The Responsibility to Protect: How the World Failed in Syria

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The international community has failed in its responsibility to take timely and decisive action to protect the Syrian people from mass atrocities, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and large-scale human rights violations committed by the Assad regime and supported by Russia and Iran. Over half a million Syrians have been killed since the outbreak of conflict in March 2011, of the 230,000 civilians: 29,257 children and 28,316 women. 13.1 million live in displacement. The blockade of the UN Security Council due to disagreements over the use of force against Syria—without the UNSC authorization—to protect the Syrian population, the suspicious that the UNSC authorization would be used as a tool to regime change, like in other conflict situations, and abused by powerful states in pursuing their national interests in international relations, as well as the involvement of geopolitical interests—have collectively undermined chances of invoking the Responsibility to Protect. Unfortunately, in Syria—except for the moral one—the legal, political, and military dimensions were absent. The Syrian tragedy questions the moral consciousness of humanity. One must never forget the hardships of Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea while trying to save their infants. One must never forget the images of Alan Kurdi—a three-year-old boy who drowned in the sea in 2015—in an attempt to escape the barbarism of the Assad regime. Shame to the world!

AS the world grapples with the worst pandemic of our lifetime, let us turn the attention to the most vulnerable populations in the world: people in conflict. Specifically, the Syrian people—with a focus on refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP). In nine years in conflict, Syrians have faced the most horrendous crimes in history—including among others—attacks with chemical weapons carried out by the Assad regime and backed by Russia and Iran. As if this wasn’t enough, the Syrian people, refugees, and IDPs in particular, face yet another deadly threat: Coronavirus COVID-19.

The Syrian refugees and IDPs—same as more than 70 million forcibly displaced populations in the world—live in precarious conditions, and, if the world doesn’t act swiftly, COVID-19 could prove catastrophic with a devastating effect for the internally displaced Syrian children (Al Jazeera, March 31, 2020). In the worst conditions, meanwhile, are more than 900,000 Syrian refugees—including half a million children—who are stuck in the Turkish border following the offensive of the Syrian Government—backed by Russia—in Idlib and Aleppo started in December 2019 (Atlantic Council, 2020). With a dramatic eruption in Lebanon and Iran, and spread in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries, the Middle East, as the Refugees International warns, “is fast becoming an epicenter of the coronavirus crisis.” (March 2020) The situation can get out of control considering the weak or broken public health systems in Syria and the region (Refugees International, 2020). In Lebanon, for example, there is no clear policy if Syrian refugees are eligible for free testing as Lebanese nationals, and since the preventive strategy is based on self-reporting, refugees hesitate to seek help fearing deportation and harassment by state authorities and the local population (Chatham House, 2020).

To date, the Syrian refugee crisis represents the largest refugee crisis in the world (World Vision, 2020). 13.1 million Syrians live in displacement: 6,654,000 refugees, 6,184,000 IDPs and 140,000 asylum-seekers (UNHCR, 2019). The Syria Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) provides a number of IDPs as high as 6.8 million (March 2020). Besides harsh living conditions, lack of financial resources, and freezing temperatures, Syrian refugees face discriminatory laws and double standards in the receiving countries (Amnesty International, 2020). In Turkey—home to 3.6 million—Syrian refugees are excluded from the refugee status as opposed to Europeans for, the country doesn’t fully subscribe to international refugee law; consequently, Syrians are denied the right to work and to register and access basic services and resources (Id.). In Greece, Syrians along with Iraqis and Afghanis are subject to the continued violence of local populations in addition to dangerous living conditions and lack of medical and counseling support (IRC, March 2020). As a result of a 72-hours open—borders last month, more than 10,000 Syrian refugees forced or encouraged to leave Turkey received “a package of inhumane measures” in an attempt to enter Greece—an act called illegal under the EU and international law, violating Greece’s responsibilities derived from the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, too (Amnesty International, 2020). The Independent’s Charles Lawley described the situation in the Turkish/Greek border as “hell on earth,” following the surge of Syrian refugees due to the increased violence in Idlib, northwest Syria, in recent months (March 10, 2020). In less than a week during mid-February 2020, more than 100,000 Syrians fled their homes (USA for UNHCR, 2020). In the Middle East countries, such as Lebanon, meanwhile, the majority of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line with little or no financial resources. In Jordan, over half a million Syrians are trapped in exile—with approximately 80% of them living outside camps and 93% below the poverty line (UNHCR, 2018).

Responsibility to Protect: Why the Principle Remains Silent in Syria?

