x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Syria shows limits of intervention

The world's relative silence about events in Syria raises awkward questions for supporters of the notion of 'responsibility to protect'.

Bombs announce the world's opinion of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's regime on a daily basis. But events in Syria have elicited little more than expressions of concern and sterile sanctions.

This contrast is evidence of the limits of international intervention in sovereign affairs. And so there should be, for kneejerk intervention carries with it a whiff of a moralistic "we know better". Moreover, nobody is ready to tackle Syria - nor should they be. The country is at the centre of a web of regional interests and rivalries; military intervention there could trigger consequences for its neighbours that nobody wants to imagine.

The most robust statement of intervention is the doctrine of "responsibility to protect", which was endorsed unanimously by the United Nations in 2005 to apply to cases of "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity".

In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, it was easy to agree that such crimes were unacceptable. It was much harder to come to an actual solution. When put to the test, RtoP proves to be an academic principle incapable of standing up in the real world. No single policy can apply in every instance - but that does not mean the global community must watch mutely as governments abuse their people.

RtoP was not mentioned in the UN resolution 1973 which authorised action against Col Qaddafi, although it has reinforced the principle of permissible intervention. In Libya, loosely defined human rights were the justification. More importantly, however, Col Qaddafi's regime was diplomatically isolated and intervening countries could reconcile the operation with their national interests. As we have seen mission creep and stalemate, many of those countries are now re-evaluating the decision.

Not all situations are so amenable to easy answers. France and Italy were eager to bash Col Qaddafi, the US and the Arab League were initially willing, and the coalition flights began. But such outcomes did not apply to Zimbabwe, for instance, on grounds of complex political realities.

Still, there is reason to believe that horrible things may be going on behind the curtain of secrecy the Syrian government has slammed down around Deraa and elsewhere. You do not need a complicated legal doctrine to believe that the world - and Syrians themselves - should know what's going on, or that violence against civilians should be condemned.