Syriana: Responsibility to Protect or Someone Else’s Problem?

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If you’ve ever taken an International Relations Theory course then it’s likely that you’ve encountered the ubiquitous naysayer or two of IR Theory. “Why does this even matter in the study of foreign policy?” “Who cares what the Athenians told the Melians (FYI: ‘The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must’)?” “Leaders don’t think about this stuff when formulating foreign policy!” Now, the last accusation may in fact be true. Sure, foreign policy elites are not necessarily thumbing through volumes of Morgenthau, Grotius, Kant, Wendt, and/or Waltz when deciding what to do about North Korea. But, these authors and the IR theories they construct provide useful analytical frameworks for discussing how and why foreign policy is made. From a normative perspective, they also provide moral and/or philosophical foundations for understanding international relations. Indeed, while the mainstream American narrative regarding foreign policy follows the conventional left/right political binary—Republicans are “hawks,” liberal are “doves,” with room for a few isolationists and liberal hawks—most administrations’ foreign policy generally hew to a particular school of IR thought. As the U.S. and the international community continue to debate a coherent policy towards Syria, two schools of thought are framing the debate: The Responsibility to Protect Doctrine (R2P) and “Moral Realism.”

With the civil war showing no signs of abating, and as the maelstrom of violence decimates the population and force millions to flee, the international community has considered various options to cease hostilities. In an effort to exert influence on the trajectory of the Syrian conflict the U.S. has two primary intervention options: 1) Providing support, including the possibility of lethal aid, to the opposition; and 2) Direct military intervention.  Applying the R2P and Moral Realist approaches to the current impasse in Syria results in two distinct policy prescriptions. The R2P framework would ultimately deem direct U.S. military intervention as morally justified given the scale and nature of the conflict. Alternatively, the Moral Realist approach would call for providing aid to the rebels, but come short of recommending direct intervention because of the nature of U.S. interests in the region.

The Responsibility to Protect and Syria

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The R2P doctrine emerged as a response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. “The twentieth century was marred by the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, the genocide in Rwanda and the mass killings in Srebrenica.”[1] These horrific events demonstrated both the failure of individual states to live up to their responsibility to protect their citizens and the failure of the international community and its institutions to thwart such violence. While the concept of “sovereignty” has long been a fundamental building block of the modern international order, several U.N. officials, led by Francis Deng, began to refine “a conceptually distinct approach centered on the notion of ‘sovereignty as responsibility.’ They underscored that sovereignty entailed enduring obligations towards one’s people, as well as certain international privileges.”[2] A 2005 U.N. initiative codified the three pillars of the R2P doctrine:

  1. “Pillar one is the enduring responsibility of the State to protect its populations…from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity…
  2. Pillar two is the commitment of the international community to assist states in meeting those obligations.
  3. Pillar three is the responsibility of Member States to respond collectively in a timely and decisive manner when a State is manifestly failing to provide such protection.”[3]

These pillars are, however, not international law; rather a norm for the international community to follow and provide a rubric whereby the UNGA and Security Council can determine when to intervene. The notion that sovereignty is not simply a privilege, rather an obligation is the fundamental shift that the R2P doctrine represents.

Philosopher Peter Singer’s assertion that “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally to do it”[4] provides the fundamental moral and philosophical justification for proponents of R2P. Many of the most conspicuous proponents of R2P, such as Samantha Power and Susan Rice, were deeply affected by the failure of the U.S. and the international community to prevent the Rwandan genocide. For Power, despite the “never again” convictions of many U.S. officials the “U.S. government knew enough about the genocide early on to save lives, but passed up on countless opportunities to intervene.”[5] Ultimately, over 800,000 Tutsi were killed in Rwanda. The catastrophic failure of the international community to address this violence in any meaningful way catalyzed the development of the R2P doctrine.

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Proponents of the R2P framework would support both aid to rebels and direct multilateral military intervention in Syria. However, given the current state of the conflict, the emphasis for R2P proponents would be on direct military intervention to cease the violence as soon as possible. The Assad regime has clearly abdicated any claims to sovereignty as it has not met its obligation to protect its population and has been engaged in a macabre, violent campaign to obliterate the opposition. With the U.N. estimating over 70,000 dead and three million displaced, the regime has committed crimes against humanity and war crimes and the case could be made that the sectarian nature of its response to the rebels constitutes ethnic cleansing. For proponents of R2P, the international community has not acted in a timely and decisive manner. These proponents point to the putative success of the air campaign against the Qaddafi regime in Libya and suggest that the U.S. and the international community could be similarly successful in Syria. While R2P proponents have called for intervention in Syria, the notion that the U.S. do so unilaterally is anathema. Indeed, the R2P doctrine specifically calls for multilateral engagement to address crises like we are witnessing in Syria today. Providing aid to the rebels from outside would clearly not be enough.

