Syria and the Responsibility to Protect

We're running out of excuses.

Among the explanations given for why the West intervened in Libya but has thus far stayed out of the far greater crisis in Syria has been the lack of regional support for action. That excuse appears to be nearing its expiration date.

As NATOSource reported earlier today, the Arab League has asked Britain and France to lead an international response. Deutsche Welle has details:

Britain and France have been approached by senior Arab League officials about taking the lead in a Libya-style contact group which would coordinate the next phases of action against President Bashar al-Assad, and plan for what many regard as his inevitable departure from power.

It is widely believed that the approach to Britain and France has considerable support within the Arab League with many states feeling that the Europeans’ proximity to the Middle East and their greater understanding of its complexities would make them better leaders of such a contact group than the United States. King Abdullah of Jordan presented the case to British Prime Minister David Cameron during talks on Tuesday.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe appeared to take France’s first steps toward assuming a leadership position by calling on the UN Security Council to take action against Syria after meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, on Friday.

One senior Arab diplomatic source told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper on Friday that Syria’s neighbors held too many different views to coordinate action effectively and that the West had to take the lead in formulating a robust international response should Syria collapse. “Leaving it all up to us, you are going to get a lot of shenanigans,” the source is quoted as saying. “If you need a team captain on this you have got to go to the West.”

Now, the report goes on to note,

[T]there appears to be little desire among Arab or Western states to push for any military involvement – at least at this stage.

“The intervention in Libya proved controversial in the Arab world as the limited initial UN mandate was far exceeded by NATO’s subsequent intervention,” [Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East and North Africa expert at the London School of Economics] said. “This placed its Arab supporters in a difficult position although subsequent developments allowed Qatar and the UAE to position themselves to play a major role in post-conflict reconstruction and recovery.”

Should the Syrian regime escalate its response by using air power against its own people, calls for a Libya-style no-fly zone to protect civilians may reach fever pitch among Arab nations. “And who would enforce a no-fly zone? It would be the UN or NATO,” the senior Arab diplomatic source was quoted as saying by the Telegraph.

Any military intervention in Syria could act as a catalyst for a wider conflagration in a volatile region already primed to explode, with al-Assad’s main ally Iran under increased pressure from the West over its nuclear program and under threat from an Israeli administration which appears to be preparing to take matters into its own hands.

Not only would Western-led intervention in a major Arab state threaten to plunge the Middle East into a wider regional conflict, it would also ratchet up the tensions between the West and Syria’s powerful allies in Russia.

Russia, a long-term supporter of the Syrian regime and one which maintains a naval base in the country, has already accused Western countries of inciting opposition to al-Assad’s rule, as well as condemning the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria. Moscow, in tandem with China, also blocked a UN Security Council motion last month to bring sanctions against Syria.

It’s incredibly unlikely that Russia would intervene militarily on behalf of Syria. But, certainly, it’s unlikely to go along in with action in the Security Council, as it did by abstaining on the enabling resolution for Libya. And, given that there’s little appetite among Western publics for yet another war, the lack of a legitimating UN imprimatur may well be sufficient cover for refusing to act.

But the alternative choice appears to be to allow a full-scale civil war to break out, with massive civilian casualties sure to result. Hannah Allam for McClatchy:

“When you see what’s going on in Syria now, you see a civil war in the future,” said Rami Abdel Rahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “The Syrian regime keeps killing people and no one’s protecting these people. In the end, the people have to protect themselves.”

The United Nations says that pro-regime forces have killed more than 3,500 protesters since mid-March. Last weekend, the Arab League suspended Syria’s participation over the crackdown and has demanded that government forces stop their attacks on peaceful demonstrators by this weekend.

Analysts and activists, however, said those threats are empty and the Arab League’s proposal dead on arrival. Without a diplomatic miracle or foreign intervention, they said, Syria is on track for a bloody civil war with the potential for disastrous regional consequences.

Syria shares borders with five nations of strategic importance to U.S. interests in the region: Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

The Atlantic‘s Max Fisher argues, though, that Western choices are far harder than they were in Libya.

