How Libya’s Success Became Syria’s Failure

Ed note. I’m just back from a two and half day set of meetings in New York to mark the 10th anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect.  A very big thank you to the Stanley Foundation for hosting the event and facilitating my participation.

Another day, another round of news that more people have been killed by the Syrian government.

Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front the prospects that the Security Council will adopt any sort of punitive resolution (like sanctions, an arms embargo or ICC referral) are getting bleaker by the news cycle. Just yesterday, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov categorically rejected any punitive measure against Syria. And if the Russian foreign minister’s words are not enough to show you which side Russia is on, maybe this shipment of weapons to the Syrian government may convince.

At a forum marking the 10th anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect yesterday, Ban Ki Moon called the unfolding human tragedy in Syria “the next test of our common humanity.”

But if nothing changes, it looks like we’ll fail this test. Why? The reason has less to do with Syria than with the diplomatic fallout from the NATO-led Libya intervention.

Most non-western countries on the Security Council are still smarting over how NATO carried out the Libya military campaign. Russia and China, which are traditionally wary of this kind of intervention, took a big risk and withheld their veto to Resolution 1973 which authorized the use of force in Libya.  They did so because they believed that the resolution very narrowly circumscribed the kind of force that NATO would use. They expected civilian protection. What NATO became was the de-facto air force of Libyan rebels.

It also was clear that the Libyan rebels were being supplied with arms and weaponry despite an arms embargo mandated by resolution 1973. “We did not realize that the punitive measure of the arms embargo would be selectively interpreted,” said Indian Ambassador Puri who voted to abstain from the resolution (along with Brazil, Russia, China and Germany).

The thing is, if Libya is a test case for R2P and the concept of international intervention to avert mass atrocities, the international community passed with flying colors. As Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister who is one of the intellectual fathers of the Responsibility to Protect put it, “Libya is a textbook case for the application of the R2P.” He’s right. The intervention happened quickly, helped avoid a potential mass atrocity in Benghazi, and had the formal backing of the Security Council.  This is pretty much how it is supposed to work.

But success in Libya may have come at the expense of intervention (even non-military intervention) in Syria. NATO’s liberal interpretation of the Security Council mandate helped it achieve its goals with efficiency, but it poisoned any chance that the Security Council would coalesce around R2P when a future crisis arose.

“Syria is the collateral victim of Libya the same way that Rwanda was the collateral victim of Somalia,”  said Jean Marie Guehenno, the longtime head of UN Peacekeeping.  In other words, just as the Black Hawk Down made western powers wary of  even contemplating a humanitarian intervention in Rwanda three years later, the steamrolling of non-western interests in the execution of the Libyan intervention is coloring Russia, China other non-western powers’ approach to Syria.  From their perspective, they just don’t want to get played like that again.

This leaves us at a pretty uncomfortable conclusion that humanity is poised to spectacularly fail Ban Ki Moon’s test.  But do the Syrian people and the Free Syrian Army know that?

If not, someone should tell them.

There’s a theory which posits that the principle of humanitarian intervention has a hidden moral hazard: rebel groups may feel emboldened to take up arms against a more powerful foe if they have reason to believe that foreign powers will come to their aid. Given the way in which R2P was applied in Libya, it would not be unreasonable for a Syrian resister to believe that the international community will rally against the Assad regime. Alas, the hard reality is that NATO will not be the Free Syrian Army’s air force. And even if the Security Council did somehow get on board, air power would probably not be as effective against Syria as it was in Libya. No one is talking about ground forces.

There will not be a Libya-style intervention in Syria. There probably will not even be sanctions, an arms embargo or an ICC referral either.  Someone should stand up and tell them this hard fact.  As Louise Arbour, the head of the International Crisis Group, said “Part of the responsibility to protect includes the responsibility to tell the truth about our own limitations.”

It’s a bleak conclusion (and as regular readers know, I am prone to optimism). But there is no purpose in pretending that the international community will come to the rescue of the Syrian people anytime soon.