From a moral perspective, the international community has the ability to alleviate the violence in Syria and thus has a duty to engage. Moreover, the Assad regime has violated its obligations concomitant with sovereignty and, as stipulated in the U.N. report, this means that the international community should act to halt the violence. Because other measures, such as economic sanctions and diplomatic initiatives, have failed the R2P doctrine calls for direct multilateral intervention in Syria as a last resort.

Moral Realism and Syria

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If you’re looking for the most succinct and straightforward description of Realist thought, just refer to the Athenians’ imperious assertion to the Melians in the introduction. For Realists, from the Athenians to Morgenthau to Kissinger to Waltz, international relations are characterized by an anarchic system, a Hobbesian state of nature, where power politics reigns supreme.  Realism is a state-centric school of international relations thought. According to Jack Snyder, “at realism’s core is the belief that international politics is a struggle for power among self-interested states.”[6] Following in the larger and diverse Realist international relations tradition, Moral Realism’s primary focus is on the state’s interests. In his criticism of President Clinton’s liberal interventionism, Michael Mandelbaum cogently summarizes this position: “The purpose of foreign policy is not to cultivate good relations with other countries under any circumstances. It is, rather, to maintain the best possible relations consistent with the nation’s interests. Sometimes it is necessary to sacrifice goodwill for the sake of more important goals.”[7] As the title would suggest, Moral Realism is not bereft of morality. Indeed, Moral Realists believe that for the state to act morally it must first and foremost protect and promote the state itself, its citizens, and its interests. Defining the “national interest” is a different topic for a different day. Suffice it to say, that security and economic prosperity are two chief components of the national interest. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a committed Realist, has argued that foreign policy should “proceed from the firm ground of the national interest, not from the interests of an illusory international community.”[8] The key question Moral Realists would ask regarding intervention in Syria would be “Does it serve U.S. interests?” Perhaps this goes without saying at this point, but Moral Realists view morality in international politics dramatically different than the proponents of R2P.

Moral Realists would not support direct military intervention, whether unilateral or multilateral, in Syria because of the all-important “national interest.” Indeed, Realism has a long tradition of opposition to wars for this very reason. Widely regarded as the one of the most prominent Realists, Hans J. Morgenthau opposed the war in Vietnam. Prominent contemporary realists like University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer and Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor to President Bush 41, opposed the war in Iraq.  In 2000, Condoleezza Rice criticized the notion of humanitarian intervention because of its opaque goals and the feckless effort to impose a military solution on a political problem.[9] The U.S. experience in Somalia, popularly depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down, provided an exemplary case for Rice and others of her ilk. Many of the Realists’ arguments against the war in Iraq are applicable to the question of intervention in Syria. If Realism’s morality stems from promoting and protecting the interests of the U.S., there is no clear justification for the U.S. to engage in military intervention. As the U.S. is mired in a recession, with a crumbling infrastructure and a host of fiscal problems, why commit to sending troops and equipment to another country?

Although Syria is a critical geopolitical ally of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas and avowed enemy of many American allies in the region, the conflict does not directly affect U.S. interests. Given the protracted and complex nature of the conflict at this point, any intervention has the potential to fall into the dangerous trap of “mission creep.” As the conflict has continued, the rebels and the regime alike have committed war crimes and continue to battle, and any prospect for a simple military solution remains dim. Realists would point out that the comparisons to Libya are largely tendentious and ignore critical facts, such as the size and density of the Syrian population and the larger, more sophisticated Syrian army. Furthermore, to call the Libyan intervention a success is to focus on a discrete moment in time. In many ways, Libya remains a violent and lawless place. Indeed, many have argued that the NATO intervention in Libya has created a power vacuum that has led to further violence. Perhaps if the conflict in Syria were in a state that could dramatically affect the price of oil, then Realists would promote direct military intervention in either a unilateral or multilateral fashion. There are many failed states in the world, so why intervene in Syria instead of the Congo? Realists would ask, “Why intervene at all?”

