8 Jun 2012

UN intervention in Libya, so why not in Syria?

It wasn’t meant to be like this. In 2005, the United Nations approved a new doctrine called Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which placed an obligation on states to intervene when civilians faced slaughter. So how come we’re watching the massacre of children in Syria?

A U.N. investigation found that civilians in Houla had been killed not just by shelling but by bands of men, armed with guns and knives, who slaughtered families, including 49 children, in their houses. The killers are believed to be shabiha, thugs loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. How much clearer could it be?

Sadly, little about R2P is clear any more. It was a policy born of bitter and painful failure, primarily in Rwanda, where as many as a million people were killed while the world dithered and did nothing.

It’s a failure I remember well — I was living in Rwanda in 1994 when the genocide there started. Friends in the suburbs of Kigali called to ask me for help, but, confronted by machete-wielding thugs on roadblocks, I was impotent, unable to rescue them. I could not even offer the comfort that international help was on its way.

But now R2P has become a victim of its own success. Last March, NATO intervened to prevent slaughter in Libya. I was in Benghazi, the largest city in eastern Libya, and the center of the revolution against Colonel Gaddafi. I had spent several weeks on the chaotic frontline, reporting on the enthusiastic but incompetent rebels who would shoot wildly into the air and then rapidly retreat in the face of the government advance.

By then I had learned a lot about Gaddafi’s regime, including that 1,270 prisoners had been gunned down in a prison courtyard in 1996, and many Libyans still didn’t know the fate of relatives who had been imprisoned years earlier.

When Colonel Gaddafi threatened to hunt down his enemies “zenga zenga,” alleyway by alleyway, I had no doubt that, cornered and angry, like a trapped rattlesnake, he would kill as many people as he felt necessary to regain power in the east.

So when the U.N. Security Council passed the resolution allowing intervention, and the first NATO bombers attacked a column of Gaddafi’s tanks heading into Benghazi, I — like the population of the town, who had risen against Gaddafi a month earlier — was relieved.

Yet U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, allowing for the use of “all necessary measures” to save civilians, immediately ran into problems.

The Russians, who abstained rather than using their veto, were horrified to see how quickly R2P morphed into regime change.

Nato maintained a fiction that overthrowing Gaddafi not was their aim, but they targeted his Bab Al Aziziyah compound in Tripoli and other places where their intelligence said the leadership might be staying, weakening his regime until he was driven from power last August.

It’s arguable that ousting Gaddafi was the only way to protect civilians, and it was inevitably going to be a fight to the death — he had said at the beginning of the revolution, “I shall die a martyr in the end.”

But from a diplomatic perspective, Resolution 1973 was stretched to breaking point, and that has had implications far beyond Libya.

The problem is that if you use force to protect civilians from their own government, the chances of negotiation rapidly recede.

The Russians were furious, not because they harbored any special fondness for the Guide (as Gaddafi liked to be known) but because of the precedent it set. “Such ‘exemplary models’should be excluded from world practice once and for all,” said the Russian Foreign Minstry in a statement. They will not let such a resolution through the Security Council again.

The Chinese agree — nothing irks them more than the idea that Western countries can use the UN to legitimize the overthrow of sovereign governments, however cruel.

Syrians, then, are paying the price for Libyans’ freedom.

The intervention also demonstrates the limits to the R2P doctrine itself. A reasonably coherent rebel leadership, calling itself the National Transitional Council, emerged early in the Libyan conflict, so NATO knew who to liaise with.

Most of the fighting took place along a single coastal strip, and Gaddafi’s forces, while better trained and equipped than the rebels, were no match for Nato airpower.

In Syria, rebel forces are divided and the conflict is growing more multifaceted and messy. Western governments fear that jihadis, aligned with Al Qaeda, are increasingly active in the Syrian opposition.

Many Syrians wanted an uprising to overthrow dictatorship, just as they had seen in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, but now the conflict is turning into a sectarian struggle between Sunnis and Shias, with Gulf countries supporting the former and Iran the latter.

So are the children of Houla and other towns condemned to die as we look on?

The best hope is that the Russians might agree to persuade their protégé, President Assad, to allow the establishment of a “safe zone” on the Turkish and Jordanian borders to provide some relief for civilians.

But without Russian pressure, Western countries are reduced to expelling ambassadors and hoping that economic sanctions will bring about the collapse of the regime. Even if it does, what then?

Even Libya, which seems so simple in comparison to Syria, is unstable and violent in the aftermath of 42 years of dictatorship and a year of revolution. Syria could fragment even more violently.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. who had previously campaigned against genocide in Darfur, and Samantha Power, President Obama’s special assistant, who wrote a book on the subject, were instrumental in persuading the president and the secretary of state that intervening in Libya was the right thing to do.

President Obama has said that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national-security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” But one year on, it seems unlikely that such intervention will be contemplated again.

Libyans may be the sole beneficiaries of a doctrine that died before coming of age.

This blog was first published by the Daily Beast

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9 reader comments

  1. Chris says:

    I’m sorry but you have forgetten the USA and west european interests in Libya, that’s why they are reluctant to do the same in Syria, there is no petrol, don’t show that you are an angel unless you are naïve.