The biggest reason that Syria has looked so hopeless is that there’s little the outside world can do. The U.S. and European Union already had strong sanctions in place, and while the new sanctions are collapsing Syria’s economy, the regime only needs pennies on the dollar to keep sending tanks and helicopters against protesters. So the West can’t do much — except make it easier for other Middle Eastern states to follow the West and turn against Assad. Today’s Arab League condemnation is not immediately very meaningful — the Arab League has few real tools here except to call for United Nations Security Council action, and their statement insisted they won’t support intervention. Still, their turn against Assad — something that would have likely been impossible only a few years ago — suggests that Arab leaders are more responsive to public opinion, which has also turned sharply against Assad.

Even if the world still has few options for tipping the balance against Assad, regional and global leaders have clearly announced they won’t be helping Assad, either, something that’s unlikely to change with Arab public opinion so hostile toward the Syrian leader. Jordan’s king called on him to step down, Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud argued resignation was Assad’s only choice, and Turkey’s diplomats are getting so aggressive with Assad that they’ve suggested they might cut off electricity to the country. Even Iran, his most important ally, is allegedly meeting with Syrian opposition leaders (although the Iranian embassy in Syria denies this). Assad is all alone. This means that if his military turns against him or refuses orders to continue shooting civilians, his rule will collapse.

Assad’s backers in the government, the Syrian military, and in Syrian society must now all understand this new reality. That’s going to make them less likely to continue abetting the regime’s atrocities and more likely to jump ship. This is how an autocratic government collapse can be like a bank run: the more likely regime collapse looks, the greater incentive that supporters and officials have for defecting, which in turn increases the chance of collapse. This may be why military defections seem to be increasing, a process that could accelerate in the coming weeks.

There is little reason to believe that Assad or his military leadership, galvanized against surrender by hostile neighbors and the awful death of Muammar Qaddafi, will stop firing on protesters or that the world will intervene militarily in Syria. An intervention would require an Iraq-style ground invasion; unlike in Libya, where the desert geography made an air campaign relatively easy and low-risk, Syria’s fighting is mostly in dense urban areas. Senior military leaders are unlikely to attempt a coup as they must understand that their role in the crackdown so far means that neither protesters nor neighboring states would tolerate them in power. So the only foreseeable way for this conflict to end (other than an outright victory by Assad, which is sadly plausible) would be for mid- and low-level military defectors to lead an armed rebellion against the regime. And that’s beginning to happen.

So, things are coming to a head. The level of violence has reached a level that’s impossible to ignore, arguments for why the vaunted Responsibility to Protect doctrine don’t apply are wearing thin, and the regional powers that be are on the verge of asking the West to live up to its stated principles. And, unlike Libya, there’s a very real argument that American national interests are actually at stake here.

Yet everything else conspires against action. The West is in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in generations and cutting spending to the bone. A decade of fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere have left all concerned weary of war and, in many cases, severely under resourced. Oh, and there are elections coming up in Italy, France, and the United States.

AP Photo

FILED UNDER: Middle East, National Security, United Nations, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The difference between Syria and Libya seems to be the likelihood of unintended consequences. Whether it’s Iraq in the east, Lebanon to the west, or Israel and Jordan to the south, this is a nation that could be erupting into civil war in the middle of the biggest tinderbox in the world.

    I’m not sure there are any right answers, but this may be going beyond Responsibility To Protect and heading toward an inevitable need to do something. What that is, and whether it would end better than doing nothing, I don’t know.

  2. ponce says:

    Muqtada al-Sadr has come out in support of the current Syrian regime:

    What an odd Frankenstein nation we crested.

  3. ponce says:

    Yeah, it’s very odd.

    I can’t remember now how hostile Saddam was towards Syria.

  4. @ponce:

    My recollection is that the Syrians mostly stayed out of Saddam’s way. The Assad regime had similar routes in a Baathist political party, but I don’t think they were allies. Of course, the Syrians also stayed quiet during both the Gulf War and the Iraq War.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    The wild card here is Iran.