THE Syrian refugee crisis has become an international concern since the conflict outbreak in March 2011 (Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, 2020), posing unparalleled humanitarian, economic, and political challenges in the Middle East (Brandt and McKenzie, 2016). Between 500,000 (I Am Syria, March 2020) and 560,000 people, civilians, and combatants (SOHR, March 2020), have been killed in conflict with 367,965 deaths documented so far (Id.). Between 226,247 (Syrian Network for Human Rights, SNHR, March 2020) and 230,000 are civilians (I Am Syria, March 2020); 29,257 children and 28,316 women (SOHR, March 2020).

Several parties to the conflict have reportedly been involved in crimes, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians, perpetrating sexual violence, deliberately blocking humanitarian aid, and using food as a weapon to starve besieged communities (ReliefWeb, 2018). In 2016, seven parties were responsible for the killing of civilians: the Syrian-Iranian-Russian forces committed 76% of civilians’ killings, and the Syrian-Iranian ones 52% of crimes surpassing all other parties (SNHR, 2016). More than 19,000 people, including about 8,300 civilians, were killed by Russia since its involvement in the conflict in September 2015 (SOHR, 2019). In addition, the Syrian security-intelligence agencies—in coordination with Assad and regime operatives, were involved, as the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) found, in “systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians.” (2016) 104,000 Syrians were tortured to death in the government jails (SOHR). The detainees, mostly males above the age of 15, were beaten to death, or died as a result of injuries due to the torture, while others perished as a consequence of inhuman living conditions (OHCHR, 2016). Furthermore, the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians, chlorine and sarin, thereby violating the 1925 Geneva Protocol which prohibits the use of biological and chemical weapons in armed conflict. At least 34 (confirmed) chemical attacks were conducted since 2013 (Independent International Commission of Inquiry, IICI, on Syria), though the number could be as high as 50 (U.S. Mission to the UN) and 85 (Human Rights Watch) (New York Times, April 13, 2018). Only in 2018, the Assad regime carried out seven reported chemical weapons attacks against the civilian population (ReliefWeb, 2018).

The Syrian government has manifestly failed to protect its population from mass atrocities, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, as well as large-scale human rights violations, the IICI on Syria concluded, and along with anti-government armed groups, it has systematically waged war against its own people (UNGA, A/HRC/28/69, 2015). Therefore, the Assad government bears the primary responsibility for the ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the country (Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, 2020; ReliefWeb, 2018). The UN Security Council (UNSC) and the UN Human Rights Commissioner (UNHRC) came to the same conclusion, reaffirming, on several occasions, the existence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, i.e. murder, rape, ethnic cleansing, and use of international forbidden weaponry, while warning on the humanitarian crisis as a result of the growing number of refugees and IDPs (De Abreu Duarte, 2016). As Human Rights Watch reported, atrocities and human rights violations that have characterized the conflict in Syria “continued to be the rule, not the exception in 2019.” (2020) Yet, the international community failed to reach a consensus over the use of military force to protect civilians and to end human suffering by invoking the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). Nor did the Syrian government responded to the IICI call to fulfilling its responsibility to protect civilians from crimes committed by all parties, including itself (Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, 2020). Unfortunately, the continued carnage in Syria, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “is no longer on the international radar,” adding that the increased killings and displacement have made it impossible to “give a credible estimate.” (UN News, July 26, 2019)

The Syria case constitutes one of the most controversial cases regarding the application of the Responsibility to Protect. Factors that have prevented the operationalization of this principle are numerous, internal and external. First and foremost, the situation in Syria is complex, difficult, and different from other situations, like in Libya, for example (Minerva Nasser-Eddine, 2012). Internally, strong military regime, sectarian fractions, many armed groups with different and opposing agendas; externally, the contradictions within the UNSC pro and against intervention that threatens the sovereignty of the state and the involvement of geopolitical interests (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2020). As Evans put it, “The geopolitics of the Syrian crisis is very different: complex internal sectarian divisions with potentially explosive regional implications, anxiety about the democratic credentials of many of those in opposition, no Arab League unanimity in favor of tough action, along with Russian commitment to the Assad regime, and a strong Syrian army meaning that any conceivable intervention would be difficult and bloody.” (Id.)

The UN Security Council: Deadlocked

The main obstacle relating to the invocation of RtoP remains in the Security Council. This body is paralyzed due to the disagreements between its members, mainly the five permanent ones (P5), over the use of force against Syria—without the authorization of the UNSC—for humanitarian purposes to halt or avert the suffering of the civilian population. Launching a military intervention by bypassing the UNSC veto violates one of the main criteria of RtoP doctrine, which Russia and China vehemently oppose, under justifications that the UNSC authorization was abused in previous occasions such as in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire (Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, 2020). There were also states concerned that humanitarian action in Syria “could be abused by powerful states as justification for interventions that serve their political interests.” (Williams, Worboys, and Ulbrick, 2012)

The U.S. military strikes against the Assad regime in 2017 in response to the use of chemical weapons—justified under the responsibility to protect the Syrian people—was deemed illegal under international law as it violated Syria’s sovereignty and was launched without the authorization of the UNSC and the U.S. Congress (David Tafuri, Politico, April 13, 2017).

