This article aims to analyse the thesis of the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine and its application to the situation in Syria. I will debate the reasons for and against an approval from the UN (United Nations) for a military intervention from the perspective of the ‘responsibility to protect’ guiding principles, along with a brief overview on the doctrine and the Syrian war.

What is the Responsibility to Protect?

The doctrine of ‘the responsibility to protect’, known as R2P, is a concept that stipulates an obligation of means for the international community and for the states towards the citizens of the world, adopted at the 60th UN Summit, in 2005. The obligation is stipulated in a document which was unanimously ratified by all member states, although it is not legally binding.

The thesis is based on three pillars, namely: (1) a state has the responsibility to protect its own citizens from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing; (2) the International community is obliged to assist the states in accomplishing their obligation of protecting the citizens; (3) if states fail to prevent the four crimes earlier mentioned, the international community shall intervene, using military intervention as a last resort.

The concept of R2P implies the task of prevention, the international community being encouraged to use economic penalties, mediation and good offices before passing to the measures of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, whose nature is military. R2P admits that in some situations the military intervention is necessary, but holds that it shall be used only for a just cause and if all the other means have failed. 

The situation in Syria

The Syrian Civil War is an ongoing-armed conflict on the territory of Syria, between the Ba’ath Government forces and the rebels who request a change of regime, as part of the movement known as the Arab Spring. What began as a peaceful demonstration degenerated into a full-fledged civil war. At the order of President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian Army and the Shabiha militia started to use violence against the population.

A special UN report from 2012 claimed that, once the rebels were armed, the conflict began to develop a pregnant sectarian nature. On one side, there was the Shia group of government and Shabiha forces, and on the other side were the Sunni rebel groups. Both sides have denied that the conflict had such a nature.

Another report, established that Syria’s Government, through the means of the Syrian Army and Shabiha militia, but also the rebels, have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes. Among the crimes committed by the government’s representatives were: use of weapons against unarmed civilians, campaigns of ‘door to door arrests’, killing of medical staff, and deliberate destruction of drugs. The government’s actions started to evolve from sporadic murders to targeted attacks and mass killings. Moreover, there were aerial bomb attacks and use of chemical agents by the Syrian Army. 

Application of R2P in Syria

UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon has underlined the urgent necessity of a solution to end the crisis in Syria, which, in the last years, led to the death of over 130.000 civilians and to serious humanitarian crises. He asked the international community, especially the Security Council, to unite and to offer their full support to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. The debates of the Security Council regarding the intervention in Syria have revealed a series of difficulties concerning the application of R2P. Essentially, the problem was establishing the criteria used to approve military intervention. On one hand, some claimed that the international community had to respect the principle of state sovereignty. On the other hand, it was stated that there is an urgent need to protect Syrian civilians. The creators of R2P let to international community’s judgment the moment when they should intervene, this moment depending from case to case.

But first and foremost, the primary question stands as to whether the requirements for a military intervention based on R2P are fulfilled. The first requirement is the just cause. Even though the doctrinarian views are divergent, theorists and the ICISS (International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty) report on R2P agree that large-scale loss of human lives and ethnic cleansing met the condition, as the number of civilian deaths topped 130.000, while both rebels and government are accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The second one is right intention, as the purpose of an intervention would be to put an end to the killings against civilians. States could meet this requirement, as they did in Libya or Kosovo, but they should restrain from other actions. The third condition is of last resort, because a military intervention could be justified only if the other non-military options of prevention and peaceful settlement have been exhausted. In Syria’s case, this condition is met as the conflict enters its third year of conflict and failed efforts of mediation, sanctions and peace talks. The fourth requirement is that of proportionality and of reasonable perspective, as the duration, scope and intensity of the military intervention should be at minimum and there should be a chance of avoiding any more life loses by this intervention. The assessment of this criteria is made on prospective judgments, which are, inevitably, debatable and uncertain. Thus, an assessment over the accomplishment of the criteria is possible only after an intervention. The fifth condition is proper authority and that can only be the Security Council. Before any intervention, states should seek the approval of the Security Council and its five permanent members should restrain from using the veto if their interests are not involved, so that the intervention can be legal and in time for saving lives of Syrian citizens and ending the war. 

Thus, at first sight, one can say that all conditions for an intervention are met, but in reality, some problems arose, and the intervention was delayed.

One of the first issues was that states have different reactions to different norm violations. The possibility of a prompt reaction, with a potential military nature, is more likely in the case of security norms than in the case of human rights violations. In Syria, this aspect is obvious, because until the `Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013` confirmed the use of chemical weapons,, no one wanted to intervene at all.

Although one can claim that military intervention in case of using of weapons of mass destruction has a humanitarian side, the security threat it poses is the main reason of such use of force. Eventually, this is no more an intervention based on R2P.

A second problem that occurs is the violation of the territorial sovereignty based only on a moral obligation because R2P is not a legal obligation. This issue was raised by two member states of the Security Council, Russia and China. They claimed that the situation would resemble the ‘Military and Paramilitary activities of the US in Nicaragua’ case, where the International Court of Justice stated that the sending of armed troops on other state’s territory is a violation of territorial sovereignty and political independence and this measure is not an intervention for the protection of civilians. Also, states have become reserved to R2P after seeing what happened in Libya, when the scope of R2P changed from protecting civilians to establishing a new regime. As a following to this situation a question arises: if the UN member states will send armed forces sent in Syria, will they protect the civilians from the atrocities, or will they attempt overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad regime, which would surpass the limits of R2P? According to R2P, they should intervene as neutral troops, but the Libyan precedent does not support this theory. This is one more reason for the Security Council to hesitate in issuing a resolution for military intervention in Syria.

In conclusion, a military intervention in Syria according to R2P doctrine is hard to accomplish, because there is a strong feeling within the international community regarding the difficulty to apply the theory to the current situation in Syria.