What Iraq, Syria Interventions Can Teach Us About the 'Responsibility to Protect'

Success is not assured by any principle for intervention. But the chances of success can be enhanced and controversies muted if interventions are based on an agreed framework.

U.S. Marine patrol in the Iraqi western war-torn city of Fallujah. Nov. 27, 2004. Credit: Reuters

US Marine patrol in the Iraqi western war-torn city of Fallujah. Nov. 27, 2004. Credit: Reuters/Files

The ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) principle was first envisioned in 2001, and was unanimously adopted at the UN in 2005. The R2P was offered as the central organising principle for the international community to respond to humanitarian atrocities being committed inside sovereign jurisdictions.

Thus far, in this century, major international interventions have taken place in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. In the process, the  R2P has come under criticism, simultaneously for being too permissive in facilitating military intervention – for instance, in Libya in 2011 – but also for being too restrictive in its inability to help the victims of major atrocities – as in Syria.

Four interventions

The US war on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was widely accepted as legitimate retaliation against armed attack. But despite donors contributing vast resources for Afghanistan, state-building and peace-building steadily unravelled; by 2016, Afghanistan has become a lost cause. The International Crisis Group described the dominant Western approach as “a market-bazaar approach to negotiations. Bargains are cut with any and all comers, regardless of their political relevance or ability to influence outcomes”. The exodus of the Western countries from Afghanistan quickly acquired the appearance of being all exit and no strategy – accurately, if unkindly, summed up as ‘surge, bribe and run’.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq by a US-led coalition in 2003 was a stark example of an unauthorised, unilateral intervention that proved to be a richly foretold mega-disaster. As in Afghanistan, the US left behind a country radically different from the one it envisaged when it was attacked and invaded. Occupation proved more difficult than invasion, while nation-building proved more challenging and protracted still. Conventional wisdom seems to have settled into the conclusion that the war was one of the gravest foreign policy blunders of modern times. The long-awaited Chilcot Report on the reasons for British involvement and the management of the British part of the Iraq war, further seared conventional wisdom deep into the public consciousness.

In responding to the Libya crisis in 2011, the UN Security Council invoked R2P under the coercive chapter 7 of the charter. In the Balkans, it took NATO almost the full decade to intervene with air power in 1999. In Libya, it took just one month to mobilise a broad coalition, secure a UN mandate to protect civilians, establish and enforce no-kill zones, stop Muammar Gaddafi’s advancing army and prevent a massacre of the innocents in Benghazi. By the year’s end Gaddafi had been ousted, captured and killed.

But ongoing volatility, violence and instability in Libya continued to cast a long shadow about the country’s viability and commitment to a liberal democratic culture. By 2016, few would differ with the judgment that the first R2P military intervention has left “Libya a failed state and a terrorist haven“. US President Barack Obama later blamed the Libya debacle on the Europeans who, “given Libya’s proximity,” should have been more “invested in the follow-up”. In a subsequent interview Obama said the biggest mistake of his presidency was failing to anticipate the fallout and prepare for the aftermath of Gaddafi’s ouster. Because of that failure, the intervention – which he still believes was the right thing to have done – “didn’t work”. The post-intervention chaos, volatility and killings in Libya led to pronouncements that R2P had morphed into RIP (rest in peace).

The failure to intervene effectively in Syria led to similar pronouncements. China and Russia did not veto Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011) authorising military action for the protection of civilians in Libya on the understanding that the NATO-led intervention would be limited to the humanitarian objective of civilian protection and would eschew regime change. The perceived US ‘bait-and-switch’ over Libya entrenched their sense of betrayal.

Although Western forces have not intervened in the Syrian conflict with their own troops on the ground, they have helped to arm the anti-government rebels and later launched air strikes against ISIS targets inside Syria. Russia’s air intervention in Syria in 2015 in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime – its first military intervention since 1989 outside the borders of the former Soviet Union – marked the breakout of Moscow from the post-Cold War international order constructed by the West and imposed on Russia. Moscow was no longer prepared, concludes Dmitri Trenin, “to submit to the norms and practices laid down, policed, and arbitrated by the West”.

