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Why Syrian opposition shouldn't expect help

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Robin Lustig | 14:48 UK time, Friday, 29 April 2011

Six weeks ago, I wrote a piece here called "What's so special about Libya?"

Then, the question arose because of the killing of civilians in Yemen and Bahrain. I asked why there was a UN resolution authorising the use of military force to protect citizens in Libya, but not elsewhere.

Now, fast forward to this week. The question arises again because of events in Syria. Tanks have rolled in to several towns and cities to prevent more anti-government protests, and human rights groups estimate that more than 400 Syrian civilians have died since the wave of Arab unrest reached Syrian shores.

On Wednesday's programme, I discussed the difference between the UN's response to the Libya and Syria crises with Professor Ed Luck, who's a special adviser to the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

His explanation, in a nutshell, was that in the case of Libya, important regional groupings like the Arab League and the African Union had asked for robust UN action. In the case of Syria, there has been no such demand.

Here are some possible reasons why. First, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is respected by other Arab leaders in a way that the eccentric and mercurial Muammar Gaddafi of Libya is not. Second, Syria has a relatively well-trained and well-equipped army, which Libya does not. That makes a big difference when weighing up the pros and cons of international military action.

Third, there is a widespread belief among Western governments that President Assad could still be persuaded to turn back from his current policy of trying to suppress opposition protests by force.

And fourth, Syria's geographic position - neighbouring Iraq, Lebanon and Israel, makes it highly sensitive strategically. Instability in Syria could easily spill across its borders.

The United Nations doctrine known as "responsibility to protect" - or R2P in the jargon - was drawn up for use in cases when governments are either unable to protect their own civilians or are themselves a threat to them. Just like Syria, then?

Not necessarily. Before the doctrine can be invoked, it's considered essential that six criteria need to be fulfilled. The cause needs to be just (no problem there, you might think); the intention must be right (in other words, to protect civilians, not to advance national self-interest); military action should be used only as a final resort; there must be legitimate authority (ie a Security Council resolution); the means used must be proportionate to the threat; and there must be a "reasonable prospect" that the action taken is successful.

It's that final criterion - a reasonable prospect of success - which could well be the biggest stumbling block in Syria, even if all the other five criteria were met. (And that's a moot point, in fact, given that Russia, a close ally of Syria going back many decades, is unlikely merely to abstain on a proposed Security Council resolution, as it did on Libya.)

After all, given the Libya experience so far, who would like to bet on a Syria intervention being any more successful? So with no regional pressure for military intervention, and with no Western appetite for any more military adventures, the message for anti-government protesters in Syria seems inescapable: you're on your own.


  • Comment number 1.

    You are sadly right Robin. Syria also has little or no oil to speak of, or has any energy pipelines running through it. For that reason the UN (or its masters: the West) have no "responsibility to protect" Syrian civilians. So I guess the protesters are on their own.

    Who is to blame for this inconsistency? Us in the West!

    As long as the general population is passive, apathetic, diverted to consumerism or hatred of the vulnerable, then the powerful can do as they please, and those who survive will be left to contemplate the outcome.


  • Comment number 2.

    Robin, this is a complicated mess.
    When foreign presidents proved insubordinate (to the United States and/or the United Kingdom) the CIA and/or M16 used to get to work, promoting coups. e.g. replacing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who tried to nationalize his country's oil, with General Fazlollah Zahedi (then the young Shah) in 1953.
    The US lavished $1.3B on Egypt's military annually, as long as Mubarak behaved himself especially in regards to the State of Israel. Last January American generals & intelligence officers quietly called friends urging the army's support for a "peaceful transition" to MILITARY RULE (Mubarak's son was aiming towards nationalizing some industries).
    Washington has followed the British imperial preference for Arab aristocrats by cultivating allies -shah (Iran), sultans (Abu Dhabi, Oman), emirs (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Dubai), and kings (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco). Washington courted royalist, loyalist regimes with military alliances so that there would simultaneously create ready market for American and British/US weapons.
    In 2005, I remember Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice summing this up so succinctly: "For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy... in the Middle East, and we achieved neither."
    Then suddenly, Europe's five major overseas empires collapsed Between 1947 and 1974, the Belgian, British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese.
    How come?
    Colonial powers slowly but inevitably ran out of INDIGENOUS COLLABORATORS.
    The CIA scrambled to monitor the loyalties of presidents, autocrats, and dictators on four continents, employing coups, bribery, and covert penetration to control and when necessary, remove uncooperative leaders.
    Then United States' covert action began to fail, often spectacularly -- including its efforts to topple Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in a badly bungled 2002 coup and in 2009, the Americans failed to oust Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
    Similarly, despite the infusions of billions of dollars in foreign aid, Washington has found it nearly impossible to control the Afghan president. Karzai: "If you're looking for a stooge and calling a stooge a partner, no. If you're looking for a partner, yes."
    Then, late in 2010, WikiLeaks began distributing those US diplomatic cables - insights into Washington's weakening control over the system of power that it had built up for 50 years. In reading these documents, one can smell the "the fall of the American empire..." Indeed, what the WikiLeaks documents show is a State Department struggling to control an unruly global system

  • Comment number 3.

    There are other differences that are crucial in comparing Syria with Libya. Though there are sectarian divisions in Syria between the ruling Alawhites and Sunnis for example, there are no historicaly sharp regional differences such as the Tripolitanian west versus the Cyrenaically based east in Libya. Also having had to absorb over a million Iraqi refugees from the civil war that was ignited by the British-American invasion, Syrians are broadly frightened by the prospects of civil war occurring in their own country. Also as you mentioned there is the complex geopolitics of the region and the unpredictable spillover that a civil war would pose for the entire sensitive regional balance of power.

  • Comment number 4.

    The use of the UN principle R2P (responsibility to protect) in justifying UN resolution 1973 for the protection of Libyan civilians under a no-fly zone opens up a whole can of worms that I had not thought of before. Not only is this the first use of R2P in justifying a UN action but it raises the question of the legitimacy of the UN in departing from its historic role to prevent aggression in international affairs. I am referring here to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the US and the UK, which was undertaken in defying a negative vote against the invasion by the UN Security Council. Not only was France, Russia, and China opposed to the invasion but decisively they refused to exercise their veto powers according to the UN Charter and left it to the Security Council as a whole to make the decision. The Security Council turned down the authorization for the invasion on a majority vote. In the light of the subsequent decision by the US and the UK to defy the Security Council and invade Iraq anyway, the question comes up whether the UN has legitimacy in authorizing the recent no-fly zone authorization. The doctrine of the rule of law does not permit the arbitrary application of law based on the power position of the law breakers. The rule of law should according to Western principles apply equally to subject and sovereign. Otherwise the rule of law becomes meaningless.

  • Comment number 5.

    In a remarkable interview on RT, Pepe Escobar, the Brazilian correpondent with Asia Times, agrees with me that international law as we have known it since the end of WW II, effectively died with the aggression against Libya this year. He also believes with me that "boots on the ground" by NATO is inevitable in order to resolve the stalemate that has come out of the UN resolution 1973. He furthermore believes that Nicholas Sarkozy (and David Cameron) are in a crushing electoral predicament over Libya and that they will have to force further concessions from Muammar Quaddafi to keep from being thrown out of office over the next few years. Escobar believes that the "Arab spring" of anti-regime uprisings has put enormous pressure on the West to do something (almost anything) to prevent losing the hegemony over the Arab Middle East that they have held since WW I.


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