The limits of R2P
The Arab League, meeting today in Cairo, got it right: it is not their human rights monitors who have failed, it is the Syrian government that has failed to fully implement its commitments to withdraw from cities, stop the violence and release prisoners. More monitors are needed. Their withdrawal would allow the regime to intensify its crackdown.
Unfortunately the League failed to ask the UN Security Council to weigh in, a potentially important step towards a resolution condemning the regime’s repression of the demonstrations. It will be far more difficult for Russia to block such a resolution if the Arab League calls for it.
Is military intervention in the cards? I don’t think so, and I think it is a mistake for anyone to encourage the demonstrators to think so. One of their signs reportedly called for an alien invasion. Syrians are desperate and don’t understand why there is so much international hesitation.
This is why:
- Russian opposition to anything that might lead to a U.S. or NATO military strike against the Assad regime, which provides Moscow with an important naval base at Latakia.
- Chinese opposition, which likely has more to do with not wanting a precedent for a military strike on Iran, a major oil supplier.
- American interest in cutting back military commitments and nervousness about precipitating a civil war in Syria, where the opposition to the regime is still not strong and united.
- European concerns of the same varieties, especially at a moment of great concern about budget deficits and the stability of the euro.
- Anxiety in the region and elsewhere that military action could have unintended, negative consequences for Turkey, Israel, Iraq and Lebanon.
So, yes, of course we need a Security Council resolution that denounces the violence and calls on the regime to implement fully the Arab League agreement. It would be good if it also called for deployment of UN human rights monitors, either alongside or within the Arab League contingent. But it won’t be backed up with the threat of force.
Some will complain that responsibility to protect (R2P), the UN doctrine under which the NATO led the intervention in Libya, requires military action against the Assad regime. But responsibility to protect is a principle that applies in the first instance to the authorities of the state in which rights are being abused. How quickly, even whether, it leads to outside international intervention depends on the particular circumstances, which are not favorable in the Syrian case.