  2. Truthaboveall says:

    You seem to be part of the mainstream media lie machine. All the Syrian massacres were committed by the Syrian rebels, who want the West to intervene, which is why they committed the massacres and then blamed them on the government. Why would the Syrian government kill women and children with knives, unless they were trying to provoke international military intervention in their country? The logic behind your (and everyone’s) assumption that the government was responsible is utterly baffling.

    You are correct, this is Libya 2.0 in that foreign governments are funding and arming a minority of rebels to overthrow a government for unspoken purposes. It is crucial that we are able to draw a line between Syria and Libya on one side, and Egypt and Tunisia on the other.

  3. finlay duff says:

    i agree with this article on the majority, but wasnt one of the main concerns that NATO charged into Libya far too unprepared?

    yes, unfortunatly lives tradgically will be be lost in the delayed periods between preperation and entering Syria. But this preparation could save countless lives in the future. hopefully, NATO is preparing as we speak.

    1. Sadie says:

      NATO was not unprepared. It Exercises every year for such eventualities. A lot of money was spent with no successful outcome. The only gain was the RAF (in UKs case) trained over Libya instead of the Scottish hills. Libya simply shows how useless armed intervention is.

      With our legislated politics and easy living religions in the West we cannot begin most of us to have full insight of these rebellions.

      This in the Middle East is evolution as ever the West did in the 19th Century and earlier but there was no TV nor mobile phones so they were left to get on with it. NATO keep out!!

  4. vetran says:

    NATO did not intervened to prevent slaughter in Libya. It is NATO who did the slaughter. Estimates range between 50 000 to 150 000 dead during its campaign.

  5. Sadie says:

    Well analysed as usual Lynsey – thanks. For some time now I have felt we must all keep out. It is not just simple politics but religion interweaved in all the Middle East – evolution happening that Western imposed rulers post mid 20th century prevented – we must now let it happen but allow children to a safe haven.

    We can have efficient refugee places near Syria, properly set up by diplomacy and agreed closing when a peace of some sort achieved. Supply medical goods.

    How come Alec gets ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ on his article of being shot at and this one doesn’t? Are you choosing now having re-enacted the quick click, where and when you want a ‘pop’ vote?

  6. Shah Sher says:

    Following Turkeys military showdown over the weekend which resulted in a downed jet, Turkey, a Nato member, has requested a meeting of the alliance’s ambassadors in Brussels after invoking Article 4 of Nato’s founding treaty. This is believed to be only the second time in Nato’s history that a member state has invoked Article 4.

    Erdogan lashed out at Syria, saying it poses threat to Turkey’s national security, calling Syrian government tyrants. He accused Syrian officials of acting hostile after the incident happened. What this highlights is that the political discourse has become sectarian and requires regional consensus to achieve meaningful peace. As Kofin Annan outlined, Iran’s participation is crucial. Particularly if we wish to avoid a repeat of the Iraq Catastrophe (over 1 million civilian dead) in Syria.

    I have contacted Christof Heyns in relation to the illegal transfer of military force and will update you shortly. For the original letter view:


    24 June 2012

    Mr Christof Heyns
    UN Special Investigator
    United Nations
    760 United Nations Plaza New York,
    New York 10017
    United States

    Dear Mr Heyns

    Re: Illegal Transfer of Military Force – An act against due process

    We condemn the killing of innocent civilians, such a policy is not in the interest of any nation for any purpose.

    Since 9/11 the wholesale destruction of civilian infrastructure as has been the case in Libya and Iraq amount to collective punishment. Foreign intervention in any form is unacceptable, more so if that intervention comes supposedly in defence of humanitarian values. To impeach the sovereignty of other nations and deny its citizens access to full system of government and rule of law should be a war crime presented before the International Criminal Court. We must move away from acting like robber barons out to get other robber barons, a civilised people respectful of the solidarity of all nations.

    Those who jeopardise, sacrifice or abandon due process, must be held accountable for the terrorism they inspire. Any deployment of heavy weaponry must be proportionate to a defined security threat established under international law, I believe the UN should validate its legal authority to arbitrate the risk factors inherent in any transfer of military force.

    It is unacceptable for there to be prompt condemnation of the use of military force to enforce public safety against those unwilling to participate in due process and a conspicuous silence on U.S. drone attacks against those actively participating in due process – civilian residential areas in Pakistan and Yemen.

    The Palestinian massacres, which may not be significant in numbers by incident but by the duration of hostilities and death, has raged for several decades without UN accord. Israel continues to use military force in residential areas, one of the most costly diplomatic failures in UN history.

    The Iraq war cost the lives of a million innocent Iraqi civilians without UN resolution.
    More recently there has been a proposal to deploy heavy weaponry ‘Olympic missiles’ in the residential areas of London despite the lack of substance to any security threat and in what many have described as a ‘military prestige project’, there has been little resolution on the ethics of deploying such military force in the interest of our entertainment.

    Acknowledging these factors I call for an inquiry in to the Iraq War and an immediate response to the illegal transfer of military force responsible for the killing of civilians. We call on the United Nations to recognise the following demands:

    1) That self-determination be recognised as a fundamental right; actions against political due process be criminalised as terrorism.