Consequently, at least 14 draft resolutions were vetoed down by Russia and China—eight jointly and six by Russia alone—such as on the imposing sanctions against the Syrian government, on the extension of the UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (UN-OPCW) Joint Investigative Mechanism mandate—a mechanism established in 2015 to determine the responsibility of Syria government on the use of chemical weapons against civilians, and the one calling the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) (Gilman, 2017; International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, 2020; ReliefWeb, 2018). Worse, the UNSC failed to endorse a resolution to prohibit the use of chemical weapons and to adhere to the Code of Conduct in mass atrocity situations, an act signed by 113 members and two observers (ReliefWeb, 2018). Of 25 resolutions that the Council passed since 2012, none of them have been fully implemented (Security Council Report, 2020). As the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect indicates, the Syrian government has directly violated various resolutions, for which it has systematically gained support from Russia in the UNSC (2020).

In December 2016, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) established the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to assist in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of atrocities in Syria. In 2019, the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) Antonio Guterres created a Board of Inquiry to investigate all attacks on hospitals and health facilities on the deconfliction list and other UN-supported facilities in northwest Syria, following a demarche by 10 members of the UNSC. Another demarche of nine members urging the UNSG to visit Idlib was issued in February this year (Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, 2020).

The mechanism of veto in the Security Council, the deepening divisions between Russia and the West, geopolitical interests of powerful nations—in conjunction with shortcomings of RtoP and lack of a united voice within the Syrian opposition—collectively contributed to the continuation of conflict in Syria. Mendes, Professor of Law, attributes the ongoing Syria crisis to the “tri-level proxy war unfolding there.” (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2020) A similar reference was made by the former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, in an address to the UNSC in December 2016: “Your forces and your proxies are carrying out these crimes […]. Three-member states of the UN, contributing to a noose around civilians. It should shame you […].” (CNN, December 14, 2016) Never before have so many actors and interests came into play as in Syria—using the tragedy of this country and at the expense of the Syrian people. The fact of the matter is that, behind Russia and China’s rationale, especially Russia’s, of protecting the sovereignty of state lies the country’s objectives to preserving its strategic interests in international relations (Williams, Worboys, and Ulbrick, 2012). Likewise, Weiss considers that the RtoP operationalization in Syria is not linked either to action in Libya or inaction in Syria as it is to geopolitics and collective spinelessness combined with a difficult military situation on the ground (2014).

Based on some accounts, more than 1,500 groups, state and non-state actors, have operated in Syria as of 2016—with Assad government forces supported by indigenous militia groups, foreign fighters, and external powers on the one side, and the opposition armed groups composed of the secular coalition and jihadists’ coalition, as well as the Kurdish front on the other side. Additionally, there are foreign governments such as Iran and Russia in support of the Syrian government, and the U.S.-led coalition, and Turkey supporting the opposition—with Turkey continually clashing with Kurdish groups which are supported by the U.S. (Gill, 2016).

The contradictions between the West and Russia plus China that the responsibility to protect could be used as a tool for regime change as happened in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 is another reason why the principle lost momentum in Syria. Many scholars believe that the use of RtoP to regime change in Libya has undermined the chances of its invocation in Syria, and it, too, has been one of the main factors for the UNSC deadlock. More specifically, the UNSC’s disagreements over the means to protect Syrians, according to Akbarzadeh and Saba, has made RtoP itself an impediment to its application (2018). Whereas Libya’s case is often used as a pretext to prevent the RtoP’s employment in Syria, these two countries present completely different realities. Internally, while Libya, as Weiss explains, had a relatively cohesive opposition that spoke with a common voice, in Syria, that voice was absent both inside and outside of the country. Furthermore, Syria is dispersed geographically and divided politically, which led to the failure of opposition, while the increasing strength of Islamists, on the other hand, dampened support for “anything except Assad.” Externally, in the UNSC, Syria confounded easy generalizations and looked distinctly more complicated, chancy, and confused than Libya. “In that country, mainly the moral dimensions of RtoP have to date been apparent. Hence, legality, political will, and military feasibility are clearly absent, which makes a moral appeal feeble.” (Weiss, 2014) In sum, the case of Libya is unique and unlikely to be replicated in other settings, whereas in Syria, the conflict between geopolitical interests and humanitarian ideals, national interests of great powers (Russia) and civil war have been determinant for the RtoP failure (The Atlantic, June 13, 2013).

