February 7th, 2012
01:00 PM ET

'Responsibility to Protect' in crisis

Editor's Note: Stewart Patrick is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security. He writes the blog The Internationalist on CFR.org where this was originally published.

By Stewart M. PatrickCFR.org

On Saturday, Russia and China cast a double veto of a UN Security Council resolution backing an Arab League peace plan for an orderly departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, and the creation of a transitional government in that country. This was the fourth time since 2007 that the duo has vetoed resolutions criticizing brutal crackdowns in Myanmar (2007), Zimbabwe (2008), and Syria (2011, 2012).

The proposal sought to end eleven bloody months in Syria, which now threatens to spiral into a civil, and potentially regional, conflict. The veto came on the heels of a brutal massacre by the Syrian government in the town of Homs, where reports suggest that scores of people have died—and on the thirtieth anniversary of the Hama massacre in which ten thousand Syrians perished at the hands of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.

This double veto by China and Russia is, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a “travesty.” Besides preventing the total isolation of the Assad regime, it gives him the green light to escalate his crackdown. It virtually ensures that the conflict will deepen into civil war.

The vetoes were cast despite the fact that the resolution itself was mild. In an attempt to mollify Russia and other skeptics, the resolution’s drafters had dropped references to calling for an arms embargo and sanctions. It also barred outside military intervention. Still, Russia objected that the resolution did not blame the opposition for violence and demanded that Syrian troops return to the barracks. Russia criticized that it “took sides” and risked “another scandal.” Secretary Clinton retorted that the true scandal was to fail to act.

The path forward is uncertain, and no doubt politically treacherous for all involved. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice has pledged to work with allies to “ratchet up the pressure.” French president Sarkozy also promised to create a “group of friends” to support the Arab League proposal. Meanwhile, Russia has dispatched its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov to Damascus for talks.

As I discuss in a video posted today on CFR.org, the crisis reveals four important trends to watch:

1. The Arab League continues to establish itself as a critical global player, and is no longer pulling its punches against its members. First, it advocated for international action to prevent Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi from executing mass murders of civilians. With its movement on Syria, the Arab League has demonstrated greater courage with its refusal to ignore Assad’s crimes. This bodes well for the League’s ability to contribute to crisis diplomacy and peacebuilding in the region.

2. The crisis also highlights a structural challenge to working with the UN Security Council, which I have discussed previously on my blog. When one of the permanent members considers an agenda item a high priority, swift action is unlikely.

3. The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect is in major crisis. The mission in Libya did not pave the way for some of the changes that its advocates hoped for.

4. Syria presents U.S. president Obama with an excruciating dilemma. Having labeled atrocity prevention as a core national security concern, the president is on the hook to act. But the path forward is anything but clear—especially in an election year. One option is pursuing a surrogate form of multilateral legitimacy for coercive intervention—as the United States did with NATO in Kosovo. But that course is fraught with huge risk—both for the president’s electoral fortunes and for for relations among the Security Council titans.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Stewart M. Patrick. Read more at The Internationalist.

soundoff (8 Responses)

    I say Yes, you said No, oh, oh...

    Probably, going around the opposite way might give the correct response.

    To make them say Yes, I will say No, purposely. And the other way around.

    February 7, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Reply

    ...................the history of the Brain is, depend on how one caring it.
    You must have strong Shoulder and Neck too.

    February 7, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  3. George Patton

    Exactly who are the British, the French and the Americans to say whether Bashar al Assad of Syria stays in power or goes? And just where do these people come off deciding Syria's future? The problem is that if these countries would only mind their own business, maybe the world would be a safer place for all of us!!!

    February 7, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Reply
    • AJAX

      Bashar al-Assad once said, "No government in the world kills its people, unless it's led by a crazy person." Governments that slaughter their own people should not remain in power. Civil war is one thing, slaughter of unarmed civilians to quell dissent is an entirely different matter. I think the wisdom of international intervention is doubtful, but the fact that Assad should step down from power is not.

      February 8, 2012 at 12:36 am | Reply
  4. Ismellconspiracy

    Is it just me or r we superpowers playing good cop bad cop with the middle east we protect our lines In
    Libya, trouble in Syria should help Russia economy and ours weapons deals and sanctions in Iran means cheap oil for china. Just something to think about......but who cares as long as America wins

    February 7, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    The double veto by China and Russia was seen by Mrs. Clinton as a "travesty". It was also a mockery of the tenet of the Security Council: to maintain international peace and security. This U.N. organ needs to be restructured. No resolution can be passsed in the absence of unanimity. China and Russia are notorious for hijacking their veto power to attain their goals and safeguard their national interests.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:06 am | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed 13 months ago, the principle of "Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was trumpeted as a justification for imposing the no-fly-zone in Libya, which ultimately brought Gaddafi's regime down. Yet when it comes to Syria it doesn't seem to resonate in the same ears.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply

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