  6. JKB says:

    It is simple to tell whether the “West” will intervene. How much oil does Britain and France get from Syria? It their oil supplies are at risk, there will be a moral imperative. If not, there will be issues.

    Of all our wars, the one that was for oil, was Libya. Just not American supplies of oil.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JKB: This too… It is not odd… it is oil… Wake up and smell the roaches.

  8. An Interested Party says:

    It is simple to tell whether the “West” will intervene. How much oil does Britain and France get from Syria? It their oil supplies are at risk, there will be a moral imperative. If not, there will be issues.

    Of all our wars, the one that was for oil, was Libya. Just not American supplies of oil.

    Oh please, spare us the sanctimony…as if the Iraq debacle had absolutely nothing to do with oil…

  9. @An Interested Party:

    Not just the Iraq War. I seem to remember James Baker saying in 1990 that the reason we were sending troops to Saudi Arabia was because of “oil, oil, oil.”

    And, for the record, I supported the Gulf War and still do.

  10. matt says:

    I gotta admit that picture sure is making it hard for me to keep my “who cares?” perspective on Syria…

  11. @Ron Beasley:

    And their client quasi-state Hezbollah

  12. Ron Beasley says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I wonder if the Arab League action was as much about Iran as it was about Syria.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    Where is Turkey in all this? They have a 600k man military, they share a border, and they have aspirations to be a regional power. I realize the history there is complicated (to put it generously) but so is the history of European intervention in Syria, and so is the position of the US as Israel’s sponsor.

    As a simple military proposition of course we (NATO) can do it, but it’s not as simple as Libya. Syria has three cities of over a million and a handful of other large cities including Hama which is larger than Washington, DC. There are air space issues in every direction — Lebanon, Jordan, even Iraq. There’s Hezbollah.

    Complicated. Not impossible, but probably not easy, either. Sort of a mini-Iran in some ways.

  14. Dazedandconfused says:

    Google up the size of the Syrian military forces, Mike.

    It would be “a big fricken’ deal”.

  15. Michael,

    James probably knows more than I, but my guess is Turkey will stay out of this for the same reason they stayed out of Iraq, and the same reason they’d stay out of a conflict with Iran.

    One word: Kurdistan

  16. Rob in CT says:

    This sort of thing is why “R2P” is so damned dangerous. Syria? Really?

  17. @Rob in CT:

    I tend to agree. Intervening in Syria is insane. The thing to worry is about is what effect a civil war in Syria would have on the surrounding region.

  18. Liberty60 says:

    I am not sure I can see the “strategic interest” for us here.

    I know it is in our interest to have a better government in Syria, and against our interest for it to turn into a Somalia.

    But “in our interest” for me isn’t a rationale for going to war; our interests are everywhere, in everything. I would think the threshold of war would be something pretty grave, more so than mere “interests”.

    I am willing to be persuaded that we should intervene- but i would need to see something more than is on the table.

  19. Rob in CT says:

    To me, “R2P” is the flip side of a coin whose other side is “NeoCon.” Liberal interventionists, Neocons… is there no one *sane* in our FP establishment?

    It’s seriously scary at this point. Where do the interventions end?

  20. Liberty60 says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Where do the interventions end?

    When China forecloses and repossesses our military.

  21. John Burgess says:

    Iran is not a wild card, it’s a face card. Iran supports Syria because the government is run by a religious minority that is usually identified as Shi’ite. It’s a small minority that had to punch and kill its way into power and isn’t inclined to give up that power.

    Following the Iranian revolution, Syria started courting Iran. Syria had long fallen out with Iraq over the direction of the Ba’ath Party and needed a source of cheap oil so that Syria could export its paltry production for hard currency.

    It needed someone who could help it in its regional struggles against Israel and Turkey (the relationship with Jordan was never sweet, but not always toxic). For ‘revolutionary’ reasons, Syria couldn’t cotton to the Gulf monarchies, but Iran suited the situation just fine. What’s more, Iran was willing to help fund Soviet-supplied weaponry in the ‘struggle against Israel’ and stepped up when the Soviets went defunct.

