Friday 15 June 2012

Syria: The Dangers of Desperation

Sam Storr

Bullets litter the  ground in Houla. Reuters.
If the last two decades hold a lesson about crisis prevention and intervention, it is that the international community has been fairly poor at it. As all parties to the conflict combine to turn Syria into a violent pressure-cooker, dire predictions are being made of what kind of tipping point might eventually be reached, even raising the ghosts of past Annan plans in Bosnia and Rwanda. This international community called upon by the rebels – comprising reluctant liberal-internationalist-opportunists, authoritarian dictatorships, and religious Gulf States – should beware the influence it could have on the dynamics of the conflict. All steps should be taken to avoid endorsing the Assad plan.
The scale of the violence in Syria continues to escalate, and is said to be past the point of a convenient solution, such as the ‘Yemenskii Variant’ given much thought in Russia. The UN Human Rights Commissioner is adamant that there will be no easy escape for Bashar Al-Assad’s regime through amnesty. Assad continues because he believes the opposition can be crushed before he is totally isolated, a possibility which remains in flux. If he is abandoned though, there might be little reason for him to stop. The temptation will grow to suspect him of madness, unable to accept defeat or to react in any other way.
As Syria becomes portrayed as a sectarian conflict, it is apparent that Assad might follow a logic darker than the death impulse. A dominant explanation for why a society might suddenly implode holds that a challenged leadership can draw its supporters (the in-group) closer around them by encouraging xenophobic feelings towards the rest (the out-group). It is believed that the increasingly corrupt and isolated Hutu elite ruling Rwanda in 1994 instigated genocide against the Tutsi in an ultimately suicidal attempt to reaffirm their authority and support among the Hutu majority. An internationally-imposed agreement was on the cusp of forcing them to share power with the enemy Tutsi, at the cost of their patronage system. The killing may also have been intended to ensure that the international community could never again attempt to reunite Rwanda.
Assad’s power system is similarly constituted, with Alawites dominating the government and the army, in particular the component causing violence. Not all Alawites have in fact prospered under Assad either. The arming of loyalist Shabbiha militias, said to have played a large role in the Houla massacre, show how the use of violence can be transferred from state to society. 
Even the worst possibilities for Syria will not match Rwanda, as Alawites only constitute 12% of the population and there exists nothing near the same background of war and hostility. Assad’s rhetoric of ‘foreign-backed terrorists’ is diversionary, rather than the dehumanising descriptions of ‘cockroaches’ favoured by the Hutu and Colonel Gaddafi. Nonetheless, he certainly intends to bind the fate of his people to his own, so that the foundations of his rule will be as strong as his actions are horrifying. By spreading violence and retaliation he could make a monster of Islamism and the Sunnis, putting fear into his Christian supporters. By preventing an acceptable opposition from forming, and damaging the prospects of any future settlement, he would frustrate and deter the international community. Recent sympathetic violence in Lebanon also raises the danger of chaos throughout the Middle East.
It is impossible to tell how close any of this is to reality; the Shia-Alawite versus Sunni narrative might be exaggerated by the political context in the Middle East; Western analysis might play into the regime’s hands by sensationalising the unknown. It is not so long since Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy took the policy world – and Bill Clinton - by storm with its apocalyptic vision of a descent into tribal violence. 
Feelings about sectarianism and how to face it polarise Syrians themselves. Some regime defectors are pleading with their fellow Alawites to believe that their future is not inextricably linked to the legacy of Assad. Sectarianism remains a choice for Syria, to be determined over the course of this conflict. Even when attempting caution, the international community should ensure that it always supports that.
For Western nations (barring Russia) to hold off responsibility, vocally supporting peace whilst tacitly condoning arms imports by Sunni regimes, is hypocritical and may fuel the sectarian dimension of the conflict. Even when calling for international probes into Syrian war crimes, it is important to avoid making villains of the Alawites in general. However, the extreme difficulty of dealing with sectarianism, and avoiding polarisation, is demonstrated by the international community’s extremely mixed form in the past.

UN observers, informing the world of Syria's breakdown. Reuters.
The genocidal massacres that took advantage of poorly-defended or militarised humanitarian space in Srebrenica, Zaire, and perhaps more recently in the Sudan, should worry those advocating it as a soft-intervention compromise to avoid ‘embarrassing’ the US (whilst shaming Obama). Humanitarian space must be demilitarised and open to all; Assad’s military strength would require a heavy defence and precludes a Libya-style solution. In former Yugoslavia, aerial intervention at first greatly accelerated the atrocities committed by both sides, although the Serbs were singled out for the demonization that accompanied an illegal NATO bombing of civilian targets. 
The Rwandan genocide saw a victor’s democracy emerge for the Tutsi army. President Paul Kagame has since been lavished with praise and aid, despite his forces arguably committing their own genocide in Zaire where Hutu forces thrived in refugee camps. Kagame believes his strict laws banning ethnic self-determination and genocide-denial are necessary to avoid a repeat of the still-recent violence, but is accused of exploiting them to maintain his authoritarian rule. 
By contrast, a strong international involvement in Bosnia and Herzegovina assumed differences to be irreconcilable, imposing a fiendishly complex political system whereby ethnic groupings were each given their own special status and divided into cantons, ensuring that ethnicity remains central to a weak and contradictory national politics. 
The greatest case for caution comes from Iraq, where the shallow but costly achievement of US interests created a nation that would soon unravel in sectarian violence. The criminalisation of the entire Ba’athist party after the 2003 invasion of Iraq only fuelled a weak state and the later insurgency. This demonstrates that the need to end impunity and create justice must also be balanced against the impact on stability
International criminal proceedings have been criticised for being too shallow and insensitive to local politics. Above all, the prosecution of justice must be seen to be fair and impartial. Where violence has occurred between communities that coexist in areas such as in Homs, justice based on truth and reconciliation may be more appropriate. Amongst the confusion, desperation and self-interest that will dominate any international response, the central guiding principle should be to keep the options for Syria’s future open.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

The Responsibility to Protect Doctrine and the Syrian Conflict – A Difficult Test Failed?

