Is there a way toward a solution in Syria that protects the Syrian people in a way consistent with legitimacy and morality?
If indeed "diplomatic action combined with the threat of force moves the Syrian regime toward putting its chemical weapons under international control," Michael Ignatieff writes in a NYRB blogpost, "How to Save the Syrians," "it will be a victory for international law, for the authority of the UN Security Council, and for peace." What it won't be is salvation for the Syrian people. "It is only too obvious," Ignatieff says, "that thus far the peoples of the democratic states have failed in our responsibility to protect the people of Syria."
This is hardly a failure to intervene: external intervention has been constant from the beginning. A ferocious, well-armed proxy war is devouring Syria, with weapons pouring in from all sides. Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Gulf States, and Hezbollah have each tried to tip the military balance in favor of the regime or the rebels. Far from succeeding, they have aggravated the atrocities and exposed civilians on every side to repeated, deliberate, and murderous attack.I've pointed out that one obvious hurdle is the lack of any accepted understanding of when other countries are allowed to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state. Ignatieff brings to the table a set of principles he's intimately familiar with, having served on an international commission that in 2001 developed a doctrine called "Responsibility to Protect," or R2P, which "has been endorsed over the past decade at least in principle by almost all UN member states." Under R2P, "the protection of civilians [is] the sole legitimate reason for the use of force besides self-defense."
The closest that the international community has come to applying this doctrine in Syria came when the Security Council dispatched Kofi Annan and then Lakhdar Brahimi to seek a cease-fire. Both attempts failed. Russia and China’s opposition has made it impossible to secure Security Council approval for no-fly zones, humanitarian corridors, or other measures that could have protected civilians from the brutality of the regime—and the reprisals of the rebels. Russia in particular has done its best to render the responsibility to protect inoperative, shipping weapons to a tyrant while lecturing the world on respect for international law.But what happens when the Security Council is unable to authorize R2P-compatible operations? There is a widespread view, shared by Russia, China, and "many international lawyers," that absent such authority, "the matter ends there."
But the matter does not end there. When the Security Council blocks action and states get away with gassing their own people or killing them en masse, the rule of law suffers and the authority of the Security Council is diminished. It also suffers when rebel groups commit atrocities that go unpunished. States that act to defend civilians in the absence of Security Council approval have political, if not legal grounds to argue that they are, in fact, defending international law.There is an important difference, Ignatieff argues, between that which is "legal" and that which is "legitimate," and --
When legality and legitimacy part company, as they have done in Syria, those who say strict legality must prevail have an obligation to explain how this squares with morality, just as those say that morality should prevail need to explain why they are justified in breaking the law.Arming one side or another in the conflict, Ignatieff argues, guarantees more suffering for the Syrian people, and he doesn't see a path to relief for them in insisting on a change of regime.
Leaving Assad in place, in other words, may be the only way we can protect civilians from carnage without end. An uglier trade-off between peace and justice is hard to imagine, but continuing to demand Assad’s departure, in the absence of any effective means to force him out, has become an empty threat and an even emptier strategy.So where does that leave us?
[T]he protection of civilians in Syria depends on the resumption, at the earliest possible opportunity, of cease-fire negotiations in Geneva. Keeping open the threat of a limited, targeted strike on Assad, while negotiations over the chemical weapons program continue, is essential both for reaching a chemical weapons agreement and for sustaining the momentum necessary for an eventual cease-fire. This may be a faint hope, but it is the direction in which western policy should be headed. The alternative is years of civil war and further death and destruction.
The prize—successful control or confiscation of chemical weapons and an eventual cease-fire—is not merely an incalculable good for global security and for the lives of untold Syrians. It is the success we need in order to reinvigorate democratic faith in the capacity of the international community to protect civilians from tyrannical brutality.
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