States Dodge “Responsibility to Protect” in Syria

The interests of the nations involved thwart the case for an international responsibility to protect civilians in Syria.

William Hague, the British foreign secretary, and Hillary Clinton, secretary of state of the United States, sit in a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York, January 31
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, and Hillary Clinton, secretary of state of the United States, sit in a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York, January 31 (State Department)

With the high-profile defection of Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, an elite member of the Syrian regime and close personal friend of President Bashar al-Assad’s, comes the renewed sense that the conflict in Syria is beginning to mirror developments in previous “Arab Spring” uprisings.

As Muammar Gaddafi’s inner circle fractured and defected around him and opposition forces consolidated their gains in the rebel stronghold city of Benghazi, the international community invoked the principle of the “responsibility to protect” and mobilized for a military intervention that was spearheaded by NATO forces. This event represents the most recent case of intervention justified by the moral and ethical concepts encapsulated within the “responsibility to protect” doctrine.

Though the principle itself is only a decade old, it has come under considerable scrutiny and criticism within the international community and has undergone several reinterpretations since its normative inception in 2001.

The recent uprisings in Syria have further served to highlight the operational deficiencies of the concept in practice, as it has failed to be called upon despite the atrocities and breaches of human rights as recorded by official United Nations inspectors.

Setting aside the principle’s primary axis of consternation — the integrity of national sovereignty versus the responsibilities of the international community — there is another, more central reason why, in the case of the Syrian conflict, the principle cannot and will not be operationalized despite the escalating nature of the violence as the conflict develops — the interests of the states involved.

A fundamental criticism of the principle is that it allows geopolitical objectives to masquerade as humanitarian protection.

In the Libyan instance, the operation suffered from “mission slip,” as NATO actions quickly (and some might argue, inevitably) shifted focus from humanitarian protection of civilians to that of regime change, in which NATO effectively became the air force of the rebellion. This serves as a crystal clear example of the very real and present disconnect between the principle as theory — an undisputedly positive notion — and the effects of the principle in practice, which are misguided and ineffective or downright inapplicable.

The “CNN effect” that influences the opinions of domestic populations that witness and see for themselves the horrors of violent conflict abroad often generates an international consensus that “something must be done” to alleviate the suffering of the afflicted people, none more so than when that suffering is caused at the hands of the leaders of the nation state itself, as was the case in Libya and is currently the case in Syria. The questions that naturally follow such outcry are who will intervene and at what cost?

However, the more pertinent (and, albeit cynical) question in relation to the “responsibility to protect” doctrine being applied to Syria is, why should there be an intervention at all?

Powerful though the diffusion of human rights norms have been within the international community and loud may the damning outcry of both public and political figures to the abhorrent level of violence in Syria be, the moral notion that something must be done remains in the shadow of state power and relationships related to interest.

Multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations, can articulate morally sound ideas and norms but they essentially lack the cohesive power to enforce them onto the international community. The structural effect of Kenneth Waltz’ “anarchic order” inhibits, and will continue to inhibit, the principle in practice.

The prominent realist thinker John Mearsheimer also asserted that “institutions are basically a reflection of the distribution of power in the world” and we understand that the United Nations Security Council is no different to this. Whether or not the “responsibility to protect” doctrine has been invoked or not has largely depended on the political will of members of the permanent five to do so. The political will “to do something” is not always precipitated by the humanitarian need but by their own concerns for self-interest.

The convoluted and myriad convergence of the national interests of several powerful regional and international actors in the Syrian case all but guarantee that the UN will fail to implement a resolution pertaining to a humanitarian intervention through military means in the conflict. This has been illustrated clearly by the Russian and to a lesser extent Chinese stance within the Security Council, in opposition to other members, and also by NATO’s reaction and posture since the downing of the Turkish F-4 fighter jet in June.

The notion that the “responsibility to protect” should be invoked by the international community as the catalyst for an armed intervention and possible solution to the conflict is one square, which in this case, cannot be circled.


  1. The Responsibility to Protect is not a norm involving only military intervention. All the steps that have been taken by the international community to resolve the crisis in Syria (sanctions, revoking diplomats, negotiations, monitoring, etc) are considered tools under R2P. R2P was invoked months ago in Syria. Simply because military intervention is not being used does not mean it is an unsuccessful case, as there are many reasons that military intervention would not be successful in Syria, especially in comparison to Libya.

    This does not mean that there isn’t more that states can do, that I agree with. But, it is necessary to state that R2P has been invoked and progress has been made – although small.

    One of the main obstacles that R2P faces is it’s association with military intervention when, in reality, military tools are only a small part of R2P and a last resort.

    I would be more than willing to clarify any points made in more detail as I wanted to keep this comment short.