Daniel Wand

The International Commission on State Sovereignty’s document on the Responsibility to Protect. Image Source.
The conflict in Syria has now been raging for over 12 months and has claimed over 9000 lives and left thousands more injured. Yet despite this the international community remains reluctant to intervene militarily in order to stem the violent bloodshed. This unwillingness to act must be questioned in light of the existence of an obligation on the international community to intervene in states in order to protect civilians from gross human rights violations being perpetrated against them by their own government. This obligation is located in the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a doctrine which was employed to good effect to bring about an end to the violence in Cote d’Ivoire and the conflict in Libya. However, despite the efforts of various states and non-governmental organisations it has so far seemingly failed to provide a solution to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and this has led various commentators to consider whether it really is an effective tool for protecting civilians against gross human rights violation or merely, as many sceptics feared, glossy legal rhetoric subservient to international power politics.
The R2P doctrine was first conceived in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention of State Sovereignty and was formulated in response to pleas made by the then Secretary General Kofi Anan to the international community to develop and find consensus on a means of effectively addressing gross systematic violations of human rights. The traditional approach of humanitarian intervention sought to provide just such a means to forcibly intervene in states but was widely criticised and discredited throughout the 1990s, especially by developing states who viewed it as no more than neo-imperialistic interventionism dressed up in a humanitarian guise and therefore a fundamental breach of Article 2 (4) of the United Nations Charter. The uncertainty surrounding its legitimacy and legality made the international community reluctant to act upon it which resulted in many horrific atrocities occurring unchecked, most notably the genocide in Rwanda and the Srebrenica massacre. 
The R2P doctrine therefore sought to provide a more legitimate and legally uncontroversial framework through which mass human rights violations could be addressed and therefore allow action to be taken when necessary. It did this by placing the obligation to protect civilians primarily in the hands of the state. Only once a state failed to fulfil this obligation was the international community’s responsibility to act triggered. This is primarily to be discharged through a range of peaceful and diplomatic means but can ultimately take the form of military intervention if peaceful means prove ineffective and only in the gravest circumstances. This approach sought to provide a more comprehensive framework for addressing violations which would alleviate the concerns of developing states and help build a consensus amongst the international community on when and in what circumstances action should be taken.
Following its initial elucidation in 2001 and its unanimous adoption by the General Assembly at the World Summit in 2005, the doctrine began to be tentatively applied by the United Nations Security Council, passing its first real test. It was hesitantly referred to in the sanctioning of intervention in Cote d’Ivoire and more unequivocally in Resolution 1973 which provided for military intervention in Libya. At this point it appeared that the doctrine was moving from theory to reality, providing a legitimate means through which to justify intervention and effectively protect vulnerable populations. Ban Ki-Moon suggested that these events 'represent a historic watershed in the application of the R2P' and 'affirm clearly and unequivocally, the international community's determination to fulfil its responsibility to protect'.
States vote for a UN resolution imposing a no fly zone over Libya in the UN Security Council, 17 March 2011. Image Source.
The escalating conflict in Syria presented another and potentially much more challenging test for the newly evolving doctrine, a test which so far many consider it has failed. It is unquestionable that Bashar Al-Assad’s government has failed to discharge its primary responsibility to protect the Syrian population and the international community has subsequently failed to shoulder its secondary responsibility by failing to forcible intervene to quell the violence and killings.
Although a carefully brokered ceasefire plan has recently been put in place, it was not expressly done so under the auspices of R2P and cannot be said to be an example of the international community reacting to fulfil its responsibility established under international law. Although forcible intervention is not appropriate in all circumstances it is unquestionable that the situation in Syria warrants more forcible intervention. More people have been killed in Syria so far than were killed in Libya prior to the NATO led intervention and many have called for action under the framework, including most recently France.
It can therefore be suggested that the failure of the international community to react effectively is a result of a distinct lack of political will. There are various reasons for this; firstly, unlike Gadaffi, Bashar Al-Assad has numerous allies who are willing to defend his position on the international stage. This can be seen from the various threats made by Russia to veto any Security Council resolution which proposed the condemnation of the Syrian regime or sanctioned forcible intervention. Secondly, unlike Libya, Syria’s geographic location in the volatile Middle East region means that many states fear the wider ramifications of a Western led intervention and are thus reluctant to actively support it.
Diplomats disagree over how to deal with Syria. Photo: AFP.
This shows that despite the high hopes and grandiose claims that the doctrine would provide a clear and pragmatic legal framework through which to address gross human rights violations systematically and effectively, this has not quite been achieved as of yet. The conflict in Syria pertinently highlights the fact that the doctrine is still merely legal rhetoric and heavily subject to international power politics, something which Commission attempted to avoid when developing the doctrine.
This is a serious problem which the concept must overcome if it is to become a credible doctrine which can really provide a means to prevent gross human rights violations occurring in the future, an issue expressly acknowledged by states at the 2009 General Assembly debate on the R2P. The R2P has the potential to completely change the way the international community approaches the protection of civilians and it should not be squandering this excellent opportunity to further the implementation of the doctrine and more importantly help the people of Syria.