Providing outside military assistance to the rebels is a different question.  Arch-realist Henry Kissinger has noted “When I ask myself what is the American national interest in Syria, it is certainly in our national interest that the support of the Shia in Lebanon via Syria be interrupted, and that Syria not become a base in the projection of Iranian power…and Assad victory in the civil war would be against the American national interest. And from that point of view some arming of the rebels is desirable.” Kissinger himself has not supported direct military intervention, with the assumption being that it is not in the larger U.S. strategic interest to commit troops or air support. However, if providing military aid to the rebels can help tip the scales against the Assad regime it would be in the strategic interest of the U.S., particularly given the low overall cost entailed. Other Realists, perhaps President Obama himself best represents this group, worry that we simply do not know enough about the all of the rebel groups to provide them with lethal aid and fear something similar to what happened in Afghanistan when the Reagan administration armed the mujahedeen.

With that said, I would argue that the Realist approach would advocate supporting the opposition from the outside, including providing lethal aid. With the help of the international community and other regional allies, this approach could result in the end of the Assad regime, a key ally of Iran. For the Realist, the point here is that it would be in America’s strategic interest to provide such aid, but the chaos and violence in Syria are not important enough to U.S. interests to warrant direct military intervention, either in a unilateral or multilateral fashion.

Intervention in Syria: An Adjudication of R2P and Moral Realism

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R2P and Moral Realism hold fundamentally different conceptions of what a state’s moral responsibility is in the international community. R2P proponents subscribe to Singer’s dictum that the ability to prevent an atrocity implies a duty to do so, while Realists simply disagree with what a state has a duty to do. For Realists, the state has the duty to protect and promote its interests, not prevent “bad things from happening” to other states or other people. As such, these schools of thought disagree about the U.S.’s responsibilities regarding Syria and intervention. The disagreements between the two approaches are manifold. For Realists, sovereignty is a key concept that is the building block of the international order. For R2P proponents, sovereignty has associated obligations and when these obligations are not met, the international community has the right, even the duty, to violate the offending state’s sovereignty. Both approaches agree that states should protect their citizens; however, they each view the internal matters of other states differently.  The R2P doctrine and Moral Realism have differing approaches to state sovereignty and moral frameworks that operate on different planes entirely—with R2P focused on preventing atrocities across the world and Realism focusing primarily on states’ interests. As such, it is seemingly impossible for these two approaches to come together to support an intervention policy in Syria.

Both approaches are similar in that they would support arming the rebels. Prominent advocates of both approaches have publicly called for the U.S. to provide outside support to the rebels. There is one possible scenario, although perhaps not probable, whereby the two approaches could come together to support an intervention. If the conflict in Syria began to spill over into neighboring countries in a direct way that threatened the stability of the region, it would be in the U.S. interest to intervene. With potential effects on Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iraq and/or Turkey, a spillover of the conflict has the potential to dramatically affect the geopolitical interests of the U.S. Indeed, if the strategic threat were significant enough, Realists would support unilateral American intervention. For R2P proponents, the current crisis in Syria has already met their threshold for intervention. For the Realists, it would take a larger regional conflagration and a more serious direct threat to U.S. interests for direct intervention, at the unilateral or multilateral level, to become a viable policy option. For the Realists, this is largely an internal problem that Syrians must solve on their own.

The R2P doctrine and Moral Realism offer two dramatically different approaches to morality in foreign policy and thus prescribe distinctive policies to the conflict in Syria. Both approaches agree that the U.S. should support the rebels. For R2P proponents this support would just be part of a larger multilateral intervention strategy. Indeed, given the current state of the crisis in Syria, R2P proponents would support direct intervention now. Aiding the rebels from outside is a policy they would have recommended as the conflict began. For Realists, direct military intervention in Syria is not warranted—the crisis simply does not have a large enough impact on U.S. strategic interests. As the situation in Syria continues to devolve, Realists may shift to support intervention. For the meantime, it would appear that Realist arguments have prevailed within the administration.


[1] United Nations (2009) “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect,” p. 5

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Ibid., 8-9.

[4] Singer, P. (1972) “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy and Public Affairs,”

[5] “Bystanders to Genocide: Why the United States Let the Rwandan Tragedy Happen,” The Atlantic Monthly, September: 84-108.

[6] Snyder, “One World, Rival Theories,” p. 55.

[7] Mandelbaum, M. (1996) “Foreign Policy as Social Work,” Foreign Affairs 75: 31.

[8] Rice, C. (2000) “Promoting the National Interest,” Foreign Affairs, 79: 62.

[9] Rice, C. (2000) “Promoting the National Interest,” Foreign Affairs, 79: 53.


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