Staging the Motions of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ in Syria?

Organised by the Arab League and attended by around 70 countries, the Friends of Syria Conference in Tunis on 24 February 2012 was probably one of the last chances for the resolution of the Syrian crisis through diplomatic means or it may also be argued that it was actually staged to appear in that way. Both sides of the argument could come up with strong justifications whether the Tunis conference was a genuine attempt to resolve the conflict in Syria peacefully.



In order to look at what is happening from a more objective perspective though, this article will adopt the principles of ‘just war’ theory as well as the criteria for Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in its analysis of how the international response to the Syrian crisis would likely to develop over the next few months. In order to contextualise the Syrian case in a wider humanitarian interventions landscape, the analysis will focus on the two previous North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) interventions in Kosovo (1999) and Libya (2011).

The political crisis of Syria which started around a year ago is now turning into one of the bloodiest chapters of the so called ‘Arab Spring’ with a death toll of over 8,000 people. After the popular revolts and regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, the transformation in Libya presented itself as a full blown civil war from March to October 2011. The uprising in Bahrain was crushed violently by the state with the military intervention assistance of the neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the political instability in Yemen still continues. Therefore, since the end of the Libya conflict with the capture of Muammar Gaddafi on 20th October, Syria has been dominating the international agenda with an increasing level of pressure from the Western countries and their allies in the region. The Tunis Conference was an important episode in this process, as it clearly indicated that the ‘friends’ of Syria led by the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), France and Turkey are in fact, no longer prepared to talk to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and they would prefer to show a clear sign of support to the Syrian opposition. The Foreign Minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoğlu, when he was asked the question of why the Syrian government had not been invited to the Tunis Conference, said that it was now time to make a distinction between ‘victims’ and ‘instigators of the violence’. The same sentiment was then echoed by the Foreign Secretary William Hague. In other words, the Tunis conference underlined the gap between ‘friends’ of Syria and ‘supporters’ of the Assad regime such as Russia and China, which also did not take part at the Conference.

The ‘supporters’ of Syria have so far managed to block a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution on Syria. This would sound very familiar for the students of international relations, as so many times before the international community has been at such an impasse, i.e. the 1999 Kosovo crisis, in deciding an appropriate response strategy for the protection of fundamental human rights in those countries affected by armed conflict and violence. As a veto by one of UNSC permanent members (China, France, Russia, UK and US) can block the process of passing a resolution, the following stages of international responses to violent political crises often turn into an exercise of circumventing such a diplomatic impasse in the UN system. Consequently, in such contexts the issues of legality and legitimacy often become fiercely debated issues. In the case of Libya for example, the UNSC Resolution 1970 and particularly, Resolution 1973 were pivotal for preparing the ground for the NATO’s military intervention as they asked to ‘establish and enforce a no-fly zone over Libya’ and ‘employ all means to protect civilians’. In other words, the military intervention in Libya was ‘legal’ from an international law perspective, which was not the case for the Kosovo intervention as NATO undertook that intervention without the permission of a UNSC resolution. However, it was then argued that the military intervention was legitimate, therefore necessary, because of the humanitarian concerns to do with the well being of Albanian Kosovars in the hands of Serbian security forces. However, the legality aspect is only one of the key issues for military humanitarian interventions and for a better understanding of the Tunis Conference within the wider response process, it would be necessary to consider other criteria for revoking R2P.


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downloadbutton3Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 3  No. 2

*Alpaslan Özerdem is Professor of Peacebuilding at Coventry University.
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