**The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of the Security Governance Group or the Security Sector Reform Resource Centre.**
According to the dominant narrative, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine — adopted at the United Nations World Summit of 2005 — has hit a roadblock in Syria.
The most prominent claim we’ve seen to date — rooted in the realist paradigm of international relations — is that R2P is a norm, and that norms as a matter of fact do not supersede the interests of states. If NATO chose to intervene in Syria, Bashar al-Asad would make good on his promises to use chemical weapons and to have his ally Hezbollah unleash a torrent of rocket fire on Israel.
An attempt to halt war crimes in one state would quickly escalate into a regional war — so went this line of thinking — producing even more casualties and undermining international stability. In other words, not intervening was the lesser of two evils.
Admittedly, I ascribed to this depiction of the situation myself. However, one simple transaction in May has convinced me otherwise.
Russia delivered its first shipment of S-300 surface-to-air defense missiles to Syria on 30 May, a move that threatens to undermine the region’s balance of power. Israel has always relied on a qualitative military advantage — particularly in the aerial domain — over its Arab neighbours in order to balance out the fact that the latter consist of a far larger population than the former.
We have already seen Israeli strikes in Syria over the course of the latter’s civil war designed to prevent Damascus from transferring weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Preventive Israeli strikes against Syria’s new S-300 missiles are highly likely. Furthermore, Hezbollah fighters have already poured into Syria to come to the aide of al-Asad’s regime, while Lebanon has bit hit militarily as well.
When you add the destabilizing effect of cross-border flow of refugees, it is easy to see that the Syrian war has already become regional, even though no military humanitarian intervention has been initiated.
The central problem is that the R2P doctrine is a creation of the unipolar world order — dominated by the United States — in which we currently live. In deciding whether or not to pursue a humanitarian mission effectively, we weigh only feasibility and our own direct interests rather than examining the greater questions of geopolitics. The criteria themselves for invoking R2P, affirmed in 2005, focus only on feasibility of the endeavour and justice of the cause.
What will become more evident as the world becomes more multipolar is that the alliances that some states share with the great powers of the day may prove to be unshakable. In Syria’s case, Russia was never going to budge.
Jonathan Spyer, senior research fellow at the Israeli Global Research in International Affairs Center, attributes Moscow’s stalwart support for al-Asad to several factors. Among them are the need for a strategic port on the Mediterranean, the desire to maintain prestige in a region where Russia once had many allies, and the significant investment that Moscow has made in developing natural resources in Syria.
But ultimately, it boils down to Realpolitik, admits Spyer. In the post-Cold War world, the NATO alliance has expanded to include former Warsaw Pact states. If Washington is developing friendships in Moscow’s proverbial backyard, then Russia must have allies in a region where a decades-long peace process has been dominated by American oversight.
Making R2P work more effectively lies in forging a consensus between the West and the world’s emerging (or re-emerging) powers. Somehow, a consensus will have to be forged between the West, India and Brazil’s desire to protest civilians and China and Russia’s efforts to defend their own raw interests and alliances.
We all have an interest in stopping the advances of cross-border violence, disease and terrorism often caused by mass atrocities. Forging a consensus regarding the fundamental rules and regulations of the new world order will take time, but steps must be taken starting now.
Zach Paikin is a strategic outreach officer at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies and a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.