenarios are certainly possible, but in my view quite unlikely. For one thing, the US has escalation dominance, in the sense that it wins more readily the higher the level of conflict. If Assad chooses to escalate, he faces the possibility that we will do a Qadaffi on him, recognize the rebels and bomb whatever they point to. The Russians and Chinese might not like it, but practically they can’t stop it. Historically, Assad has shown restraint before. Israel took out his reactor project and he did nothing. It helped that he was pretending it wasn’t a reactor, but still. As for the more elaborate scenarios involving Iran, chemical weapons and Israel, Israel is yearning tragically for such an Iranian provocation, it would provide the perfect excuse for a preventive strike on their nuclear facilities. Iran knows this, and is unlikely to get too feisty on someone else’s behalf.

      In the end these issues are judgement calls. I agree such a policy raises the likelihood of an interstate war, but I think that likelihood would remain quite low.


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