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.