A limited and legally justified military action is becoming urgent in Syria

This is the answer given by strategists when they are told of the Syrian regime’s slaughter of its people and of the deadlock the international community is facing, due to the Russian and Chinese vetoes.

1. There is a legal framework for a limited military action

Preliminary question: can the so-called “humanitarian intervention” of NATO against Serbia be transposed to Syria ? The answer is no.

On the one hand, this action was deemed questionable, even if it allowed the international community to set a number of limits: the establishment of a multilateral framework (NATO and EU in the case of Serbia); the limitation of objectives (constrain Serbia to give up Kosovo) and a set proportion between the aim and means of action.

On the other hand, after the Serbian experience – and also partly to draw a lesson from it – the UN summit of heads of state in September 2005 adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Indeed, the UN Member States stated at the time that “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” When a State fails to protect its population, because it is unable or unwilling to do it (as is the Syrian regime), the international community has the subsidiary responsibility to help protect this population from these four categories of crimes.

Of course, it is a priori the Security Council which is in charge of the implementation of this responsibility (Darfur 2006, Ivory Coast and Libya 2011). But what if the Security Council is unable to act? The R2P is a commitment of the international community towards the peoples of the world. It may be argued that the international community is bound both legally and morally by this commitment which constrains it to protect, even when one of the Permanent Members of the Security Council expresses its reluctance. (Otherwise it might be necessary to create new legal category in International Law, that of the complicity of a State obstructing the R2P for one of these four crimes.)

In the case of Syria, the High Commission for Human Rights and many international NGOs have been denouncing, for almost one year now, the “crimes against humanity” committed against the Syrian people. The ongoing slaughters in Homs, Zabadani and many other towns and villages in Syria fit as well one or the other categories of crimes falling within the R2P.

Under these circumstances, a limited military intervention in Syria would be justified. The R2P constrains the international community to protect the Syrian people even without a consensus of the Security Council. The lessons drawn from the Serbian case should nevertheless lead to the establishment of the following conditions. Military action requires both a regional mandate (the Arab League or the Group of Friends of Syria or other) and a set proportion between the aim and means of action. The aim should not be to topple the regime (regime change) – this must be left solely to the Syrian people -, but to force it into a change of behaviour, that is: to stop slaughtering its people.


2. What form could this limited action take?

– The No Fly Zone option, which the Syrian Protesters have been requesting for several months, is very difficult to put into place. From a technical point of view, it needs an important military deployment. On a conceptual level, this option is not thoroughly consistent with the idea of proportionality, which was one of the problems raised by the intervention in Libya. On a political level, it is already facing Russian and Chinese objections.

– Limited and targeted strikes would be more appropriate in order to reduce and, if possible, to eliminate the regime’s attack capability. They should be directed towards military bases (and not towards the presidential palace: we are not in a regime change scenario) and maybe towards the regime’s WMD[1], with one objective: to annihilate the regime’s enduring capacity to slaughter its people.

– Buffer zones –also requested by the protesters – could be a complementary option. They would allow defectors to join the Free Syrian Army, to regroup refugees and injured people and to put them out of reach of the loyalist troops.

The humanitarian emergency in Syria requires a fast and limited intervention on the legal basis mentioned above. The international community was wrong in announcing from the very beginning that there would never be any military foreign action in Syria. This statement aimed at appeasing Russia and China but it only served to convince Bachar al-Assad that he would escape Kaddafi’s fate.

A limited military action would meet three objectives. A humanitarian one:  put a stop, as fast as possible, to the slaughtering of the Syrian people. A psychological one: convince Assad and his regime that they cannot act as they wish, flouting both their international commitments and human values at large. A political one: allow the implementation of a true political solution under the auspices of the Arab League or the Group of Friends of Syria with the participation of the Syrian National Council.

[1] http://www.iiss.org/whats-new/iiss-in-the-press/november-2011/in-attacking-syria-reasons-for-caution-abound/

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