“It’s not a question of what will happen if we don’t do it; it’s a certainty. Are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gasses his people yet again, and the world says, “Why didn’t the United States act?” History is full of opportunity, of moments where someone didn’t stand up and act when it made a difference,” Secretary of State John Kerry famously argued at a 2013 hearing on the conflict in Syria. Secretary Kerry was and remains hardly the only elite to subtly connect the ongoing Syrian Civil War and the US’ history of inaction; Anne-Marie Slaughter penned an op-ed in the Washington Post urging President Obama to remember Rwanda, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote that, “Anne Frank today is a Syrian Girl.” In fact, over the five years of the Syrian Civil War, there is no shortage of Holocaust or genocide allusions.
Unfortunately comparing our inaction in Syria to inaction in similar tragedies means little; the only thing more predictable than the promise of never again is that the world refuses to intervene. That is not to say there is not precedent for states to act. In 1948, the United Nations ratified the Genocide Convention, mandating that all participating nations intervene to use military force to stop genocide as soon as they were aware of its occurrence. In 2005, following the failure of the Genocide Convention to compel states to intervene in Rwanda, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan codified Responsibility to Protect (R2P). R2P is quite simple: states have a responsibility to protect their citizens from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing and, when they fail to do so, it is the responsibility of other states to protect those foreign citizens. In President Bush’s 2003 remarks on the America’s invasion of Iraq, President Bush hinted at R2P by citing Saddam’s “final atrocity against his people” and justifying the invasion as a means to “restore control of that country to its own people.” In 2011, France’s Foreign Minister addressed the United Nations Security Council regarding Libya, arguing that Colonel Al-Qadhafi was engaged in widespread and systemic attacks on his own people and that the UNSC had the responsibility to protect Libyan civilians. Whereas the Genocide Convention was rarely invoked, R2P has been used by countries to justify their actions to foreign and domestic audiences.
But President Obama has steadfastly refused to invoke R2P in Syria. The deaths of over 422,000, the internal displacement of 7,000,000, or the 4,00,000 refugees who have fled the country and destabilized Europe should be enough indication that Syrian President Assad has failed in his responsibility to his own citizens. Yet the closest President Obama ever came to implying that Assad had failed as a sovereign and that the world had a responsibility to the Syrian people was his statement in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would “change my equation.” Even at his sternest, President Obama’s statement was less of a compelling argument justifying intervention and more a direct statement of displeasure directly to Assad. Assad could continue to murder his citizens, but needed to not use chemical weapons to do so. In 2013, President Obama would directly address the American public on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, stating “I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.” The message was clear: President Obama did not feel it was America’s responsibility to protect Syrian citizens by removing Assad from power, but to intervene only to stop Assad from using chemical weapons a year after evidence of the attacks first surfaced. Systemic murder of citizens was fine as long as it was done without gas.
In a much more egregious manner, Russia, a member of the UN Security Council, has also rejected R2P in Syria. Perhaps sensing the US hesitancy on the issue and using the opportunity to delegitimize the idea of the United States as a unilateral power, Russia has backed President Assad’s regime in Syria in direct opposition of the US’ tepid support of the Syrian rebels. Russia has flagrantly characterized the United States’ involvement as “attempts to pursue geopolitical objectives and violations of the sovereignty of states,” sewn doubt about the legitimacy of crimes against humanity, and stated that the US was backing terrorists over legitimate government. Through its consistent and brazen confrontations with the west on Syria, Russia has successfully changed the dialogue from a question of humanitarian intervention to that of American arrogance.
Syria will be the ultimate decider of the future of the R2P narrative. Unless the United States makes a strong case for R2P to domestic and global audiences, Russia’s vehement support of state sovereignty will normalize Assad’s and other dictatorial leaders’ behaviors. Perhaps Syria is not another Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur, or Srebrenica, but undoubtedly looking back, we will wonder why we were not persuaded to do more.