Generally, the political and legal challenges that the international community encountered in Syria were greater than the intervention itself, while political paralysis and failure to act led to a sectarian conflict (Gilman, 2017). Most likely, the international community was reluctant to intervene fearing that the consequences of action could be worse than the consequences of inaction given the complexity of the situation inside and outside of Syria and the supposedly unintended consequences that might have appeared, like in Iraq, following the 2003-U.S. military intervention. As Welsh put it, “The cases of Libya and Syria have nonetheless raised fundamental questions about the prospect of catalyzing international efforts to protect populations, particularly when there is disagreement over the costs and benefits of a coercive response.” (2016) Whether to act or not, the ongoing conflict in Syria, according to Sherwood, has had international and regional repercussions—regionally by destabilizing the Middle East, internationally—by creating problems in Europe and beyond, and internally—by causing massive loss of lives that will cost generations to come: “Unintended collateral damage created by the failure to protect in Syria includes less future respect for human rights, RtoP, U.S. global leadership, and the liberal world order as well as challenges to Middle Eastern stability, European refugee policy, and counterterrorism policy.” (2017).

The Responsibility to Protect Lost Momentum   

THE Responsibility to Protect justifies a military intervention against another state—and authorized by the UN Security Council—when a government is unable, unwilling or fails to protect its population against, or is being involved itself in four crimes: war crime, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and a crime against humanity. When using the military force on behalf of the suffering population, the intervening state/s or organization/s should meet six criteria: just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, reasonable prospects, and the right authority. Have all of these criteria been met in Syria? The evidence says: Yes.

Righteously, Syrians have many reasons to believe that the world betrayed them and their cause when they needed it the most; that the world turned its back violating an emerging international norm endorsed by over 150 heads of state at the 2005 UN World Summit (Weiss, 2014); that the world kept one eye blind while the humanitarian disaster unfolded its face; that the world remained silent even after seeing images of children with trembling bodies, forming from their mouths and suffocating as a result of chemical weapons. By opting not to act, the international community legalized the use of chemical weapons, and it, too, approved the killings of Syrian people. The failure of UNSC and regional organizations to advocate for cohesive action in Syria demonstrated, according to Gilman, the weakness of the UN to uphold its mandate—preserving international peace and security, while the failure to protect civilians from the large-scale destruction and violence questioned the whole idea of future interventionist policies (2017). As Sirkin, Director at Physicians for Human Rights told the UNSC, “The Security Council’s failure to respond to the conflict in Syria, now in its ninth year, is a clear weakening of its responsibility to protect. Your current collective inaction is a clear derogation of your responsibility to protect.” (SC/13903, July 30, 2019)

The conflict in Syria not only revealed the flaws of the UNSC veto system and the P5’s inability to act collectively when the human rights of one person are grossly violated but also the gaps of RtoP in terms of its practicability. In Syria, the RtoP has encountered its most controversial ground given its ineffective application and lack of timely and decisive action (De Abreu Duarte, 2016). The blockade of action to protect civilians from their governments without being punished due to the UNSC veto and the RtoP’s lack of framework for the limited use of force when the UN fails to act remain the biggest challenges for the future of RtoP. As Williams, Worboys, and Ulbrick put it, “In its present formulation, therefore, RtoP is missing a crucial component.” (2012) Given the failure of the international community to prevent mass atrocities in Syria and to take timely action to react effectively, the likelihood of effective international cooperation on rebuilding Syria, as Halliyadde suggests, is also bleak (2016). The military intervention in Syria is however still politically feasible. The international community, according to Akbarzadeh and Saba, can honor state sovereignty by applying fundamental criteria established by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), while also safeguarding citizens from mass crimes of atrocity (2018). For the RtoP to be used in the future, Gilman proposes developing new methods of addressing crises so to avoid the same pitfalls and paralysis in the UNSC as well as guaranteeing that the security of individuals won’t be threatened just because the RtoP failed to achieve what was designed to (2017).


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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Charalee Graydon

    April 18, 2020?

    An enlightening article recognizing the need to restructure the UN SC. Against this political backdrop, COVID 19 becomes even more of a threat. Might that unlock the competing resource and political interests where compassion did not? Might the fear of world citizens help us to recognize the duty to protect?

  2. Stephen Akpe

    Dear Shala,
    I can imagine how shameful this is! Kofi Annan regretted that the world failed Rwanda in her moment of pain. He apologised for the mass atrocities carried out under the watch of the UN. The world has proudly failed again! what a shame! An embarrassment to humanity! No matter the geopolitical interest, and power dynamics, we have a responsibility to stop and put an end to the sea of blood. I would join you soon to add my voice to the argument of the R2P. My argument is centred on the fact that the SC should redefine the notion of the R2P to meet contemporary politics. Thank you for this piece.

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