It is a strange fact of the human experience that we order tragedy by aggregate so as to dull the shock to our collective conscience. Horrific killings are immortalized in names made infamous — the Rwandas and Srebrenicas — remembered as much for their casualty count, as for their circumstances.
In Syria, the 1982 massacre at Hama has haunted the 15-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Tens of thousands lost their lives when the Syrian army — under orders of the country’s president, Hafez al-Assad, and the command of his younger brother, Rifaat — exacted a scorched earth operation against the town in order to quell a simmering uprising, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Thirty years later, and the nation has suffered another defining massacre. In the wake of the slaughter at Houla, the international community has been reawakened to the regime’s brutality. Bashar al-Assad — son and nephew of the architects of Hama — is operating in the YouTube age of citizen journalism, unshielded from the immediacy of modern information-sharing. His atrocities have been televised, tweeted, and broadcast in real time. Yet he also lacks the convenience of diversionary violence — his father managed his massacres behind the veil of a vicious civil war in Lebanon. The son enjoys no such distraction.
Instead, the Syrian premier has channeled his inner-ostrich and elected to disavow or disagree with accusations against him. On Tuesday, President Assad expelled diplomats from Turkey and 10 Western countries — including the U.S. and the U.K. — in response to their respective decision to eject Syrian envoys after the Houla massacre. Such is his sense of reciprocity.
Although smaller in scope than aforementioned mass-murders, the 108 people killed in Houla seem somehow more tangible. One must assume that’s what happens when dozens of women and children are slaughtered, execution-style, by shabiha militia retained by the government to perform their duties absent any sense of moral balance. The killings sickened the world — the discovery of mass graves confirmed horror stories and convinced many that Assad is a man who will not be convinced or cajoled to compromise. His death toll now exceeds 10,000. Tens of thousands more have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and torture. But cumulative counts don’t stagger us like a climactic atrocity committed against women and children — particularly when we can witness the violence, for ourselves.
Houla represents a defining moment in the unrest that has rocked Syria since March 2011. Just witness the fallout.
While Syrian officials (and Assad himself) have blamed the killings on “foreign elements” and “terrorist groups,” the United Nations Human Rights Council accused “pro-regime elements,” in no uncertain terms. UN and Arab League joint envoy Kofi Annan described the slaughter as a “turning point” — a subtle, yet significant statement from the draftsman of the utterly toothless “peace-plan” that’s currently failing the Syrian people. France’s newly elected President François Hollande called for an armed, international intervention. Even China and Russia — Syria’s stalwart allies on the UN Security Council — expressed condemnation; naturally, without pointing any fingers.
At this point, there will be no negotiations, no transitional governments, and no reconciliation. The world will watch in muted horror while Assad maintains half-hearted assertions of plausible deniability about the atrocities his regime will continue to commit.
So what is the appropriate response to a bloody stalemate between an obdurate tyrant and an insurgency that won’t go away? When it comes to atrocity-prevention policy, satisfactory answers to complex questions are scarce. It is insufficient to offer empty nods to “good governance,” “security sector reform” and the “rule of law.” But the international order sits atop an architecture of path-dependent, normative behavior. What does recent history tell us?
Recall, not long ago, the Libyan adventure was hailed as a success across academia and the media, precisely because it proved less arduous than 1990s style humanitarian intervention. Advocates of airpower hailed an age of low-cost military actions fought in support of all-volunteer forces battling regime-sponsored thugs. NATO’s support of Transitional National Council (TNC) forces was said to mark the advent of an evolving international norm — and one in stout cascade. Although the laws governing the use of force at the UN are the same now as they were in 1991, whispers of an international “responsibility to protect” (R2P) grew into a chorus.
Loosely derived from the just war precept of jus ad bellum, and its relevant attention to the protection of innocent civilians, R2P has changed since it was first conceived as a doctrine of international ethics — as witnessed in Libya, it may now prompt a “justified” response to intrastate violence. As such, R2P may be waged in violation of sovereign authority, for a “good cause” and with “best intentions.” A horrific act of aggression committed against (or within) a sovereign state, or race of people who are unable to defend themselves against an inhuman adversary offers sufficient cause to wage just war on behalf of the weak and vulnerable.
So why not Syria? Why has an apparent success in Libya — as defined by the protection of “civilians” in Benghazi, the ouster of Gaddafi, and the evasion of an expensive quagmire — not intensified our commitment to protect innocent noncombatants in Homs and Houla?
Certainly, there are strategic concerns. The application of no-fly zones, tactical air strikes, militarized safe areas, and the arming of opposition forces often proves ineffective, unwieldy, and incendiary. And, by all means, Russia is unlikely to forfeit her warm water port in Tartous, and the lucrative arms deal that’s helped keep the Assad regime in power. Plenty of analysts and observers have suggested as much.
But perhaps more importantly, the NATO campaign in Libya has proven a victim of its own success.
We have learned that an international prevention framework to avert atrocity does not necessarily sync with regime change in problem states. NATO’s decision to interpret UNSC Resolution 1973 as free license to topple Gaddafi provoked a vocal response from many UN member states. The emerging BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) offered some of the most vehement criticism of NATO’s sense of its “responsibility to protect.” Considering two of these states hold permanent seats at the UN Security Council, this dissent suggests future exercise of R2P will prove more limited in scope. The conspicuous absence of action in Syria provides a case in point.
This is what happens when “measures to protect civilians under threat of attack” masquerade as regime change by means of asymmetric airpower, in support of armed insurgency. Whatever happened in Libya, it was not R2P. The protection of innocent civilians and commitments to noncombatant immunity do not equate to the support of armed rebels.
R2P is revolutionary precisely because it challenges state-centric conceptions of the world. It emphasizes the international community’s moral commitment to universal principles, and it treats sovereignty as a right that is conditional upon fulfillment of that responsibility — rather than a privilege of statehood.
Now, the purpose of this essay is not to weigh the costs and benefits of robust military statecraft, but to suggest that the international community (those states that exist outside the treaty obligations of NATO) will not warm to the notion of conditional sovereignty.
This presumption applies most specifically to those states that may suffer (or sponsor) widespread human rights violations, of their own — say, in Tibet or Chechnya, to pull two examples from a hat.
Something to consider as we reimagine what our responsibility to protect entails, while counting casualties in Syria.