The civil war in Syria grinds on, with little hope of a quick conclusion and a return to peace. The human cost of this conflict rises inexorably, and yet no humanitarian intervention is forthcoming. Why is this? The members of the United Nations have agreed that they have a legal ‘Responsibility to Protect’ the citizens of states who are being killed by their rulers. Why is it not being applied?
In truth, the weaknesses of the Responsibility to Protect have been evident for some time. It is a general moral principle which does not adapt well to real life conflict, and has the potential to cause serious division within the international community.
The chief concern is that the Responsibility to Protect advocates starting wars without any clear idea of how to end them. It is impossible to realistically envisage a situation where a state is killing its citizens, a foreign military force intervenes to stop it, and the original regime remains in place. Putting a new government in place will require an act of nation building. The examples of Iraq and Afghanistan show the difficulties with this, and how wrong it can go. There is nothing humanitarian about creating a failed state, and that is assuming that the intervention is even possible.
The doctrine takes as read that the option to launch an international militarily intervention is available. It has been argued that the war in Libya proved that this can be the case. A closer inspection shows that this is questionable. Although calls for the intervention were led by Britain and France, without the military might of the USA it would have been impossible. The gap between the desire of many countries to intervene and their ability to do so was noted by outgoing US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, who saw it as a threat to the viability of NATO, realistically the only organisation willing and able to perform such military operations. Calls for intervention made by states that lack the ability to perform one amount to little more than empty posturing, and run the additional risk of jeopardising their own interests, and that is before other international considerations are taken in to account.
Wars have consequences beyond the place that they are fought. However murderous a regime is, it has a place in the international order. When the regime falls and is replaced by a new government, possibly even a new system of government, then that order changes. Observe how Israel watches nervously as Egypt transitions to some kind of democracy. The Responsibility to Protect advocates making these changes without giving consideration to the international effects. If a tyrannical government is deposed, but the cost is regional instability which leads to greater bloodshed, then the humanitarian aims of the intervention have obviously failed. It is possible that this could be the outcome in Syria, where Sunni/Shia conflict risks spreading to surrounding countries.
None of these arguments precludes military intervention, if circumstances allow it. What should be clear is that this is not the case in Syria. The US is not going to involve itself in another Middle Eastern war with no clear objectives and no clear exit scenario, even if it could get the backing of Russia and China in the Security Council, which it can’t. No other state has the military capacity to decisively directly intervene, and so they won’t. Even if they did, the risk of the conflict spreading would make this course of action too risky to be considered wise. None of this will come as any consolation to the Syrians, who find themselves in an ever worsening civil war with no prospect of decisive assistance.