The Responsibility to Protect, the legal doctrine that establishes a framework for international intervention, seems tailor-made for the current civil war in Syria. The principle affirms a common duty of nations to resist the mass killing of innocent civilians by their own government. Evidence of indiscriminate Syrian government attacks on its citizens is sufficient to warrant an array of measures under the doctrine to protect the Syrian people from Bashir al-Assad and his murderous regime. Unfortunately, the United Nations has hesitated to do more than commission former Secretary General Kofi Annan to undertake what turned out to be two ill-fated peace missions to the region.
Commentators lay blame for the failure to intervene militarily on the opposition of Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council. But even if no vetoes blocked international action, there are many reasons to hesitate. Syria’s defensive capabilities would make armed intervention costly. The unsettled outcome of the 2003 Iraq invasion cautions against outsiders trying to resolve ethnic and religious differences with an enforced settlement. In addition, the fragmentation of the armed Syrian resistance strongly suggests that any post-Assad future will be afflicted by interreligious violence.
All the same, the unremitting violence of the Assad regime, not only against the current militia forces but especially, earlier, against unarmed demonstrators and their sympathizers, provides ample reason to conclude that international intervention to end the slaughter is justified. Before armed rebellion began and since its spread, the regime has kidnapped, tortured and assassinated civilians in their homes. The victims of torture have included many children. Sharpshooters have killed unarmed demonstrators as they marched, and artillery barrages have demolished entire neighborhoods suspected of sympathy with the regime’s critics. All the attacks on civilians are violations of the laws of war and crimes against humanity. Without doubt there is just cause for international intervention. But altogether too much public debate has focused on the issue of international military intervention as if it were the only option.
The framers of the doctrine of responsibility to protect anticipated situations in which the Security Council might be deadlocked and acknowledged that it would be “unrealistic to expect that concerned states will rule out other means and forms of action to meet the gravity and urgency of these situations.” So the need for action can be met in other ways than through an all-out military intervention under the authority of the Security Council.
Hesitancy about intervention derives in large measure from the lack of unity among the opposition forces in Syria. The transition can be better secured and postconflict instability reduced through efforts to unify them. This can be done through outside mediation between factions and through arms transfers and other aid given on condition that the opposition closes ranks and accepts a unified command. The Syrian National Council should make public the elements of a transition plan prepared for it by the U.S. Institute for Peace, a federally funded research institution. Publicity will allow others in the diffuse opposition to buy in or negotiate for changes in a postconflict regime. This could reduce the squabbling that is bound to come after the overthrow of the Assad government.
A particularly thorny problem in regime-changing conflicts is the question of transitional justice—that is, how to hold those responsible for atrocities accountable for their crimes. To wind down the conflict, Syrians may have to make a choice between full accountability and advancing the end of armed conflict by extending amnesty to some of the perpetrators. A cessation of hostilities could be speeded up by extending amnesty to military and government officials who surrender or defect by a specified date.
Given the regime’s history of violence against its own people, the opposition will be wary of amnesty; but except in egregious cases, amnesty may be the price to be paid for peace. Worries about former agents of the regime returning to power could be handled, as was done in some Eastern European countries after 1989, by lustration (political cleansing) laws that prohibited their return to political or civil office. In any case, the tradeoffs between justice, peace and the basic functioning of government should be made by the liberated Syrians themselves.
Finally, neighboring states, the U.N. refugee agency U.N.H.C.R. and the Syrian Red Crescent are doing good work providing aid to refugees and others displaced by the fighting. The international community should take steps to expand efforts to meet this complex humanitarian emergency, prepare for winter and begin the work of postconflict reconstruction. Given the global economic recession, planning and the acquisition of resources must begin as soon as possible.