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Application of Responsibility to Protect in Syria

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Studies
Wordcount: 2604 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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  1. The Start of Syrian Uprising

It began in 2011 when a group of boys sprayed anti-government graffiti’s on their school wall in Deraa, Syria. Over half a million people have been killed in Syria since the start of the war. When the local authorities saw the graffiti, they rounded up the young boys along with a dozen suspects. The kids were detained and tortured for 45 days so the people of Deraa took it to the streets to peacefully protest demanding for the boys to be released. The police considered the protest as riot and started firing teargas and forming barricades. Special forces were then flown to Deraa from Damascus to quell the riot and as a result they opened fire to the crowds killing two of the protesters on the first day and left many wounded. On the second day, the special forces killed several protesters and also a child; and anybody who is wounded was arrested if they went to hospitals. More killings were made, and people were outraged which resulted in thousands of people from other places coming to the city to protest. The authorities released the boys, but the protest did not stop; it turned into an uprising that spread to other cities in the country.[1]

In July 2011, the Free Syrian Army a rebel group was established with the goal to overthrow the Assad regime which started the civil war. The Free Syrian Army was not the only rebel group that emerged during this armed conflict, and some states in the international arena has played a major role in this civil war that has escalated over time and has already affected hundreds of thousands of civilians. So, why has the international community remained inactive in fulfilling their duty to protect the Syrian population? How did the RtoP doctrine fail in the case of Syria? Could it be that the Libyan case has affected the implementation of RtoP in Syria? When gas/chemical attacks happened in Syria the international community was not able to prevent, or even react to this actively. R2P principles states that is the state is unwilling or unable to protect its own people, the international community has the responsibility to react, to step in and help. But where is this responsibility? This chapter will attempt to evaluate the legal and political considerations in the application of RtoP in Syria. Part II will talk about the different actors involved in the Syrian war. Part III will discuss the principles of the R2P doctrine to determine its applicability in the Syrian crisis, and the legal and political considerations of its application. This will serve as the basis of my investigation on the failed implementation of the doctrine in the Syrian crisis.  

  1. The Actors at War

First, we have the regional actors. The government and its allies which are Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah of Lebanon. The government forces which is the National Defence Forces is supported greatly by Iran. The NDF along with other pro-government fighters were reported to have around 60 to 80000 fighters. Including the 8000 Hezbollah fighters and the 5000 to 10000 Iraqi and Afghan fighters.

Russia also has their troops deployed in Syria in support of the government. In 2015, there were 4000 members of Russian military stationed in Syria during the armed conflict. Another major player in the Syrian war is the terrorist group ISIS. The Russians also fought ISIS alongside the Syrian government. Russia and Iran are the biggest allies of Syria, they assisted Syria in reclaiming its power and “… regaining some of the strategic areas it has lost…” (Gill, 2016).

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Then we have the Syrian opposition consisting of militia groups such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which as mentioned above was established in 2011 as anti-government group. The FSA have members that have previously served in the armed forces. Another opposition group is the Islamist Front. These two opposition groups have received foreign aid from firearms to combat training. Another opposition group which is made of jihadists is the Al Nusra Front who claimed to have allegiance to Al-Qaeda. This group surfaced in January 2012 claiming to be fighting for the Syrian people.[2] The Al Nusra Front used to fight alongside the Islamic Front but went separate ways after the Islamic Front decided not to join forces with ISIS. But today the rebel group who has the most control over Syrian territory are the Kurdish forces.[3] These opposition groups although some are fighting together to overthrow the Assad government, do not all share the same vision for Syria they all have different agendas in relation to running the country if their mission succeeds.

The IS terrorist organisation is a bit different. This group was formed out of Al Qaida. They control a vast territory in Syria and they were based in Rakka. The difference between IS and other terrorist groups in the Syrian war is that the organisation was not only fighting the Assad regime they were also at war with other government opposition such as the Kurdish forces, as well as other international forces who have either supported the opposition groups or the Assad regime. It was reposted that IS had more than 30000 fighters in the region that they have occupied.  

  1. R2P

Thesis Question: The responsibility to protect evolved in order to protect the individuals in conflict situations. Legally speaking its influenced by international humanitarian law but the political reality is that the doctrine is often abused by some countries. Some countries may intervene illegitimately to increase their sphere of influence while others may choose not to intervene in the hope to preserve existing alliance. I will investigate two case studies that expose the legal and political considerations that go into the recent application of the R2P, the successful uprising in Libya & the prolonged civil war in Syria.


a)     Legal Considerations in the Application of R2P

b)     Political Considerations

R2P Basic Principles:

  • State Sovereignty Obligation – the State has the primary responsibility to protect its own people.[4] In this case, the Assad regime was the root cause of the gross violations of human rights in Syria, the non-international armed conflict in Syria occurred because of these human rights violations. The Syrian government failed to fulfil their responsibility within the R2P doctrine to protect their population.
  • International Community Obligation – if the State is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens or is the perpetrator of the gross violations of human rights then the international community has the responsibility to protect and intervene.[5] However, in the Syrian crisis the international community failed on their responsibility to protect. Whenever resolutions are passed in the UNSC, other Member States especially Russia and China who belong to the Permanent Five, would always oppose these resolutions resulting in inaction within the international community.

