Wednesday, September 3, 2014
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Saving the Syrians

CANBERRA – Despite the United Nations Security Council’s belated endorsement of UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s peacemaking mission in Syria, confidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will cooperate in any serious or sustained way remains low, and calls for external military intervention continue. As Syria’s crisis goes from bad to worse, those urging armed force are invoking both the tragedy of inaction in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990’s, and the triumph of decisive international action in Libya last year.

The proposals run the spectrum, from establishing no-fly zones, buffer zones, “no-kill zones,” safe-havens, and protected humanitarian corridors to arming the Free Syrian Army to fight Assad’s regime. Still others urge outright invasion to overthrow it. The agonizing question for those who believe that the international community has a responsibility to stop mass-atrocity crimes is not only whether any of these options is practically achievable, but also whether they will do more good than harm.

No military option currently has any chance of support from a UN Security Council that is still largely paralyzed by a backlash against NATO’s perceived overreach of its civilian-protection mandate in Libya. The only military option that has received any practical international backing so far – reportedly from some of Syria’s Sunni Gulf neighbors – is the arming of opposition forces.

That said, if some form of coercive military intervention is the right course to take in Syria, the argument should be made with passion and persistence. But is this a case in which it is right to fight?

Under the responsibility to protect (R2P) principles that the UN General Assembly unanimously endorsed in 2005, coercive military action to stop atrocities should be contemplated only when peaceful means – from diplomatic persuasion to sanctions and threats of criminal prosecution – prove inadequate. Clearly the situation in Syria has reached that threshold.

But contemplating military action does not mean endorsing it. Both morality and prudence demand that several criteria be satisfied before any use of force is approved. No such guidelines have yet been formally adopted by the Security Council or the General Assembly, but five criteria have emerged from the R2P debate over the last decade.

The first criterion is the potential harm to civilians: is the threat of a type and scale that prima facie justifies the use of force? With more than 9,000 people already dead in Syria and the toll rising daily, this criterion certainly seems to have been satisfied, although the violence is no longer as one-sided as it was at the outset.

The second test, more subjective and tricky to apply – and therefore not decisive in itself – is whether the primary purpose of any proposed military action is to halt or avert the threat to civilians. Some Gulf countries’ enthusiastic support for intervention in Syria may well be driven primarily by another agenda: anti-Iranian and pro-Sunni sentiment.

Third, there is the issue of last resort: has every non-military option been explored and found unlikely to succeed? The jury is out on this, but may not be for much longer. For all of the hopes, there are no high expectations that Annan’s negotiation skills will, even now with Security Council support, succeed in defusing the Syrian crisis, as they did following Kenya’s explosive presidential election in 2008. And few are confident that even universal sanctions or other non-military pressure will stem Assad’s determination to crush his opponents.

The fourth criterion concerns proportional means: are the scale, duration, and intensity of the proposed military action the minimum necessary to meet the threat in question? This was one of the most controversial aspects of the intervention in Libya. The trouble with most of the proposed “minimalist” intervention solutions – establishing buffer zones, for example – is that, in Syrian conditions, full-scale warfare will almost certainly be required to impose them. The minimum may have to be the maximum.

The final, and ultimately the most crucial, criterion for intervention is the balance of consequences: will military intervention do more harm than good? This is where the argument in favor of military intervention in Syria runs into the most trouble.

Any further militarization in Syria runs the risk of turning what is already a nascent civil war into a full-blown one, with casualties on a much greater scale. The Syrian military and government-backed militias are strong and will resist fiercely. Sectarian differences within Syria are profound, and there is little international confidence in either the cohesion or the democratic and human-rights credentials of the opposition. Fighting there could ignite the entire region. And, with the Arab League divided over the issue, any Western intervention is bound to be inflammatory in the wider Islamic world.

With all military options appearing to be counterproductive, the only chance of halting Syria’s descent into total chaos is Annan’s political mediation. Its unstated premise is that enough senior officials in the regime can be persuaded to change course, with enough safe exits for the most divisive figures, to enable the situation to stabilize and reform to start. amp#160;

But, for that to happen, Russia will have to exercise its influence much more constructively than it has so far. That is a slim reed for the Syrian people to grasp, but unhappily it’s the only one around.

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  1. CommentedJonathan Lam

    Gamesmith94134: Saving the Syrians

    It was a heated argument in Responsibility to protect in UN after the intervention of NATO, then Russia and China disagreed military action and joined by the Arab League, When the status quo other than atrocity against its people appeared obvious that the claim of genocide or suppression was not accurate since both the Syrian military and its resistance forces are fully armed and they engaged in its civil war. So, “With more than 9,000 people already dead in Syria and the toll rising daily, this criterion certainly seems to have been satisfied, although the violence is no longer as one-sided as it was at the outset.” It is also true that the Sectarian difference in Syria are profound; and there is little international confident for the opposite in creating another regime in democracy or pro-human-rights. So, it leaves to Mr. Koffi Annan’s political persuasion, and it seemed to work that they agree to cease fire.

    I think Mr. Gareth Evans suggested that Russian should know how to rub the magic lamp and pop out the genie; but there is no magic in term of the Arab World if the Arab League is stalling on the sideline. I see Mr. Annan is working hard in traveling Russia and China in working on the details after the agreement; and there must be another negotiators in remanding the supplies of ammunition and firearms that the Sunni neighbor’s enthusiastic support for intervention in Syria with another agenda: anti-Iranian and pro-Sunni sentiment. I often emphasize on the self help process which I suggest the Arab League must participate in regulating their internal struggles including the Arab World and its minorities; in order to stop further damage; so, the Arab League must divide over the issues on pro-Sunni sentiment and how its minorities like Shiites, Kurds, Alawites, Christians can live among the Arab world. There may not be a democratic government like the Western alike; I do think there is more of the Arabic wisdom in navigating the western criticism and reuniting the Islamic nations to bargain on a better living on its own.

    Since I never been in the Middle East or Syria, I may not know the reality of the livelihood there; however, humanity and dignity are essential to establish ones right identifies with the rest of the world if the Arab world is not building on its Apartheids on its minorities. Perhaps, we all realize it is a very delicate situation and the cease fire agreement is fragile; there should be no stone throwing in the glasshouse; or we may start pouring money in our gas tanks in a selfish reason. Nonetheless, it was harder for restoring the global economy and dearer for humanity if Syria cracked itself to balkanization before our eyes.

    Thereon, I do think Mr. Assad should lead Syria to turn its nation to more integrated to faiths and nations; and I hope Mr. Annan and the Arab League would see the way to calm its sentiments of anti-western and weight on the gravity based humanity and sovereignties; subsequently it can restore the balance on the capitalists and communists in its economical terms and military confrontation.

    May the Buddha bless you?

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