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From Libya to Syria — the Responsibility to Protect, Interventionism and Regime Change


Editorial by Michael Emerson

The responsibility to protect is a relatively new normative construction of the United Nations, known in short as R2P, which was launched in 2005 at the World Summit, in the aftermath of the terrible Central African genocides and atrocities of the recent past. The summit's concluding Document declared that it is the responsibility of governments to protect their own citizens, and in particular from ‘genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity'. When they fail the international community shall have the responsibility to ‘take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity'.

Yet at the global level there is a huge chasm of disagreement over the competition for primacy of norms, broadly between the West and the Rest. The West sees R2P as an important advance in international norms, complementing the existing Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which was designed to provide for the possibility of armed intervention in the case of inter-state aggression. R2P adds a new principle, which may authorize forceful intervention in the internal affairs of states. The Rest, led by Russia and China, give primacy to the principle of non-interference. The West also endorses the principle of non-interference as a general proposition. The issue though is when should R2P override non-interference doctrine.

Libya 2011 has now become the most famous instance of R2P being operationalised through Resolution 1973 of 17 March 2011, which legitimized the intervention by France, the UK, the US and other NATO allies to enforce a no fly zone and to take any steps (short of putting boots on the ground) to support rebel forces in their civil war against Khadaffi. The passing of Resolution 1973 of the Security Council was greatly helped by the resolutions adopted by the African Union and Arab League, without which Russia and China would surely not have abstained from using their veto cards as permanent members of the Security Council.

As the intervention in Libya progressed China and especially Russia voiced regrets over having abstained, claiming that the NATO forces has overstepped their mandate for enforcing a no fly zone, escalating their action into one of enforcing regime change. Indeed that had become the objective, but how could the R2P principle be enforced without this? It was obvious enough that Khadaffi was prepared to continue to slaughter his people in a civil war to retain power. Nonetheless Russia and China complained rather disingenuously they had been duped by the West, claiming that the NATO allies were dishonestly converting R2P into a regime change instrument.

And then the spotlight switched to Syria, and immediately Russia declared that it would block any R2P resolution, because the West could not be trusted to stick to a limited mandate. But in any case the West had in any case no stomach for a Libya type intervention. While the issues of political morality were not really different as between Libya and Syria, there were major differences in other respects: Syria would be a far more difficult proposition militarily and the complexity of regional security issues was such that the law of unintended consequences would have ominous potential. Turkey could open its frontier for refugees and the West could implement economic and political sanctions. But there it would remain.

But then the murderous repression by the Syrian authorities went on and on as the months have gone by, and quite remarkably the Arab League has acted again, with Turkey participating in their meetings as if an honorary member of the organisation. On 23 November they delivered a three day ultimatum to Syria to stop its murderous repression. Having got no satisfaction it decided on 27 November to sanction Syria with the cutting off of transactions with the central bank of Syria, its commercial banks, applying an asset freeze on senior officials, suspending funding for various projects, etc. The message was also that Bashar Assad had to go, regime change please.

The action of the Arab League was comforted at the same time by the findings of a panel of the UN Human Rights Commission, which reported on their mission to Syria with evidence of crimes against humanity, and the deaths of more than 3,500 people. ‘The sheer scale and consistent pattern of attacks by military and security forces on civilians and civilian neighbourhoods and the widespread destruction of property could only be possible with the approval or complicity of the state'.

Meanwhile Russia adds an element of confusion in sending a flotilla of warships to the Mediterranean, led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, heading for its naval base at Tartus on the Syrian coast. And what is the brave Admiral Kuznetsov to do there? To protect Bashar Assad? Surely not. To join with the West in protecting the Syrian citizens against him? Surely not. ‘The call of Russian ships in Tartus should not be seen as a gesture towards what is going on in Syria. This was already planned in 2010', said a naval spokesman. Or just enjoy a warm water cruise over the winter? Surely not?

What has been going on in Syria has become unbearable for its Arab neighbours to stand by and watch (excepting Lebanon and Iraq who abstained, but did not block the Arab League action). Libya-type military intervention is still not expected in Syria, although France's foreign minister has just floated the idea of a ‘humanitarian corridor' into Syria, without saying whether this should be militarily protected, while the Turkish foreign minister says that militarily protected buffer zones are a conceivable option. But the key point is that the Arab League and the West for the time being have moved closer together, including the dance of Turkish foreign policy out of and now more back into the West, this time alongside the Arabs. All are interested in advancing democratic freedoms, albeit some faster than others, all are prepared to act across state borders to protect the people in their close neighbourhood, all are prepared to advocate regime change explicitly in extreme cases (Libya, Syria, Yemen). And then the unspoken elephant in the room is Iran, where both the Arabs and the West have big problems albeit of different colours, and the Arab League action over Syria is surely in part Iran by proxy. Russia, China and the BRICS are behind the game, or just playing a different one. For Europe on the other hand this implicit rapprochement with the Arabs means that it is not now, at least for the moment, so clearly the West versus the Rest..

Michael EMERSON,
CEPS Senior Research Fellow

CEPS European Neighbourhood Watch. Issue 76

№12(61), 2011

№12(61), 2011