Last Friday (March 18) saw the first nationwide protests against the Baath regime in Syria. If these protests develop into a full-scale revolt, the regime’s response may dwarf that of Colonel Gadhafi in Libya.
The last time Syrians rebelled, in the city of Hama in 1982, President Hafez al-Assad sent in the army to smash the insurrection. Hama’s centre was destroyed by artillery fire, and at least 17,000 people were killed.
The current Syrian ruler, Bashar al-Assad, is allegedly a gentler person than his father Hafez, but the Baath Party still rules Syria, and it is just as ruthless as ever. So what happens if the Syrian revolution gets under way, and the Baath Party starts slaughtering people again? Do the same forces now intervening in Libya get sent to Syria as well?
Syria has four times Libya’s population and very serious armed forces. The Baath Party is as centralised and intolerant of dissent as the old Communist parties of Eastern Europe. Moreover, it is controlled internally by a sectarian minority, the Alawis, who fear that they would suffer terrible vengeance if they ever lost power.
The UN Security Council was absolutely right to order the use of “all necessary measures” (meaning armed force) to stop Gadhafi’s regime from attacking the Libyan people. But it does move us all into unknown territory: today Libya, tomorrow Syria?
The “responsibility to protect” concept that underpins the UN decision on Libya was first proposed in 2001 by Lloyd Axworthy, then Canada’s foreign minister. He was frustrated by the UN’s inability to stop the genocides in Kosovo and Rwanda in the 1990s, and he concluded that the problem was the UN’s own rules. So he set out to change them.
The original goal of the United Nations, embedded in the Charter signed in 1945, was to prevent any more big wars like the one just past, which had killed over 50 million people and ended with the use of nuclear weapons. There was some blather about human rights in there too, but in order to get all the great powers to sign up to a treaty outlawing war, there had to be a deal that negated all that.
The deal was that the great powers (and indeed, all of the UN members) would have absolute sovereignty within their own territory, including the right to kill whoever opposed their rule. It wasn’t written quite like that, but the meaning was quite clear: the UN had no right to intervene in the internal affairs of a member state no matter how badly it behaved.
By the early 21st century, however, the threat of a nuclear war between the great powers had faded away, while local massacres and genocides proliferated. Yet the UN was still hamstrung by the 1945 rules and unable to intervene. So Lloyd Axworthy set up the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) to popularize the concept of humanitarian intervention under the name of "Responsibility to protect”.
It was purely a Canadian government initiative. “You can't allow dictators to use the facade of national sovereignty to justify ethnic cleansing,” Axworthy explained, and so he launched a head-on attack on sovereignty.
The commission he set up concluded, unsurprisingly that the UN should have an obligation to protect people from mass killing at the hands of their own government. Since that could only be accomplished, in practice, by military force, it was actually suggesting that the UN Security Council should have the right to order attacks on countries that indulged in such behaviour.
This recommendation then languished for some years. The most determined opponents of “responsibility to protect” were the great powers—Russia and China in particular—who feared that the new doctrine might one day be used against them. But in 2005 the new African Union included the concept in its founding charter, and after that things moved quite fast.
In 2006 the Security Council agreed that “we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner...should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” And there they are five years later, taking military action against Gadhafi.
Ten out of 15 Security Council members voted in favour of the action, and the rest, including all four of the emerging great powers, the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), abstained. But Russia and China didn’t veto the action, because they have finally figured out that the new principle will never be used against them.
Nobody will ever attack Russia to make it be nicer to the Chechens, or invade China to make it change its behaviour towards the Tibetans. Great powers are effectively exempt from all the rules if they choose to be, precisely because they are so powerful. That’s no argument for also exempting less powerful but nastier regimes from the obligation not to murder their own people.
So what about the Syrian regime? The same crude calculation applies. If it’s not too tough and powerful to take on, then it will not be allowed to murder its own people. And if it is too big and dangerous, then all the UN members will express their strong disapproval, but they won’t actually do anything.
Consistency is an overrated virtue.