During diplomatic talks about the Syrian situation, the US, UK, and France voiced their concerns about this mass atrocity crimes, but Russia refused to interfere in the internal affairs of the Syrian state, not to mention that Russia has ever since supported the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war, this alone has already caused the international community on a stand still. The only thing that the international community was able to do, was investigate the allegations of these gross violations of human rights and put pressure on the Syrian government to cooperate.

On December 2011, the Chairperson of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry made a statement during a Human Rights Council session, confirming the results of their investigation. It found that the Syrian government has committed “widespread and systematic violations of human rights” (Pinheiro, 2011) on its people. He also reported that the Syrian government has refused to cooperate despite numerous attempts of the IICI to reach out and ask for a meeting.[6] At this point the IICI solely relied on the victims’ accounts of the incident as well as defectors and witnesses in gathering evidence to support their investigation as they were not allowed inside the country. The international community responded by taking “a number of diplomatic measures” (Halliyadde, 2016) to address the issue but Russia being an ally of Syria did not want to get involved. The rationale that Russia gave was that, it wanted to respect state sovereignty, and that what was happening in Syria are matters of the state.[7] The UNSC started passing their first resolution to address the Syrian crisis in October 2011 however, it was not successful as it was blocked by Russia and China along with the three resolutions after that.[8]

Even though the US and the UK has condemned the mass atrocities in Syria, Russia continues to defend Syria, arguing that the internal situation “does not pose a threat to international peace and security” (Halliyadde, 2016). The Security Council could not even issue a press release because not all Member States can agree to it, especially Russia when objecting to such press release arguing that releasing a press statement about the Syrian government’s responsibility toward its people will undermine the state’s sovereignty because it is interfering in the internal affairs of the state.

The international community was not able to fulfil their responsibility to prevent because the members of the Security Council could not agree on what course of action to implement in the Syrian crisis.[9]

 However, if we apply the responsibility to react in the situation, it is obvious that the international community’s inaction is a failure of this responsibility, but this is inevitable because no matter how states like the US or UK tries to condemn and pass a resolution for military intervention it will never be executed for as long as other Member States like Russia and China will continue to oppose such action.[10]

If we look at this case closely and assess it to determine if it qualifies for military intervention under the principles of the R2P doctrine we can see that it satisfies the just cause threshold for military intervention to be warranted due to large scale loss of life. Evaluating this case through the precautionary principles of R2P military intervention, the international community at the time of the passing of resolutions had the right intention of wanting to intervene – they wanted to stop the gross human rights violations; second, the international community has also satisfied the ‘last resort’ principle by seeking diplomatic ways in dealing with the situation, thirdly, the planned military intervention would possibly be proportionate, and reasonable prospects would have been possible too.

  1. Conclusion

The Syrian crisis has highlighted the problems that the RtoP doctrine continues to face. One of the problems that was highlighted was the use of military intervention under responsibility to protect. China and Russia has refused to support the use of military intervention in Syria not just for reasons to preserve their existing alliance but as Russia has stated, military intervention can potentially be abused just like what happened in Libya.

If the international community has only fulfilled their obligations under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, the crisis in Syria would have already been over a long time ago, it would not have escalated and still continue up to now. What we learn from this test case is that it is not always that simple to implement R2P because of the underlying factors for example, within the Permanent Five, even if US, UK and France will vote for the need to react to the crisis in Syria by military intervention, Russia and China will always go against it so it’s not that clear cut in terms of deciding to intervene no matter how much the international community condemns such gross violations of human rights. The Syrian crisis is a good test case for the application of R2P, here we see the limitations of the doctrine. Speaking through a legal perspective, this case just proves that R2P still has a long way to go.

[1] For a detailed information on the story of how the Syrian war began see, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/syria-civil-war-explained-160505084119966.html.

[2] For more information on the profile of the Al Nusra Group see, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-18048033.

[3] For a visual representation of who controls which territory in Syria see, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2015/05/syria-country-divided-150529144229467.html.

[4] See, ICISS Responsibility to Protect Report (2001), p. XI

[5] Ibid. p XI

[6] Pinheiro, P. (2011), “Human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic”, Human Rights Council Session, OHCHR. For full details see. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/SpecialSession/Session18/Stmt_Pinheiro_CoI_Syria2Dec11.pdf

[7] Halliyadde, M. Syria – Another Drawback for R2P: An Analysis of R2P’s Failure to Change International

Law on Humanitarian Intervention, 4 Ind. J.L. & Soc. Equal. 215, 248 (2016)

[8] Solberg-Henriet, H. (2015), “Responsibility to Protect in Application: A Comparative Analysis of Libya and Syria during the Arab spring”, Master in Democracy Building, University of Bergen, Bergen.

[9] See, Halliyadde, M. Syria – Another Drawback for R2P: An Analysis of R2P’s Failure to Change International

Law on Humanitarian Intervention, 4 Ind. J.L. & Soc. Equal. 215, 248 (2016)

[10] Ibid.


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