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As Syrians suffer, do we stand by or send in troops?
David Rieff
The Age
5 March 2012
 
Ever since the end of the Second World War, and the discovery of the Nazi concentration camps, decent people throughout the world have been searching for ways to ensure that the phrase ''Never Again'' becomes more than just a pious sentiment.
 
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(…) With the adoption by the United Nations in 2005 of the so-called Responsibility to Protect doctrine (generally referred to as R2P), there is finally an internationally agreed upon basis for intervention to stop genocide, mass atrocities, and other crimes against humanity that can transform the ethical dreams of the past into the normative realities of the future.
 
Last year's military campaign in Libya by NATO and a number of Arab states, which ended with the overthrow of the Gaddafi dictatorship, was widely regarded as a foretaste of what was to come.
 
At first glance, the case for an R2P-based military intervention to bring to an end the campaign of terror and atrocity the Assad dictatorship in Syria has been carrying out for months against its own people would seem as strong if not stronger as the one that was made to justify the Libyan intervention. (…)
 
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Since, so far at least, neither international sanctions nor repeated demands by the Arab League and the overwhelming majority of the member states of the UN for Syria to halt its actions has done any good, the choices seem stark: stand by while the slaughter continues, or send in foreign troops to protect Syrians from their own government.
 
The problem is that far from representing a new dawn in international relations, the intervention in Libya left a bitter taste in the mouths of many governments that supported it, and not just of repressive governments such as Russia and China but the great emerging powers, notably, Brazil, South Africa and India.
 
For these countries, what was presented by the NATO powers as a mission to protect civilians almost immediately morphed into a campaign of regime change (…)
 
Was R2P the expression of a new and more humane conception of international relations, or had the member states of the UN unintentionally given their blessing to what was little more than a rebranding of the old wine of liberal Western imperialism?
 
Syria is not Libya and there are many compelling reasons, both practical and geopolitical, why it might not be possible to intervene there even if an international consensus over the desirability of doing so could be forged. Gaddafi's army was relatively weak, while Assad's is strong; Gaddafi had no friends, Assad has Iran and, at least for the moment, Russia and China as well; and the Syrian conflict is already to some extent an inter-confessional civil war, pitting majority Sunnis against minority Alawites and Christians.
 
Any just war theory worthy of the name, and R2P is in large measure derived from these ideas, forbids military action in cases where there is a real risk of its doing more harm than good.
But the fear that, whatever its original idealistic intent, what the Libyan intervention actually demonstrated was that R2P had been pressed into the service of regime change in states the great powers of the global North either no longer liked (Gaddafi), or never liked (Assad), does much to explain the reluctance of many countries that originally supported it in Libya to go along with its use in Syria.
 
Reasonable supporters of R2P have their work cut out for them. Having defeated those who in the name of the traditional absolutist conception of state sovereignty originally opposed R2P, they must now claw it back from its supposed friends - the great powers who see in it a new moral warrant for regime change. That will not be easy, and, unfortunately, even assuming it is possible, will almost certainly come too late for the people of Syria.
 
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