    2) That international law and its provisions with regard to transfer of military force be respected; any transfer of military force to respect territorial integrity.

    3) That the UN only condone a proportionate response to any humanitarian crisis and security threats be fully investigated and established before any transfer of military force.

    4) That the UN arbitrate the risk factors inherent in any transfer of military force.

    5) That the UN condemn drone attacks and associated civilian deaths as illegal under international law.

    6) That the U.S. ends its policy of military detention of civilians.

    7) That the illegal transfer of military force be recognised as an act against due process and as such an act of terrorism.

    8) Hold a full public enquiry in to the Iraq War.

    The UN must understand, there is growing alarm against US Drone Attacks in civilian areas. Such transfer of military force is unacceptable considering the moral justification for military intervention – to save civilian lives overseas. The military detention of civilians has been condemned repeatedly following 9/11, however we find repeated attempts by the US military to encroach on civil liberties despite the fundamental value of these liberties in protecting the American way of life. Such action, on its own accord, could be considered a threat to national security. We believe the UN would do itself justice if it stood by the principles of impartiality that make it a respected authority in fostering international peace efforts. I would be grateful if you could explain UN policy governing the transfer and use of military force in civilian areas.

    In order to change the world we need to be that change first. I Shaheeb Mahmood Sher demand a full public enquiry into the Iraq War, I agree to stand against tyranny and oppression and speak out against military force.

    Yours sincerely

    Shaheeb M. Sher

  7. JSMill says:

    This is a classic case for understanding the humanitarian, international and national security paradigms. States exist to provide the capability for their citizens to pursue the good life: their is a social contract. So their is moral imperative to pursue national security and the national interest.
    Secondly, the international system is made up of functioning units – states – which have capabilities (military, diplomatic, economic) in an ordering system. The most powerful states have the highest place, and they seek to shape and maintain an international system along the lines they percive as beneficial or good (after all we could argue that all politics is about seeking to influence the social system which applies).
    Human security, on the other hand, requires us to believe that individuals have rights that supercedes borders. This is full of philosophical problems: where do these universal rights come from? God? Which God? Can we agree on them? What about sovereignty or self determination? Do they trump democracy?
    If a state commits blood and a(troops and tax) without this being in the national interest isn’t it morally in breach of its duty to its citizens?Powerful states can intervene internationally when capabilities allow, when the political and physical geography are benign, and where it improves stability and aligns with long term national interest, in conjunction with the international society and its appropriate legitimation (UN etc). But there are hardly any intervention that have ever really been for purely humanitarian reasons.
    In Libya we had an identifiable opposition, competing with Gaddafi for sovereignty in a benign environment. Weak military opposition and the ability to deploy low risk air-power to restore stability. In Syria we have a disparate opposition which may well be a sectarian Sunni group that will be just as ‘distasteful’ as Assads Alawite’s. The geography is unfriendly, the army large and well equipped, the potential size of operation, and therefore costs and risks high, for little gain, in a geo-politically sensitive region.
    There is no case for intervention in Syria and the media is often being extremely irresponsible in creating an atmosphere where it is expected: it would be disasterous.

  8. Richard Cheeseman says:

    The sheer idiocy of “humanitarian” support for the imperialist domination of other countries by Western powers despite the humanitarian disasters invariably caused by their bloody wars of aggression is seldom displayed more clearly than in this piece.

    Ms Hilsum’s one-eyed focus on designated enemies and total blindness to the crimes of Western powers and their puppets bring her blather into direct conflict with reality and even with other parts of her own discourse. You’d think, for example, that the grotesque stupidity of calling the violent chaos in Libya after the NATO-imposed regime change “freedom” would be obvious even to her.

    These days it takes a wilful credulity bordering on imbecility to even pretend to take seriously in the first place, as Hilsum dutifuly does, the spurious NATO propaganda meme that their interventions are motivated by humanitarian concern for the welfare of the populations of the countries they attack. Especially when in the very same piece Hilsum remarks on the blatant selectivity and bias of that supposed concern, showing her awareness that NATO’s humanitarian gland only activates when Western imperial interests are furthered by its propaganda secretions.

    But these days nobody expects consistency, morality or even plausibility from the NATO media, the propaganda wing of the imperial war machine. We can only marvel at the prodigies of cognitive dissonance that eurochauvinist journalists like Hilsum can sustain as they promote the apologetic official narrative alongside some of the facts that clearly disprove it.

    On the other hand, the impotent, handwringing tone of the above article does highlight a positive development that has become an established fact: these days the NATO powers (and their media) can no longer disguise their criminal wars of aggression using a UN cloak of humanitarianism. Likewise, it’s telling that the US Assassin-in-Chief’s arrogant imperial edict purporting to depose President Assad as “illegitimate” remains a dead letter – because the Syrian people said otherwise.

    The days of unchallenged world domination by the ultra-militaristic US regime and its NATO satellites through armed violence and imperialist propaganda are over. The last and greatest capitalist empire has reached its limit and is now visibly failing.

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