Almost a year ago, I wrote about the Obama Doctrine and the “Right to Protect” (R2P) as it was applied to Libya (“Obama’s intervention: Today Libya, tomorrow Israel?” March 30, 2011).
Today, I wonder, if R2P is indeed the policy of the administration, why it is not being used to defend Syrians against the Assad government, as it was invoked to defend Libyans against Kaddafi?
A quick recap is in order.
In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously affirmed that “when a state proves either unable or unwilling to protect peoples” from mass atrocities occurring within its borders, “that responsibility shifts to the international community.” This principle — R2P — specifies four types of transgressions that warrant foreign intervention: genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
R2P was invoked as the reason to intervene in Libya, where the United States “led from behind.” President Obama said that Kaddafi has lost his legitimacy and should step down.
As I wondered last March, what constitutes the Obama Doctrine? Is it based on a UN resolution? If it was purely humanitarian, what about Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Jordan, all of which have used force to quell demonstrations against incumbent governments?
If international, but not congressional, approval for action is necessary for R2P, popular American opinion is irrelevant, although American lives and treasure are at stake.
The situation in Syria has grown progressively worse since March 2011.
A complicating factor with Syria, not present in the Libyan intervention, is the Russian and Chinese vetoes of a UN Security Council resolution calling for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down. Both countries say they perceived the resolution as a potential violation of Syria’s sovereignty, which could allow for military intervention or regime change.
In a TV interview, former member of Russian Joint Chiefs of Staff Col.-Gen. Leonid Ivashov said Russia does not want any military operations to be waged against Iran or Syria, and warned that a strike against Syria or Iran will be considered an indirect strike against Russia and its interests.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote an op-ed about why Russia is supporting Syria. The Russian assessment is that, like Libya, arming and supporting local rebels, the Free Syria Army, will not lead to the overthrow of Assad and a wider conflict is looming, with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran all being players.
However, Trenin believes, what most worries Russians is that “Israel may strike at Iran, dragging in the United States and thus precipitating a major war with Iran.”
Trenin says the Russians should look to their own policies: “Confronting both America and Europe, even if Western policies are misguided, is clearly at odds with Russia’s wider interests.” However, “having lost $4 billion in Libyan arms and other contracts and facing the prospect of losing an equal amount in potential Syrian trade, Moscow has no other choice but to take a hard line,” he said.
Nicholas Noe, a contributing writer for Bloomberg View, in a New York Times op-ed, said we have to bargain with the devil in Syria. Noe believes the likely scenario in Syria is “a bloody last-ditch effort” by Assad, Iran, and Hizbullah to save the Syrian government. Noe writes there are multiple ways Israel could be goaded into a major conflict without it seeming as if Assad or Hizbullah were responsible. To counter this dangerous situation responsibly, the United States and its allies would have to be willing to plan for and then swiftly implement a wide preemptive military strike.
Finding problems with this strategy, Noe counsels a “distasteful” strategy of bargaining with Assad. Noe’s bargain would involve ending demands for Assad to step down in exchange for a permanent UN presence to monitor violence against Syrian civilians and a national reconciliation conference.
As for the United States, the London Telegraph reported that while the White House wants to exhaust all its diplomatic options, the debate in Washington has shifted away from diplomacy and toward military options in Syria.
Any increased violence, either by Assad’s forces against Syrian civilians or due to military intervention by a foreign coalition seeking to oust Assad, in all likelihood, would lead to refugees, Thus, it was reported a month ago that Israel was making preparations for the fall of Assad and a flood of refugees from his minority Alawite sect into the Golan Heights. Imagine what the situation would have been if Israel had returned the Golan under international pressure.
Syria has become one of the world’s geopolitical hotspots. On the regional level, it has the ability to involve not only Syrians, but the Arab world, Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel. Globally, it may lead to confrontation between the United States and Russia. And, on a policy level, we might learn if there is more to R2P than expedient sloganeering.