As of mid-2016, thus, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria have stopped functioning as sovereign states. As Denis Macshane wrote in a letter to the Financial Times: “When you destroy a state, the gates to every corner of hell are opened – no frontiers, no police, no law, no education, no infrastructure, no government, a Hobbesian war of all against all”. The entire region was consumed by sectarian, tribal and jihadist violence. It now seems safe to conclude that Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad were and are the lids on their respective cauldrons of sectarian tensions that boil over into large-scale violence, killings and displacement if the lid is removed.

Four common lessons

All the cases involved foreign interventions in badly fragmented countries that deepened the sectarian fissures and tipped the hostile groups into open civil war. In all cases the justification included humanitarian goals that downplayed the presence of jihadist elements among groups opposing the local authoritarian regimes. But in no case did the regimes installed by force of foreign arms succeed in consolidating power and state authority to a point where they could survive a total military withdrawal of their foreign backers. The collapse of humanitarian ideals into sectarian bloodbaths discredited externally directed liberal state-building as a normative enterprise, regardless of whether it was UN-authorised or unilateral.

Four common lessons can be drawn from these cases. The most important is the limited utility of the use of force in contemporary conditions. Non-R2P operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been no more successful than the R2P-authorised mission in Libya. Syria proves that R2P does not guarantee collective UN action on all occasions when it is needed and justified. Nor, as Libya proved, does it guarantee successful outcomes when the UN does approve military action to protect populations at risk of slaughter. But nothing in recent history suggests going around the UN ensures success either. The use of force today is inherently controversial and problematic. No humanitarian crisis is so grave that the plight of the trapped civilians cannot be made even worse with outside military intervention: the swath of ungoverned territories from Afghanistan through the Middle East to North Africa is graphic evidence of that.

If the primary pathology of the region is the lack of local good governance institutions, the military is not just ineffectual, but it is also counter-productive, for it destroys and degrades the fragile physical and institutional infrastructure that does exist. The second critical lesson therefore, is that for the major powers, going through the UN reduces the diplomatic transaction costs and contributes to the consolidation of the principle of a world governed by the rule of law in the use of force. The main focus should be on improving R2P implementation to safeguard against abuses and failures while channelling individual outrage to rid the world of atrocities through UN-centred collective action.

The third important lesson, conversely, is that unilaterally reinterpreting a UN Security Council mandate to expand the mission, builds resistance. Other countries resent being exploited as useful idiots and will withhold cooperation on future issues until credible checks are put in place to prevent self-interested expansive reinterpretations of collectively authorised operations.

The fourth and final lesson is the invaluable utility of multilateral treaty-based arms control agreements and the verification machinery for ensuring conformity with global norms on weapons of mass destruction. Without the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons as its implementing agency, it would have been much more difficult to resolve the crisis over allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria in 2013. In Iraq a major reason for the international legitimacy deficit that doomed the war and the occupation, was the widespread sentiment that UN inspectors, instead of being given the time to do their job, had been deliberately sidelined by a coalition hell bent on regime change.

R2P will remain in demand

All controversies notwithstanding, R2P has a secure future because its origin was essentially demand and not supply driven; the demand for it is unlikely to disappear. World order will remain organised around the sovereign state as the basic entity. Some states will continue to exhibit the worst of human nature and engage in atrocities. Others will want to respond and help innocent victims. Success can never be guaranteed by any principle or formula for international interventions. But the chances of success can be enhanced and the controversy surrounding interventions can be muted if they are based on an agreed normative framework with regard to a triggering threshold, an authorising agent and implementation guidelines. One way or another, R2P addressed these concerns and requirements, and while inevitably it will be tweaked, it is unlikely to be discarded in the foreseeable future.

This article draws on two chapters from the second edition of the Ramesh Thakur’s The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect, to be published later this year by Cambridge University Press.