  2. And how have all the nonmilitary steps been working out? Not so well, I would say. Assad doesn’t seem to mind the sanctions nor, frankly, care about the diplomatic efforts. If major powers aren’t willing to back up their words with force, they’re not altogether but quite meaningless. Assad has demonstrated that.

  3. You’re correct in that the steps have not worked as well as one would have hoped, but that does not mean that resorting to force is the answer. Military intervention worked well in Libya because there were two distinct sides for an array of reasons that are not existent in Syria. (2 distinct sides, an imminent threat against Benghazi, geographically feasible, political will etc.) In Syria, political will is not existent (Russia and China) which therefore prevents a Security Council resolution to authorize the use of force. If the use of force was to be invoked, at this point it would be a last resort. But, it would also have to fit other criteria such as proportional means and reasonable prospects. Being that there are numerous opposition groups, strongholds throughout the country, and Syria demonstrated it’s military capabilities along it’s borders, it may not be a feasible solution. Assad has held on to power must stronger than Gaddafi did.

    I cannot present a solution as that will be up to the international community. But it should be understood that this is not a failure of R2P. Libya was a perfect test case but every situation is different and R2P is applied in a different manner, although using the same tools, to every R2P situation. In the case of Syria, different tools are applicable and have been utilized. For Assad to step down from power and allow for a political transition will be a success of R2P, although not the most successful we have seen,

  4. I’m not saying we should resort to force. Quite to the contrary. I think we shouldn’t intervene in Syria at all, because I see no good way out for Western interests.

    I would regard the present stalemate a failure of “responsibility to protect” however and I’m not sure how anyone can see it differently. Assad remains in power, Syrians are dying every day, in spite of what you say is a pretty complete deployment of R2P methods short of military intervention. For which, indeed, there isn’t the will.

    If this isn’t failure for R2P, what is?

  5. I see where you’re coming from. I see Syria as a successful (and frustrating) application of R2P, not necessary a successful case; meaning that the tools applied did not have the outcome that the international community desired. Personally, I do believe it was in the interest of the international community to intervene but that is a personal judgement as my field is mass atrocity prevention. Whether or not we went about it the right way is a whole other question. The only resolve I see possible is for Assad to step down. I don’t think military intervention is feasible or would be successful. Unfortunately, Assad’s stepping down will inevitably cast a bad light on R2P being that it is regime-change. But if it would bring a resolve to the conflict and halt mass atrocities, then I believe it is a necessary step and would not be possible without intervention. It will obviously have a negative impact as well but I’m speaking strictly in regards to mass atrocity crime prevention.

  6. I don’t see how the application of tools can be considered “successful” if it didn’t have the desired outcome. Isn’t that the definition of success? Achieving the desired outcome.

  7. The reason I say that is because R2P is still young and hasn’t really been effectively applied over the past eight years. Of course the true goal of R2P is to effectively halt or prevent mass atrocities, but I do think that at least applying tools in a timely and decisive manner is a step for R2P because it is not something that we have seen in the past.

  8. First of all thank you for taking the time to read the article and to provide some constructive feedback.

    I am however, fully aware that the tool set available to the international community to act in situations where the R2P principle is relevant, is much more comprehensive than just military intervention. I am also not abdicating the use of just military force. The purpose of the article was to highlight the fact that, despite the continued escalation of the violence, that for a number of reasons, there will not be a military intervention. Am I saying that this is what should happen? No, simply illustrating that if States were to fully adhere to the moral and ethical principles encapsulated within the R2P doctrine, then there would have to be a military intervention. The violence is, and will continue without one. The Syrian State has failed in its responsibility to protect for its own citizens, and therefore according to UN principles should forfeit its right to national sovereignty. R2P is an emerging norm, and has yet to attain the ‘norm cascade’ required for it to be respected and adhered to in the way that national sovereignty is, so this will not happen, therefore it has failed to in its mission statement in regards to Syria.

    To state that Libya was a success is also, in my opinion, incorrect. The mandate was for the protection of civilians not regime change. Was an atrocity prevented in Benghazi? more than likely, but because the principle ended up being used as a tool of state interest, and not a transparent moral principle for the prevention of atrocity crimes, it undermines its legitimacy within the international community. Add to this the deaths attributed to the bombing campaign itself and continued instability in the country, and it doesn’t look particularly successful.

    I hope for further development of the ‘prevention’ element within the doctrine, as this could perhaps reinforce the non military aspects of the tool set available. I heard, just yesterday from NATO themselves whilst at their SHAPE headquarters, that it is incredibly difficult to measure the success of sanctions, deterrence, etc, but I think that as there is continued violence and the Assad regime is still in power, that they have not been very successful at all in the Syrian case.

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