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Five ways to advance a Responsibility to Protect agenda in Syria
Bennett Ramberg, The Daily Star
19 March 2012
The brutal assault on the civilian population by Syria’s government continues, employing tanks, mortars and rockets. However, the world appears unable to do more than wring its hands. Is this the end of a democratic wave ushered in by the Arab Spring and the so-called Responsibility to Protect doctrine that the international community applied to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, when he threatened to massacre his citizens in Benghazi last year?
Published accounts estimate more than 9,000 people have fallen in the Syrian unrest, with thousands wounded and displaced while many others linger in government prisons. One question that emerges is whether the global community is complicit by failing to stop the mayhem.
The Russian and Chinese opposition to action by the United Nations Security Council suggests as much. However, opponents of the Syria regime still have other options based on a broad interpretation of Responsibility to Protect. When this new century began, new thinking emerged about ways the international community should respond to governments that turned on their people. (…)
(…) In 2005, the global community agreed that the time for change had arrived. The World Summit – the largest gathering of leaders in history at a plenary meeting of the U.N. General Assembly – endorsed a Canadian-sponsored Responsibility to Protect initiative. This initiative called upon the international community to use diplomatic, humanitarian and, through the Security Council, collective action – namely, force – to protect populations from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” It also asked the General Assembly to consider the matter of a Responsibility to Protect more fully.
Libya marked the first test, and the international community stepped up to the plate. The Arab League led in calling for a no-fly zone to protect the country’s rebelling population. Given the nod by the U.N. Security Council, the International Criminal Court indicted Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam, and his intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi, for crimes against humanity.

The Security Council then endorsed military action, calling attention to the Libyan regime’s “gross and systematic violation of human rights,” and “widespread and systemic attacks” that amounted to “crimes against humanity.” The seven-month war that followed translated words into action. (…)
(…) While attention focused on Libya, unrest in Syria boiled over into demonstrations that threatened to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. The government responded with increasing force before a horrified world television audience.
As in Libya, the Arab League took the lead in pushing back. It suspended Syria from the regional body, prohibited travel of designated Syrian officials to Arab states, froze the assets abroad of the Syrian government, and halted transactions with Syria’s central bank as well as commercial exchanges with the government, while calling on the Syrian leader to step down. The United States, the European Community and others joined together in imposing diplomatic and economic sanctions on Syria. Collectively these measures suggested that the Responsibility to Protect doctrine was indeed still very much alive. However, as implemented, these measures have proved insufficient to halt the violence.
Both China and Russia vetoed a watered-down version of a resolution on Syria at the Security Council. The Kremlin claimed that repetition of even U.N. sanctions, not to mention military action, would ill serve peace and be a slippery slope to an illegitimate overthrow of a government. (…)
(…) Of greater concern to the Kremlin, and this includes China as well, is that it fears that application of Responsibility to Protect to Syria could blow back someday. After all, the authoritarian rulers in both Moscow and Beijing are fearful of future serious domestic tensions at home. They would like to prevent any precedent for international intervention in their domestic situation.
Does this pull out the rug from under the Responsibility to Protect in Syria? Not really. The doctrine’s authors anticipated council roadblocks and they concluded that in event the body failed to “discharge its responsibility in conscience-shocking situations crying out for action, then it is unrealistic to expect that concerned states will rule out other means and forms of action to meet the gravity and urgency of these situations.”
The “other means” do not necessarily require repetition of the Libya intervention. Neither Western countries nor the members of the Arab League have the stomach to mire themselves in the potential quagmire that Syria’s sectarian and ethnic divisions pose. (…)
(…) There do remain modest Responsibility to Protect steps much of the international community can endorse under the umbrella of the Arab League to stop the slaughter in Syria:

First, the Arab League should restate its call of Jan. 22 for Assad to step down, as well as include other key members of the ruling clique in Damascus. After all, any regime is more than its leader.
Second, Syria’s foreign opponents should take to the airwaves in a propaganda war to offer amnesty to Syrian forces who lay down their arms or defect to the rebel side by a date that would permit them to avoid prosecution for crimes against humanity.
Third, Syria’s armed resisters in the Free Syrian Army should receive military aid and training that is sufficient to allow them to combat the government’s infantry, armor and helicopters.
Fourth, the United States and other countries must lobby Russia and China to support Responsibility to Protect. They must impressing on the two countries that they are on the wrong side of history, and that this will have consequences that ultimately will diminish their political and economic interests in the Middle East for years to come.
And fifth, foreign mediators should help mold the divided Syrian opposition into a united and internationally recognized interim government in waiting, one that is prepared to lay the foundation for legislative elections and constitution-building for a new democratic Syria once the current government falls. (…)
(…) What’s at stake in Syria is transcends what happens in Damascus. The successful application of a Responsibility to Protect will make a statement that Libya was not a fluke. It will also send a message that if a government is to represent its victimized people, then the international community will assure that it is the victims who form it, not those repressing them.
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