    Both found it to their profit to birth and support Hezbollah, keeping the pot stirred and providing a cutout for Syrian or Iranian terrorist adventures. It also worked to help realize Syrian aspirations for Surya al kubra, Great Syria which included Lebanon, Israel, and the southern parts of Turkey.

    With it all falling around his ears, Bashar Al-Assad has no good choices. He can go down fighting or he can go down for crimes against humanity. He thought he might be able to budge the Ba’ath Party toward modernization when he came to power but quickly learned that the Party would be willing to see him in a grave, too. He’s stuck.

    BTW, Syria produces 150K bbd, almost all of which was being exported to Europe (some to Egypt). The EU has blocked all oil purchases from Syria, though, so I guess the Syrians can burn it themselves. A real embargo against the country–land, sea, and air–would cause it to collapse. Already, much of the economy exist through smuggling of even the most basic consumer goods, from food to light bulbs.

  22. @John Burgess:

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about the collateral impact of the Syrian situation.

  23. John Burgess says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Please define ‘collateral’!

    If the Assad regime falls, it’s going to be bad news for minority religions, Christian and Muslim alike. The one, putatively good thing that came from the regime was that all religious minorities (Jews excepted) thrived in safety. Unfortunately, it was at the expense of the Sunni majority. Once the brake is off, I don’t think it bodes well for any of the minorities.

    One thing we’ll see is a huge flight from Syria to anywhere that will give those minorities visas. The 50-or-so Jews remaining in Damascus have already chosen to stay until they die; their kids all leave ASAP. The few hundred Aramaic speaking Christians, though, might find a foreign sponsor. All the other Christian and non-majoritarian Muslim sects are going to face some very unhappy times. What’s happened in Lebanon and Iraq will be repeated.

  24. michael reynolds says:

    Libya’s NTC has chosen Abdurrahim El-Keib as interim leader, a USC alum, a professor of electrical engineering who taught at Alabama around the same time as James Joyner was there. So let’s not assume too much about what would follow Assad in Syria — we’ve been through a round of doom-mongering about Libya and for now at least we have an American-educated academic in charge, not Al Qaeda.

    That said, it can be very dangerous to take the cap off a hot radiator.

  25. ponce says:

    for now at least we have an American-educated academic in charge, not Al Qaeda.

    To Republicans, there is no difference between the two.

  26. @John Burgess:

    I was thinking more about the rest of the region

  27. John Burgess says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Oh, okay!

    I think the biggest effects will be in Lebanon and Israel.

    Israel goes to DEFCON-3 until things settle down. After that, there should actually be a relaxation of tensions. Syria has always been a thorn for Israel, whether through its support for Palestinian terrorist groups, its demand for the return of the Golan Heights, or its flat rejection of peace with Israel until mostly impossible demands were met. A new government in Syria — unless it is somehow suborned by Iran — could be more rational.

    Lebanon will see a bunch of score-settling, with the groups whose existence is assured by Syria suffering most. The Lebanese economy should improve with stability (i.e., less factional violence), but those whose incomes depended on semi-official smuggling into Syria will lose out. Hezbollah will be the biggest loser here.

    Turkey would welcome a more rational Syrian government, but of course there’s no guarantee that a replacement government is going to be fully rational. Hopefully, a new government would drop its territorial claims to southern Turkey, thus reducing frictions. A revitalized Syrian economy (I know, I’m extrapolating a lot here) would also pay its bills.

    Jordan should see improved and increased trade and less dicking around with its Palestinian population.

    Iraq? Who knows? Probably not much change at all, though the Shi’ite gov’t might lose some influence in Syria, not that it had a lot to begin with.

  28. G.A.Phillips says:

    Muqtada al-Sadr has come out in support of the current Syrian regime:

    Maybe Obama will whack this punk for some poll numbers….