Syria And Humanitarian Intervention: What Is Needed For Peace?


Syria has been ravaged by war since 2011. Over the many years, this war has persisted, it has drawn the interests of the international community. Its origins sparked over escalated violence towards Assad’s regime, following which rebel brigades went against government forces. In addition, the rise of the Islamic State has increased tensions in the present day. By 2015, the UN has concluded that the number of deaths from this war is equal to 250,000. Moreover, the use of chemical warfare against its citizens has contributed to the understanding that the international community must intervene.

While non-government organizations and intergovernmental forces have provided aid, the escalated conflict calls for a more active force, such as the UN and their R2P resolution.

Over the last few years, the UN has attempted to help Syria end the conflict. This can be seen through the Geneva Plan, which aimed to end the violence and implement a democratic government. However, the plan was unsuccessful, which escalated the conflict and caused further tensions within the international community. In 2012, the UN attempted a peacekeeping mission known as the UN Supervision Mission in Syria; however, peacekeepers had to be withdrawn due to the intensification of violence. The Security Council called for the implementation of the 2012 Geneva Communiqué, which would create a governing body with full executive powers; once again, however, talks broke down. Over time, many citizens fled Syria, sparking a refugee crisis.

Ultimately, with the failure of these responses to effectively end the conflict, the international community has called for a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Mission to be implemented. The issue with this, however, is that the countries involved cannot pass this resolution. The following parties are the Permanent five members of the Security Council – the United States (U.S.), France, United Kingdom (U.K.), Russia and China.

The UN as an organization has the duty to protect and provide aid. Ultimately, there is a plea for an R2P mission to be implemented. Due to the three pillars of the R2P principle, the UN has the power to overrule a nation’s sovereignty if they fail or refuse to halt the atrocities within their territory. However, UN intervention has been challenged by the veto power of the Security Council, which is held by The Permanent Five members of the Council. This allows the prohibition of a resolution to be passed. In most cases, the state may just threaten to veto and the resolution will not go through. This is seen as the rational actor choosing to defect rather than cooperate. Thus, if at least one player vetoes, the resolution does not pass and ipso facto all players defect. Hence, with all players defecting, the outcome is worse. In this case, the outcome being that the civil war continues.

Russia has vetoed various UN resolutions for Syria. It is one of the actors who has made it clear that they will not cooperate with its fellow UN members to pass a humanitarian intervention mission in the form of R2P. The Libyan R2P mission of 2011, led to the failure of their government. Libya, an ally of Russia, ultimately suffered because of this. Therefore, Russia is seemingly unwilling to pass an R2P mission, for fear of failure of the Syrian government. Moreover, it has economic and military interests in the country; Syria purchases weaponry from Russia and houses Russia’s only naval base outside its country. To protect these interests, Russia may want Assad’s regime to remain in power.

China has vetoed resolutions regarding Syria. Initially, China was greatly opposed to R2P as a whole Instead of viewing it as a new principle that would allow the protection of citizens in territories which were off-limits due to their sovereignty. The three pillars of the principle are at the core of China’s concerns. While it has expressed acceptance for pillars I and II, pillar III is objectionable in their view. China believes that the protection of sovereignty and the policy of “non-interference” is of paramount importance.

Based on the responses above, one can see that they have been inadequate in restoring peace in the country. If few changes are made, the international community will be able to respond with the force necessary to restore peace to the region. The first way to promote peace is to alleviate the power of the veto, by convincing the countries opposed to put aside their fears. With regards to Russia, this can be done through easing their fears of Syria failing as a whole. Measures can be taken to ensure that while Assad’s government would be overthrown, the system as a whole will not suffer. Ultimately their concerns lie with the establishment of a democratic regime in place of the current one. Adding to this, as mentioned above, if the government failed overall Russia would lose another ally.

With China, it would be through reassuring them that the third pillar of the R2P principle is no threat. Thus, in order to change China’s stance on the issue, they must be swayed into believing that invoking R2P will not threaten the sovereignty of the nation-state. At this point, it is clear that China has placed more importance on the issue of sovereignty over humanitarian aid and intervention, and by extension the lives of civilians.

These strategies could effectively address this problem.

Another strategy would be to force compliance through public statements ensuring cooperation. The U.K., U.S. and France are cooperating with the idea of R2P implementation; however, the other two members of the Security Council are not. Issuing the compliance statements realistically may not be effective. This is because while it may promise cooperation the defectors have no obligation to go along with it due to their sovereignty. Thus, this has a limited possibility of ensuring cooperation.

Introducing a third party may also ensure cooperation. Although foreign military intervention is illegal under international law, the members of the Security Council could use a third party as a way to ensure that Russia and China would sway their veto. While many are concerned that bringing in outside parties, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), may cause further unrest in the region, the threat of their involvement could convince Russia to not veto. This would mirror the situation with Libya, which ended with the Libyan government failing. Therefore it is clear that involving outside parties may help the problem in Syria, but may not gain Russia and China’s cooperation.

The above strategies are generic options part of solving the prisoner’s dilemma. While they are descending in the likelihood of ensuring cooperation, the last strategy to be mentioned is specific to this issue and has the least realistic but most effective outcome. This would be the idea of reforming the Security Council and the possible removal of veto power. Due to the difficulty of implementing a successful humanitarian intervention mission, this suggestion has been thrown around. Sixty-three member states of the UN called for the reform of the Security Council, specifically in concern with the veto power. This strategy would ultimately solve this issue, however, it is more hypothetical than the others mentioned, as it is less likely that it would occur.

Latest posts by Rebecca Belleli (see all)